The choice is a tough one and I prefer the former. A bad book is a sign that one lacks imagination. Plagiarism is proof that you’ve some imagination. I prefer being accused of some imagination to none. An honest person would rather write a bad book. Honesty is a sign of lack of imagination. It’s not a coincidence that most criminals are imaginative people who stay in the public eye while the honest ones are condemned to die unknown. The worst thing about the honest is that they’re unbearably boring. They neither gossip nor slander – that bread and wine of the imagination!
The ones that “fabricate” the past are the writers I admire the most. Postmodern writing to its credit has turned fabrication into a virtue. No one experiences everything they write about. Dostoevsky is not all the four Karamazov brothers in the novel The Brothers Karamazov. A writer imagines such a possibility. Story-telling is an art that places demands on those who undertake it. The performer is on stage and must do everything possible to compel the audience to stay engrossed. Remember the rowdy crowd at the Barafonda Theater in Fellini’s Roma where the performers and audience are actually in a dialogue even when they hurl words and objects at each other!
The first performers in history were the prostitutes. For the most obvious reason that they could do what you would not expect from “respectable” women – simulate an orgasm. The first simulation was dissimulation and theater gained a lease of energy after the disastrous transition from a communal way of life to the stage of private property. In the matriarchal societies where religion was married to performance, the theater did not have an esoteric quality to it. Daily life was the theater and men and women the players. Class society declared a war on performance. Ideology or keeping the masses drugged with lies became intertwined with performance. Performance lost its spiritual quality but the soul of the performers did not rest in peace. They continued to protest ever since.
The magic of performance is not about virtue. If dissimulation is accepted as a dimension of living from which there is no escape I see no reason why it should not be so in art. The temptation to plagiarize comes from the need to be someone other than yourself. How can you be yourself in a system that places copyrights and patents ideas attaching a name to a concept? If we accept that as being right, plagiarism far from being something to be ashamed of, is something to be admired and emulated.
There is another possibility. You can plagiarize and still write a bad book. That is unforgivable and the mediocre of the world fall in this category. I remember a teacher at school scolding a boy caught for cheating in the exams. He scolded the boy for cheating without knowing how to cheat. Maybe he was ironic but the teacher knew that cheating was an art or he would not have ended up being a teacher. Einstein has a point: “The secret of creativity is knowing how to hide your sources.” No writer understood this little trade secret better than Shakespeare who came up with countless characters and each one unique and bearing the stamp of creative genius.