Good writers borrow, great writers steal

It was Oscar Wilde in the 19th century who said “Good writers borrow, great writers steal.”

Or was it Pablo Picasso, who supposedly said “Good artists borrow, great artists steal”?

I tried to track down the original source of this quotation, and I can’t find any evidence that either Wilde or Picasso ever said it. The only documentation I was able to found is T. S. Eliot, who in 1920 wrote “Immature poets imitate, mature poets steal” (p. 125).

It turns out that no one’s even sure who said this first, or what the exact quotation is. Somehow, that makes the point even more strongly than the quotation itself, doesn’t it?

23 thoughts on “Good writers borrow, great writers steal

  1. Hello Keith,
    I am listening to your book. I subscribe to http://www.audible.com and the title interested me so I downloaded it. I love it which is confirmed by my beginning to listen to it for the second time. Now, I’m a fan. I will be checking back. Thanks for the book and the terrific insights.
    – John

    1. That’s great to hear! I haven’t yet listened to the audio book but I’d like to someday. Although I wonder, won’t it be strange to hear my words coming from someone else?

      You can subscribe to my blog to receive email notifications with new posts, which I do about every week. There’s a link for that on the right side of the main blog page.

    1. T. S. Eliot’s full quotation was “immature poets imitate, mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different.” He then goes on to say that good stealing is usually from someone far away in space and time.

      I think that most people who quote variants of this use it cynically, to imply that even the greatest and most famous people are plagiarists who are just good at hiding their sources.

      1. Hi and I disagree. The quote comes from Mark Twain or at least I have been attributing it to Mr. Clemmons for over 30 years. And since it is from Twain (who really knows since none of us were really there) it is a funny line with an intellectural truth ingrained in it.

        That truth is that if you wish to be a great (fill in the blank) don’t borrow the idea…steal it. Thus Ben Franklin would read a passagethat was pleasing to him. To improve his own prose he would close the book and attempt to write the same section in his own words. To his delight…he on occassion surrpassed those writers he admired.

        Imagine you are a writer who desires to write great romance. There are zillions of romance books with all kinds of endings. But if you want to write great romance there really is only one ending which you must steal from others.

        Just think of Romeo and Juliet, The Flying Dutchman, West Side Story, Titantic, Love Story, Bridges of Madison County, Gone with the Wind, etc. What must at least one of the characters do? Anything else and you have a medicore (but still saleable) novel.

        BTW…nice website. Definitely worth stealing.

        Best of luck.

        Robert A. DeLena, CFP

      2. Thank you for your post and your kind commments about my web site!

        There is no documented evidence that Mark Twain ever said or wrote that phrase, but if you are able to track such evidence down please let me know. In my experience, a lot of attributions to famous people somehow catch on even with no real evidence that person ever said it–probably because it sounds like something the person might have said (or should have said, even if they never did).

  2. By the way, this is a common theme in postmodern literary theory. Here’s Roland Barthes in a famous 1967 essay titled “The death of the author”: Literature is

    “a multi-dimensional space in which a variety of writings, none of them original, blend and clash. The text is a tissue of quotations drawn from the innumerable centers of culture….the writer can only imitate a gesture….his only power is to mix writings, to counter the ones with the others.”

    And in 2010, a highly acclaimed novelist, David Shields, published a book, Reality Hunger, built almost completely from quotations from other writers and philosophers, from Wittgenstein to DJ Spooky. His defense was that blatant borrowing has been around since the ancient Greeks.

    1. Yes, that source is accurate and I read it before posting. But the most important thing is that I actually went to the library and read Eliot’s text for myself. In my experience, you can’t get the real story about these things unless you track it back to the source! I provided the full Eliot quotation four comments back…

      1. I’m glad my post encouraged you to research the quote further. However, I would appreciate a link in the body of your post to acknowledge that I was the source.

        Prior to my research, and post, the quote, or rather misquote, was often used by people trying to justify uses of copyright protected works that violated the rights of the creators (i.e. mash-ups, fan fiction etc.)

        Thanks! I’m glad you found my post useful, and I look forward to learning more about your research.

  3. I’ve always felt that the distinction being made between “borrow” and “steal” is that a great writer will take previously existing material and make it their own, often so much so that the original seems pallid and limited by comparison. So after a merely good writer does it, you still look to the original when you’re thinking about that story; the borrowing just creates another version. But after a great writer does it, when thinking about that story now you look to their work instead.

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