Thursday, March 9, 2023

Badfinger and the Beatles from James W. Ziskin

Are there books you love so much that you find their tone creeping up in your work? Where is the line between homage and plagiarism?

No, I do not imitate my favorite writers. 

At least I don’t believe I do. Could be wrong, of course, but I doubt it. The reason why is because, when it comes to writing, I follow my own linguistic idiosyncrasies—semantic and syntactic—with utmost zeal and devotion. I love language, from the teensiest morphemes and phonemes to the long-windiest monuments of rhetorical invention; from punctuation to capitalization; malapropisms to spoonerisms; etymology to entomology. (Well, maybe not entomology. Bugs give me the willies.) I’m fascinated by both prescriptive and descriptive grammars, enjoying—as one does—an inadvertently funny dangling modifier nearly as much as I appreciate the correct usage of “beg the question” or “crescendo.” Yes, I love it all. Which is why, in my writing, I agonize over each word, every clause—the subordinate as well as the sassy insubordinate ones—aching to achieve something approaching adequate. Or perhaps memorable. But language is so nimble, too elastic for us ever to run out of alternative possible phrasings. Yet even if we could find the ideal words, more possibilities would be lurking, tempting, beckoning us to try—just once more—to improve on them.

I labor on the words I put into my stories and novels. The plots, too. Everything has to fit into the puzzle in my brain. Of course I fail sometimes, though it’s not for lack of trying. Everything has to ring pure and true in my ear. And I don’t know any other writer’s tone anywhere near as well as I know my own.

So, no, I don’t believe I could or would ever imitate another writer’s work.

Oh, wait… Forget what I just said.

I wrote a short story a couple of years ago that was a finalist for the Edgar, Agatha, Anthony, and Macavity awards. It was called The Twenty-Five-Year Engagement, a Sherlock Holmes pastiche. In writing that story, I did everything in my meager powers to conjure echoes of Arthur Conan Doyle’s tone and style. In some respects I may have succeeded. But not really. Sure, I used only words and expressions I knew were in use in England during Conan Doyle’s time. And I lifted a few tried-and-true phrases from the Holmes canon. But, I’m sure, under cursory scrutiny, my story could never pass for a lost manuscript of Doyle’s. Because Doyle had his style and I have mine. I can try to wrestle mine into submission, but only for so long. Eventually my own voice will escape the half-Nelson and re-assert itself for a count of three slaps on the mat.

So, never mind my retraction above. I’ll go back to what I said before. I don’t appropriate or imitate other writers. 

Except when I do. Kind of like Badfinger and the Beatles.

Don’t get me wrong. I love Badfinger. They recorded some great songs. And they certainly suffered unjustly from inevitable comparisons to the Beatles. And there was great tragedy, too.


Josh Stallings said...

“ I follow my own linguistic idiosyncrasies—semantic and syntactic—with utmost zeal and devotion.” You make a bold statement and prove it true all in the same sentence. I love it!
I love Badfinger, and the Beatles, never thought to compare them. Hummm.

Catriona McPherson said...

I am now drunk on words, Jim. Bravo. (I'm a fellow fan of old-style "crescendo" too.) Cx

James W. Ziskin said...

Thank you, Josh and Catriona! I’m honored you managed to finish reading it!


Leslie Karst said...

If only Badfinger had employed more crescendos in their music....

James W. Ziskin said...

Haha, Leslie! Elle est bien bonne !


Susan C Shea said...

Well said, Jim. Unless it's a deliberate parody (I used to do them -they were short - and win in New York Magazine contests), it's hard to steal language, tone, and style. Much easier to steal plots, but we don't do that. I look at the endlessly repeating murder mystery series on cable and realize they steal plots and dialogue from themselves over and over! So boring. You're not boring, you're original, and I relish all of your books!