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Sunday, November 7, 2010

What's the Harm?

Here's a paragraph:
Poets create rhythmical structures of astonishing subtlety and complexity. Within Hispanic literary criticism, however, these structures typically receive only the most cursory attention. As Carlos Piera astutely points out, “[w]hen it comes to accounting for poetic effects, traditional rhythmic theories of all kind tend to capture only somewhat mechanical aspects of metre, and leave the greater part of the perceived richness of literary language to the literary critics” (Piera, “Rephrasing Line-End Restrictions” 300). The problem, however, is that many of these critics seem to share this “mechanical” view, regarding rhythm as a pedestrian question of counting syllables and charting rhyme, to be addressed mainly at the lower levels of the curriculum. The technical detail of a rigorously linguistic approach to prosody, such as Piera’s, does not translate unproblematically into an examination of the “perceived richness” of poetic form


No suppose I had simply appropriated Piera's words as my own, like this
Poets create rhythmical structures of astonishing subtlety and complexity. Within Hispanic literary criticism, however, these structures typically receive only the most cursory attention. When it comes to accounting for poetic effects, traditional rhythmic theories of all kind tend to capture only somewhat mechanical aspects of metre, and leave the greater part of the perceived richness of literary language to the literary critics. The problem, however, is that many of these critics seem to share this mechanical view, regarding rhythm as a pedestrian question of counting syllables and charting rhyme, to be addressed mainly at the lower levels of the curriculum. The technical detail of a rigorously linguistic approach to prosody does not translate unproblematically into an examination of the perceived richness of poetic form

What's the harm in plagiarism? First, I stole those words that I didn't write; they don't belong to me. I've done harm to the original author and to the institution of scholarship.

I've also done damage to my own writing by flattening the effect I had achieved by citing (adroitly I hope) his quote to make my own point. I also lose some authority. It is better for me to have Piera, a linguist, say that linguistic approaches to prosody are often mechanical, than for me, a literary critic, to say the same thing. Then I can criticize other critics myself. I like that layered effect I get from quoting him and calling him astute. I look like a nice guy calling him that too, so that helps to establish my ethos as a writer from the beginning of the chapter. It is interesting that my style does not clash with Piera's. There is a smoothness there in the integration of the quote (if I don't say so myself).

***

On the purely mechanical level, it can be hard to incorporate other people's words into your own writing, or to integrate paraphrase with direct quotation and your own discourse. Paraphrases should often contain words and phrases in quotes from the original text: those clarify that it is a paraphrase and not your own writing. Short quotes do not interrupt what you are saying but form a seamless part of the argumentation. Longer, block quotes are used when you really want to analyze that quote itself, not (usually) to make up for something that you should have said yourself. I almost never end the paragraph with the block-quote itself. I always end with a few lines of my own analysis.

I was disappointed when I saw a publisher recently (actually two publishers of two separate books published in Spain) just automatically begin a new paragraph after each long quote (I'm assuming the publishers did it because the authors probably wouldn't have). That is a way of losing an important distinction between a quote at the end of a paragraph and another in the middle of one. If that quibble seems to basic to you you are reading the wrong blog.

7 comments:

Thomas said...

This business of not distinguishing between a new paragraph and a block quotation is becoming a real problem. I had to fix it in the proof stage of a recent paper, and not all of my corrections were implemented (simple oversight). I think part of the problem lies in the MS guidelines of many publishers these days. There's simply no way of marking the difference, so in the typesetting stage, there's not way to know.

Jonathan said...

Yes. In some cases it doesn't make too much of a difference anyway (e.g. maybe the author should have broken the paragraph there anyway) but what bugs me is the automatic, automated nature of it. I didn't mention it either in a tenure review or book review I did of these two books, because I realize the authors might not have been able to exercise due oversight.

Thomas said...

I think maybe we should start mentioning it book reviews. It's fair to comment on the quality of editorial oversight, just as it's fair to say the book is printed on cheap paper and obviously directly from a Word file. In fact, I have a feeling that "directly from a Word file" is often to blame in some way for this paragraphing problem.

BTW, I just remembered that it irked me a bit with this piece I published in Jacket. But, if I recall, it was a completely explicit rule in the style guide.

Jonathan said...

There, in the Jacket piece, there's no indentation at all for any paragraph, so that pretty much obliterates the distinction.

I might start mentioning it. The only thing is, it feels like such a generic complaint to be directing against a specific book or even a specific publisher.

Vance Maverick said...

Do you think it's easier to work with block quotations, and longer inline quotations such as yours here from Piera, as opposed to snippets dovetailed into your own syntax? The latter seems to me to be asking for trouble, of several kinds.

Jonathan said...

Good question. The latter method ends up turning into a kind of "scare quote" orgy. It can work, and has the advantage of not letting your reader forget that you are paraphrasing (all those quotes) but it can be look very messy. It may seem necessary sometimes, when you really do need to mark a lot of individual words and phrases as being part of the original text, but maybe the writer should consider a long block quote?

Vance Maverick said...

Reading a fine-grained texture of quotation like that makes me doubt whether the snippets are being used in the way their original author meant them -- not that longer quotes are literally proof against such framing effects, of course.