Pizzolatto’s Plagarism

Putting into perspective the plagiarism accusations against True Detective creator Nic Pizzolatto….

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Last week word spread like wildfire that novelist, screenwriter, and – most importantly – creator of the esteemed True Detective series on HBO, Nic Pizzolatto, had been accused of plagiarism. His indicters, Jon Padgett, founder of the website Thomas Ligotti Online, and Mike Davis, editor of The Lovecraft eZine, allege that Pizzolatto lifted phrases and ideas from writer Thomas Ligotti’s The Conspiracy Against The Human Race: A Contrivance of Horror, as well as pinching ideas from the works of various other authors. In the words of Jon Padgett:

“It became obvious to me that Pizzolatto had plagiarized Thomas Ligotti and others  – in some places using exact quotes, and in others changing a word here and there, paraphrasing in much the same way that a high school student will cheat on an essay by copying someone else’s work and substituting a few words of their own.”

When reviewing the evidence presented by Mr. Padgett and Mr. Davis, it appears that on the surface they have a valid point. Many of the most poignant, intriguing ideas presented in True Detective – conveyed with arousing effect by Matthew McConaughey’s character Rust Cohle – bear a striking resemblance to the caliginous philosophical viewpoints of Thomas Ligotti.

Nic Pizzolatto has responded to these speculative accusations, and unsurprisingly, he is lashing back with purpose:

“Nothing in the television show True Detective was plagiarized. The philosophical thoughts expressed by Rust Cohle do not represent any thought or idea unique to any one author; rather these are the philosophical tenets of a pessimistic, anti-natalist philosophy with a historic tradition including Arthur Schopenhauer, Friedrich, Nietzsche, E.M. Cioran, and various other philosophers, all of whom express these ideas. As an autodidact pessimist, Cohle speaks toward that philosophy with erudition and in his own words. The ideas within this philosophy are certainly not exclusive to any writer.”

A handful of the writers who make their home here at Across the Margin convened to discuss these accusations, as ethicacy in writing and journalism is an obsession of ours, as is True Detective. Briefly, we delve into the motives behind these allegations, their legitimacy, if any, and share our personal experiences in paying homage to the ideas of others which inspire us deeply. And I do mean brief, because at it turns out, all of us reside staunchly in the same camp. And we kind of have Nic’s back on this one…..

Michael Shields: I am sure you are all well aware of the accusations being levied against Nic Pizzolatto. I wanted to get your thoughts on the matter, and in turn, get some help putting this one in perspective, because this hits home on many fronts, both as authors and fans of Nic Pizzolatto work. To begin, I’d like to pose a few questions so we can properly frame the discussion.

  • What “ideas” are fair game for writers? Meaning, are their universal truths  or “historical tenements” that can be freely used in storytelling?
  • What’s the difference between an homage and a straight rip-off? Where does one draw that line? Is there even a line?
  • Have any of you ever written anything that to you was an homage, but somebody could construe as thievery?
  • What are your thoughts regarding Jon Padgett and Mike Davis calling out Nic? They obviously have vested interest in Thomas Ligotti’s works. But, is it the author’s responsibility to keep each other in line? To police themselves and their peers?
  • And in the light of the above question, when it comes to making these claims, this is very much akin to accusing someone of a very serious crime, in that once the accusation is made the stink of it is hard to wash off. Even if the claim turns out to be false, the person is often tainted in the public eye forevermore. It’s a big deal indeed.

Tom Rau: I see this at most as an undisclosed homage, and while many could look at this as a dick move, it isn’t necessarily stealing. The way I look at it is similar to how I feel about Banksy and other modern pop artists. Oftentimes you are repurposing work for a new medium or to change the pieces meaning completely.

I cannot help but thinking of this past October when David Egger’s was accused of plagiarism by Kate Losse. What was interesting about his response was that due to his prominence within literary circles, and his bold and forthright counter, he was basically able to tell Kate Losse to go fuck herself and that was that. But he also spent a lot of time talking about how detrimental these types of accusations can be to a lot of authors who don’t have the clout to overcome something like this.

I think that these accusations against Pizzolatto would be valid if he would have written a book attempting to say the same thing as Ligotti while also using the same prose. In this case I am not sure he transferred the ideas from Ligotti’s book consciously, in that these thoughts are really broad existential concepts. To me these thoughts and ideas are just public domain. There are universal truths and archetypes that we are all going to write about. With seven billion people in the world, shit is going to sometimes be eerily similar.

Michael Shields: Here’s where I get really angry about this accusation. I watched at least twenty interviews with Nic Pizzolatto over the course of the HBO series in preparation for my weekly deconstructions. In nearly every single interview he mentioned the source material (s) for Rust Cohle’s rants. A soapbox was pulled out and he was screaming from it – “These are not my ideas ALONE!! – I have been heavily influenced and inspired.” In fact, he was trying to shine a spotlight on something that blew his mind, on ideas that weren’t his but that he similarly shared. It’s a fine line – but Nic went out of his way to pay a true homage to another.

Where is it written that an idea previously presented can not be rehashed; rebirthed into another form? Shall we let all incredible ideas just grow cold, unspoken and obsolete? If we don’t talk about and re-write the great ideas and thoughts (giving just due, of course…) they don’t persist – they disappear into oblivion. It’s important to share what deep thinkers and soul searchers learn. The majority of people need to hear these concepts.

Chris Thompson: First off: What is this, a literary version of the Salem Witch Trials? Just because Jon Padgett and Mike Davis (aka Betty Paris and Abigail Williams…Google it if you don’t know who they are) think something is going on here, doesn’t mean that it is true. Padgett and Davis’s only leg to lean on with their accusations is their “hypotheses” that the reason Nic ever brought up the fact that his show True Detective drew heavily from Ligotti’s works is because he was challenged in interviews and press events to talk about it.

Padgett and Davis are choosing to try Pizzolatto in the court of public opinion, which is notoriously unsympathetic to the innocent. Their actions are flat out shameful and embarrassing and akin to slander. Who are Davis and Padgett to know what a man is thinking? To charge that if Nic was never asked about the similarities in his work and Ligotti’s, that he would have never admitted to it is a very strong accusation to fling into the public realm. This all boils down to two men expressing their own conjectural and narrow opinions in a way that cannot be backed-up by hard facts or evidence.

I am a scientist by trade. I make hypotheses all day and constantly try to prove them either right or wrong. But I never would present my data for publication or at a conference if I didn’t have solid evidence to back up what I think. What Padgett and Davis have is less than evidence. It’s wholly speculative in that they are trying to weave their opinions about someones intentions into a greater discussion about one man’s ethics and talents as an artist. This sort of nonsense serves only to damage the good names of talented people. What it doesn’t ever do is protect the mantra that its accusers often hide behind: That they are the protectors of originality. That they are trying to restore “faith” in the ever-eroding ethics and standards of today’s cultural landscape. That they are doing this for our own good.

Michael Shields: So often in what I write, I invoke the truths I have learned, honored that I am to share the blessings bestowed upon me. When able and appropriate, I share the origins of my findings, but often they are so universal, and have been filtered through my own beliefs and ideas, that it’s truly impossible to claim others as the source. It’s unique, this vestige of oracle we lay in, but fuck if we can’t just wax upon what we have learned. What’s funny, to me at least, is that not for one minute did I think – while watching True Detective, particularly Rust Cohle’s soliloquies – that we were being presented with wholly novel material. In fact, my familiarity with the ideas being presented was daunting, as I continuously encounter these existential ideas in my wanderings. And I found it exhilarating to see them rehashed in this way. I knew what Nic was doing, and in no way was I put-off. Quite the contrary, I was invigorated and enlivened to see these ideas brought forth to life again!

Douglas Grant: Since the internet and the dawn of the information age, it is so hard to properly credit ideas and make claims of originality. I first became aware of this as technology became more prevalent in English majors’ need to cite sources when we were in college. My two books are chock-full of borrowed ideas, and even though there’s no bibliography in the back, if anyone came right out and asked how I was influenced, I would give credit to the sources without a second thought. So, Pizzolotto saying that he was influenced by Ligotti and then saying nothing more is perfectly okay.

Let’s face it, True Detective was just another Se7en or Silence of the Lambs with Nic’s fresh spin put on it. Incorporating dialogue that mimics one of his influences, however arbitrary, can be seen as in and of itself original.

The heart of the matter here is simple, and stated perfectly by HBO in their response to Davis and Padgett’s accusations. So, we will conclude by yielding the floor to those responsible for “publishing” Nic Pizzolatto’s work….

“Philosophical concepts are free for anyone to use, including writers of fiction, and there have been many such examples in the past. Exploring and engaging with ideas and themes that philosophers and novelists have wrestled with over time is one of the show’s many strengths.”

3 Comments

  • Fantastic commentary and points. I think plagiarism, while serious, is too often misunderstood, and the fact that human history is so long and there are now 7 billion people in the world, the idea that ANYTHING is wholly original is not only stupid but poisonous. I have not watched True Detective but I still want to. These accusations sound like two nobodies who want attention and are going about doing so in the most dishonorable manner possible.

  • Wow. Way to totally ignore the evidence that was laid out in the article.

    COHLE (original screenplay draft): There is no point. Nowhere to go, no one to see, nothing to do, nothing to be.

    “Without the everclanking machinery of emotion, everything would come to a standstill. There would be nothing to do, nowhere to go, nothing to be, and no one to know.” (CATHR p. 116)

    “(1) there is nothing to do; (2) there is nowhere to go; (3) there is nothing to be; (4) there is no one to know.” (CATHR, p. 115)

    “…first, that there was nowhere for you to go; second, that there was nothing for you to do; and third, that there was no one for you to know. (TEATRO GROTTESCO, p. 238)

    Um, you guys do know what plagiarism is, don’t you?

    And if you had actually read the article, you’d know that Pizzolatto only mentioned Ligotti twice, after the WSJ reporter wrote an article which cited word for word lifts from Ligotti’s work.

    It’s sickening to see bloggers like all of you defending the corporate megalith that is HBO over an obscure writer like Thomas Ligotti. HBO and Pizzolatto had the means and the time to give credit where credit was due and actually get the writers’ permission to use his work (a whole scene of it). They didn’t, and they got caught with their pants down. I’m glad someone is paying attention.

  • Darren,

    Thank you so much for reading this article. And more than that, for taking the time to lay out your position. I completely understand where you are coming from, although I do not agree it is as cut and dry as you make it out to be.

    Sure, we know what plagarism is. And of course we have read the article, in full and many times. We just do not dismiss the extenuating circumstances and the many mentions (far more than two) Pizzolatto makes of the source material he drew from. And we are certainly not blindly choosing to side with a “corporate megalith.” We are just sharing our opinin on what we feel is right or wrong in this situation. In fact, we are defending a fellow author who we believe is being unduly admonished. Whatever the case, nothing pleases me more than seeing Ligotti’s (obscure?) works being discussed and dissected, and shared with a whole new audience.

    Again thansk for the comment.

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