Forty-One False Starts


By Sinéad Fitzgibbon.

Janet Malcolm loves people. This may seem an obvious thing to say about a biographer, especially one as prolific in ‘personality journalism’ as she is – but unlike other purveyors of the genre who concern themselves only with certain people (namely those who find themselves subjects of biographies), Malcolm’s writing is suffused with an intense fascination with the both the individual and the aggregate human conditions.

Non-creative writing


Geoff Dyer’s Art of Nonfiction Paris Review interview.

My motto is always, “If you’re not overprepared you’re underprepared.” I’m a grammar-school boy, I do my homework. Likewise, in the fiction, so much of the stuff is drawn from real life. But that’s not the point really. The point is that the techniques are pretty much the same in fiction and nonfiction. It’s not like Susan Sontag, where there’s an easily recognizable division between the two. Sontag was always saying, Why don’t you adequately acknowledge the greatness of my fiction? Well, there are several possible responses to that, but the important thing is that she accepted a separation that I reject. It’s just a bunch of books. To go back to your earlier question, I think the distinction between fiction and nonfiction is less about “Did it really happen or was it made up?” than it is about form. And, more than form, it’s about the expectations that are brought to certain forms. According to how a book is presented, packaged, or identified, readers have certain expectations. Following from that they expect books within broadly identified categories to behave in certain ways. So people can find it quite disconcerting when a book isn’t doing what they think it’s meant to be doing, even if the book is completely fine on its own terms and has no desire to conform to some external set of expectations. My books are often disappointing in that regard. Maybe in other ways, too, but I am mercifully and necessarily oblivious on that score.

Apology for apparent plagiarism. Sources of literary variety.


By Samuel Johnson.

Dulcique animos novitate tenebo. OVID. Met. iv. 284.

And with sweet novelty your soul detain.

It is often charged upon writers, that with all their pretensions to genius and discoveries, they do little more than copy one another; and that compositions obtruded upon the world with the pomp of novelty, contain only tedious repetitions of common sentiments, or at best exhibit a transposition of known images, and give a new appearance to truth only by some slight difference of dress and decoration.

The allegation of resemblance between authors is indisputably true; but the charge of plagiarism, which is raised upon it, is not to be allowed with equal readiness. A coincidence of sentiment may easily happen without any communication, since there are many occasions in which all reasonable men will nearly think alike. Writers of all ages have had the same sentiments, because they have in all ages had the same objects of speculation; the interests and passions, the virtues and vices of mankind, have been diversified in different times, only by unessential and casual varieties: and we must, therefore, expect in the works of all those who attempt to describe them, such a likeness as we find in the pictures of the same person drawn in different periods of his life.

It is necessary, therefore, that before an author be charged with plagiarism, one of the most reproachful, though, perhaps, not the most atrocious of literary crimes, the subject on which he treats should be carefully considered. We do not wonder, that historians, relating the same facts, agree in their narration; or that authors, delivering the elements of science, advance the same theorems, and lay down the same definitions: yet it is not wholly without use to mankind, that books are multiplied, and that different authors lay out their labours on the same subject; for there will always be some reason why one should on particular occasions, or to particular persons, be preferable to another; some will be clear where others are obscure, some will please by their style and others by their method, some by their embellishments and others by their simplicity, some by closeness and others by diffusion.