Thursday, September 27, 2007
I see where Dale Peck, the enfant terrible of literary criticism, has shown that he can be unfair and mean to even the writers he ostensibly likes. Writing this week in the New York Times Book Review about S.E. Hinton's The Outsiders, Peck presents a laundry list of writers Hinton was "influenced" by (wink, wink), going so far as to quote a passage from the book alongside a passage from a story by Shirley Jackson, who is one of Hinton's acknowledged influences, to make his case. Peck quotes from both authors:
First Jackson: “I have often thought that with any luck at all I could have been born a werewolf, because the two middle fingers on both my hands are the same length, but I have had to be content with what I had.”
And now Hinton: “I have light-brown, almost-red hair and greenish-gray eyes. I wish they were more gray, because I hate most guys that have green eyes, but I have to be content with what I have.”
Peck's quick to back away from any sort of accusation, though: "Although such a strong resemblance between two works would probably be viewed with suspicion in this time of heightened alertness to plagiarism, this and other echoes strike me as crucial to the success of Hinton’s novel." This is wise, because what Hinton has done here is obviously not plagiarism; although Peck quotes entire paragraphs, the last half-sentence of each is the only place we can find an echo. Can you plagiarize half a sentence?
And that, other than Ponyboy mentioning a quick lyric from The Sound of Music, is the only real piece of borrowing that Peck is able to quote. But he's oh-so-impressed with himself for being able to play "spot the reference": "Ponyboy and Johnny curl up together for warmth like Ishmael and Queequeg in Moby-Dick. Pony’s admonition to himself —'Don’t think' — is as Hemingway 'code hero' as it comes... And of course Pony, witness to and chronicler of his friends’ demise, could be the Midwestern cousin Nick Carraway left behind." Of course.
Why is Peck writing this, other than to show off all the literary references he knows? He can demur all he wants about how 17-year-old Susie Hinton didn't really do anything wrong, but he finishes up with this thought: "If some high-minded, plagiarism-wary reader had persuaded S. E. Hinton to remove all references to the books and movies that inspired her, The Outsiders probably wouldn’t have slipped past the internal (let alone official) censors that governed ’60s adolescence." Emphasis mine: Apparently the plagiarism is there if you're looking for it, although Peck himself hasn't been able to find it. If I ever write a book in which two people huddle together to keep warm, please remind me to keep it out of the hands of Dale Peck.