Other People’s Words

ImageI just read The Fault in our Stars by John Green.

Now this isn’t a book review—as I haven’t quite decided whether I want to do any of those on this blog—but there was something about the book that got me thinking.

In the book Mr. Green uses many poems and quotes from many different authors of all stripes and there is some stunning poetry sprinkled throughout the story that often made me take pause.  But after the pause of awe at the words in these poems by other people I felt kind of cheated.  These were not the author’s words.

It’s been done before of course, people often reference history and past literature in their works of fiction.  And although I can understand doing it a little bit, once in awhile, in The Fault in our Stars I felt I was saturated with other people’s words to the point of distraction.

In retrospect I have seen this happen before, where people try to inject a certain level of gravitas into their work by throwing in a little Shakespeare or quoting someone else’s poem.  But overall I’m not sure I love it.  I’ve done it before myself of course—little bits and pieces, a line here or there—but I think I would feel like I was cheating if I started throwing in whole stanzas of another writer’s poetry or prose.  It just wouldn’t feel right to me as a writer, just as it didn’t feel right to me as a reader.

As a writer I feel it both a privilege and an obligation to arrange words in new combinations on the page and so I think we should try to do that as much as possible.

This isn’t to say that the poems and quotes in Mr. Green’s book weren’t well chosen and placed—they were.  They evoked exactly the right feeling at the right time.  It’s just that in the end I felt cheated out of the full experience of the author’s words.  I understand that the characters are smart and exceedingly literate teenagers, I understand that they reference works of poetry and literature because it’s only natural given their personalities.  But those particular arrangements of words were the stuff of another voice, so in essence I got less of Mr. Green and more of other people’s words.

I am fully willing to admit that my position here isn’t rock solid and that I am reacting out of more of a feeling than a logically formed thought, so I would love to hear other people’s ideas on the subject.
What are your thoughts on using other people’s words in a work of fiction?

Do you do it yourself?

Do you like it when you see other people doing it?

You can also check out this cleverly titled response to my post written by my friend Elmowrites!

3 thoughts on “Other People’s Words”

    1. Cool post!

      Yeah I am definitely curious about what other people think about this. I thought your point was interesting, but in the case of a character stealing other people’s words, I still can’t help but feel (emotionally) as though it is a bit of a cop out. It’s just a thought I can’t shake. I feel the same about remakes often too. Like why do we keep remaking things so much? I guess I prefer to hear the originality of an authors thoughts instead of something recycled from the past!

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