The Female Quixote and Me

From Publishers Weekly:

Two days before the publication of my comic novel, The Seductive Lady Vanessa of Manhattanshire, I learned the setup driving the entire book had already been used by another writer—270 years ago. That meant my book, which recasts Don Quixote as a hoop-skirted, romance-novel-besotted woman questing for love in contemporary New York, was not quite as original an act of plagiarism as I had thought.

My delusion of literary innovation was shattered by Stefan Kutzenberger, an Austrian novelist and fellow Cervantes enthusiast visiting New York on a government-backed book tour. We were having a drink with a mutual friend when Stefan asked, “Did you ever read Charlotte Lennox?”

“No. Who is she?”

“She wrote a book called The Female Quixote.”

“Seriously?” I asked, breaking out my cellphone.

“Yes. Henry Fielding was a big fan.”

“1752!” I said, reading the pub date. “That’s amazing.”

I tried to remain calm. But the idea that Lennox had already deployed a similar Quixote clone left me rattled. Nobody wants to spend years on a book only to find out it has an ancient twin.

“Damn!” I said, laughing and complaining. “I can’t believe it.”

But really, it was easy to believe. Days earlier, when a friend asked how I’d hit on the idea for Lady Vanessa, I said, “I’m a big Don Quixote fan. Given romance fiction’s popularity, it just seemed like an obvious and interesting idea to explore. I’m surprised no one ever thought of it before.”

Famous last words.

I went home feeling curious and competitive. I read about my new but long-dead rival. Samuel Johnson was a friend and fan of Lennox. An essay on the web confirmed Henry Fielding “printed a very favourable review in the Covent Garden Journal, saying it was better than Don Quixote.”

Whoa. Quite a throw-down. I stopped reading about Lennox and downloaded The Female Quixote, or, The Adventures of Arabella.

After a cursory inspection of the novel, I can report it is funny but, unfortunately, very wordy. It is not “better” than the original. Most important to me, Arabella is very different from my Lady Vee. She is much younger: 17, not 48. She lives in a castle, not an Upper West Side co-op. She is paranoid about men ravishing her, whereas Lady Vanessa would like to be ravished. Arabella’s madness, at first blush, also lacks the over-the-top buffoonery of Don Quixote, which I hoped to emulate with Lady Vee.

Despite the differences, it was clear we were inspired by the same source material, 270 years apart. My mind raced. How had I missed The Female Quixote’s existence? Should I be more bruised or amused by my innocent ignorance, or by the fact that it took an Austrian novelist to enlighten me? And how had all the agents, editors, and blurbers who read Lady Vanessa failed to name-check The Female Quixote? The Cervantes scholar who’d raved about my book didn’t even mention it.

In the clear light of the next day, I realized I had it all wrong. It didn’t matter that I’d never heard of The Female Quixote. Charlotte Lennox wasn’t a rival; she was an ally! We loved the same book. Don Quixote inspired us to do the same thing in radically different time periods: recontextualize, reimagine, and reinvent.

I wrote Lady Vanessa because I love Don Quixote. I hoped to revisit the ideas Cervantes toyed with four centuries ago: censorship, the lines between fantasy and reality, literary clichés, and the power of books. I also hoped it would be entertaining.

I can’t speak for whatever drove Lennox, but we aren’t alone. The saints at Wikipedia have a list of Quixote-influenced books, amassing 27 entries. Some of literature’s greatest talents have spilled ink in tribute to the La Mancha madman: Flaubert, Dostoyevsky, Borges, and Rushdie. Lennox is the second entry.

Link to the rest at Publishers Weekly

PG notes that ideas (like a female Don Quixote) are not protected by copyright law. Only the expression of ideas is protected.

Plagiarism may or may not be a violation of copyright law, depending on the extent and manner in which another’s work is used by a subsequent author.

From The Copyright Alliance:

There are many differences between plagiarism and copyright infringement, yet it can be easy to confuse these concepts. While both plagiarism and copyright infringement can be characterized as the improper use of someone else’s work, they are distinctly different improper uses of someone else’s work. The biggest difference is that copyright infringement is illegal, while plagiarism is not. This blog post discusses additional differences between the two and provides examples of each type of improper use.

What is Plagiarism?

Plagiarism occurs when a party attempts to pass someone else’s work or ideas off as their own, without properly giving credit to the original source. Plagiarism, while not against the law, is an ethical construct most commonly enforced by academic intuitions. Consequences of academic plagiarism may range from receiving a failing grade all the way to the revocation of a degree.

Plagiarism is not just limited to the academic setting. In the professional world, plagiarism has its own set of consequences, which may include sullying the plagiarizer’s reputation and in some instances termination and difficulty finding new employment. For example, in 2014 CNN fired a London-based news editor for repeated plagiarism offenses over a six month period, involving a total of 128 separate instances of plagiarism, mostly taken from Reuters.

Copyright, at its core, is the set of rights belonging to the creator or owner of a work of authorship that is original and fixed in a tangible medium of expression. This set of rights automatically vests to someone who creates an original work of authorship like a song, literary work, movie, or photograph. These rights allow a copyright owner to control who, when, where, and how their work is used, such as through the right to reproduce the work, to prepare derivative works, to distribute copies, and to perform and display the work publicly.

Copyright infringement occurs when a party takes an action that implicates one or more of the rights listed above without authorization from the copyright owner or an applicable exception or limitation in the copyright law, such as fair use. There can be significant legal consequences for copyright infringement, including injunctions, monetary damages, and in extreme instances criminal penalties.

. . . .

Plagiarism But Not Copyright Infringement: A student copies a few sentences of a 20-page book illustrating and describing species of birds to use in article on evolution submitted for her high school newspaper but fails to provide a citation or footnote explaining that the information came from the book. This student may have committed plagiarism by not properly attributing the information and making it seem like the information originated from the student. However, the student will most likely not be found to have committed copyright infringement because such an inconsequential amount was used in an educational setting in a manner that is unlikely to harm the authors market for the work that the use is likely a fair use.

Link to the rest at The Copyright Alliance

6 thoughts on “The Female Quixote and Me”

  1. Many problems would be avoided if authors created their own characters. Plus we’d get some originality into the mix.

    If I never see another Sherlock Holmes anything not written by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, it will be too soon.

    I do understand this may be a minority view.

    Reply
  2. Why?

    https://www.amazon.com/Pride-Prejudice-Zombies-Classic-Ultraviolent/dp/1594743347#customerReviews

    As long as its done for a good reason (preferably a witty parody) and has something worthwhile to say it might be worth the effort. I’m reminded of the endless variations of the Shakespeare stories that keep reminding us of how…durable…they are. 10 THINGS I HATE ABOUT YOU being a great example. Of course, having Heath Ledger and Julia Stiles helped sell that one.

    In SF, one of the greatest novels of the 20th is Alfred Bester’s THE STARS MY DESTINATION and it is at heart a reworking of THE COUNT OF MONTECRISTO. But reworked awesomely.

    Reply
    • I think that most of the Pride and Prejudice “variations” are neither witty parodies nor have something special to say, but simply that the authors love the characters (well Darcy and Elizabeth anyway) and find themselves dreaming up new stories about them. Basically, the classic fanfiction motivation, but it’s public domain so you can charge for it.

      Shakespeare though is much more about reusing the plots in a different setting rather than loving the characters (though Much Ado … may be an exception to this – there is a reason why Charles II called the play “Beatrice and Benedick”) and “Clueless” showed you can do this for Jane Austin. Of course, in Shakespeare’s case he probably stole the plot in the first place.

      Reply

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