The Danger of the Single Story and a Clean Office

Do you mind if I’m a little smug? No? Good. 
But you want to know why I’m smug? Of course I’ll tell you.
I cleaned my office today. It no longer has more dust than a Philip Pullman novel. I can see the floor. I can see my desk. I even threw the stuff I haven’t needed for, like, months out.
I am organised.


I saw this on the brilliant Vanessa Gebbie’s blog earlier and just had to share it. It’s brilliant.
Also worth checking out is Michelle’s interview with Tania Hershman, on giving up the day job. She’s interviewed me about it too, I’ll link to it when it’s up (but I warn you, unlike Tania I sound rather grumpy).

25 Comments on “The Danger of the Single Story and a Clean Office

  1.  by  Sophie Playle

    For a moment I thought you were being sarcastic about the tidy desk! Good job!And that video was amazing. I may well have to re-post it too 😀

  2.  by  Lost Wanderer

    I must try this new thing sometimes…something called throwing away unneeded stuff :PI have so much paper, it's unbelievable. My excuse is that I am waiting to buy a shredder.

  3.  by  Tania Hershman

    Lovely and tidy workspace! And I look forward to reading about your take on full-time writing, today I am REALLY grumpy, so you can't out-grump me…

  4.  by  Nik Perring

    Sophie, I would never jest about something so serious! ;)Welshcake – it's excellent, isn't it?Janette – and it's STILL tidy, today!I so know what you mean, Lost Wanderer. A shredder sounds fun.Thanks Annie.Hope you've cheered up T!

  5.  by  Lauri Kubuitsile

    I laughed when I saw your computer. I too have my laptop up on (do I want to mention this) the box for "The Writers Bureau Course" I never finished and the telephone directory and I type on a cheap keyboard attached to it. It helped my neck doing that. Also I type faster on a proper keyboard. I thought I was the only one who did this. Maybe everyone does?

  6.  by  Anonymous

    So, re the St Gebbie post… it's ok to take from other writers…. and the rest is just etiquette. There's been a great deal of kerfuffle on the subject of ownership of ideas and all this post shows is that if you adhere to some genteel procedural practices, you CAN take from another writer. What if the writer had said no you can't have my dug up spoons? Do you let this prevent you from writing what wants to be written? If you do, is that not just a little … well, I don't know really… silly? To have your imagination dictated to by another… when it is acknowledged by the post that you can no more own the idea of dug up spoons than you can own the air you breath.All seems just a bit absurd this whole argument.Well done to miss Gebbie, and miss Sarah Hilary is so good too for giving up what she cannot own. But really… is this not just ladies being nice? And so not a prerequisite for good writing practices? And does Miss G always ask when she takes like this? And what about the unconscious use of another's ideas. No siree… this is just more silliness.

  7.  by  Jane Smith

    Nik, I'm going to step in here and apologise in advance if you feel I'm out of order. Feel free to delete this if you'd prefer.Anon, I really find it odious when people post antagonistic comments on blogs but don't have the courage to do so under their own names. It's cowardly and trouble-making, and real writers take pride in owning their own work. Just so you know.You wrote, "What if the writer had said no you can't have my dug up spoons? Do you let this prevent you from writing what wants to be written? If you do, is that not just a little … well, I don't know really… silly?"No, it's not silly at all: it's respecting your fellow writer, it's respecting the creative process, and it's respecting the law. Because plagiarism is against the law–and it carries some very expensive penalties.What you're missing here is that there's a big difference between "sharing" and "stealing". It's a distinction that Douglas Bruton also seemed unable to make. Perhaps the two of you should do a little reading up on the subject. It might stand you both in good stead.

  8.  by  Nik Perring

    Lauri, it's certainly not just you. I've had this set up for a few years now and don't think I'd ever go back. I'll also show off and say that the cradle my laptop sits atop has a fan in it to keep said laptop cool… ;)Nik

  9.  by  Nik Perring

    Anonymous, usually I don't reply to people who leave rude comments on here without leaving their name.What I'd suggest for you to do in future is this: before leaving comments like these, read what I wrote. There's absolutely nothing in the post you've commented on that has anything remotely to do with plagiarism or the taking of other people's ideas. If you'd read what I'd posted you'd know that I'd talked about cleaning my office and an inspirational talk."all this post shows is that if you adhere to some genteel procedural practices, you CAN take from another writer."No, it doesn't.You're right. There has been a kerfuffle of late regarding the ownership of ideas. That's because someone, a person I regarded as a friend, not only stole ideas (from people who also called him a friend) but also whole stories.As Vanessa (not St Vanessa, that's insulting and doesn't help in making this an intelligent and sensible discussion, if that's what you want) said in her post, had Sarah said 'no' then that would be the end of the matter. Why wouldn't it have been? And why would she say that if that wasn't the case?I think you need to make a distinction between the theft of ideas, where the owners (I'm talking legally here) were not consulted (for obvious reasons) and the asking if it's okay to use an image the writer knows she didn't come up with; that using of the image of burying spoons is not stealing.Now, please, if you respond to this, whoever you are, do it courteously, and supply your name if you could. I have no problem with people disagreeing with me and I think that providing your name shows that you really think you're in the right.BestNik

  10.  by  Anonymous

    Ms Gebbie admits the absurdity in the writer friend owning the spoon digging image or idea. Of course something like this cannot be owned. So the asking is just 'mannerly'…Ms Gebbie in using this other person's idea is not publicly in the work acknowledging that she got the idea from this other writer. So could others reading the two works think that theft was going on?And that you should have to have permission to use an image like this is absurd. Words should not be stolen, but ideas are an altogether trickier domain. Ideas are part of common currency. Writers borrow all the time… whole characters, settings, philosophical ideas, images… isn't that something of the dialogue that is writers writing?This borrowing by Ms G, for those who call using ideas by others theft, surely only makes things less clear.Audrey.

  11.  by  Nik Perring

    Audrey, I'm still at a loss as to why you're bringing this up here. No matter. A writer of fiction is not simply a master of words. A writer of fiction is someone who makes things up. Invents people, settings,plots et al. It's their imagination that makes things great. So, what they don't do is steal what other people have invented.If it so happens that a writer has riffed off another's idea, and has an image (we're not talking a whole story here or character) then why not say to the inventor what Vanessa said? (Ie: I've got this scene, it's similar to yours, your scene is the reason or catalyst that's helped me get to mine, I'm not copying you, is that okay?)Even if Sarah didn't own the work (that's a legal thing and I'm pretty sure she does), what Vanessa's done is, in the very least, an act of professional courtesy. She's being transparent and honest, presenting the situation as it is, and asking for someone's opinion. If other people had done something even remotely similar, and made people aware of what they were intending to do, then the kerfuffle you mentioned earlier would have possibly been avoided.What worries me, and it really does, is that you can't see the difference. I hope, at some point in the future, that you can – and I hope that, assuming you're a writer, it isn't as a result of having your work stolen.Nik

  12.  by  Jane Smith

    Nik, I'm also a little confused about why "Audrey" is posting this here: I can only assume that "Audrey" is somehow involved in the plagiarism affair that I blogged about during the summer, but is reluctant to make her point in a more apropriate venue. I shall attempt to describe to her how the two cases differ.In the original plagiarism case, the offending writer didn't just take another writer's idea and use it to spark off his own story: he took the work of at least two other writers and rewrote them in (mostly) his own words: but he used the structure, theme, plot, characters and premise of the original pieces. He contributed nothing new to the stories apart from a new arrangement of words to tell them, and a new author's name for attribution. I showed the stories concerned to lawyers who specialise in intellectual property and they assured me that such use did constitute plagiarism.I've just asked one of them about Vanessa Gebbie's use of the other writer's image, which Nik referred to in this blog piece, and have been told that this use is NOT plagiaristic as it was done with permission and full knowledge of the original writer; and it will involve a completely new story, sparked from the same idea–not simply a retelling of the original writer's idea. I hope that's now clear, and that "Audrey's" questions have now been answered.

  13.  by  Nicola Morgan

    Erm, I scrolled down to comment on the wonderful video in your post, Nik, and I found a most surprising contretemps going on which has nothing to do with your post, (has it??) I was doubly confused because in the meantime I'd also read and enjoyed Vanessa's post and couldn't see what on earth there was to complain about.Plagiarism is often hard to judge (at least at the margins – sometimes, of course, it's obvious); certainly the degree of ownership of ideas (when not expressed in specific words) is hard to pin down, and rightly so because there must be some free exchange of ideas – which is what Intellectual Property Right also seeks to allow, as well as protecting the creator's right to earn from his/her creation. But it seemed to me that Vanessa was telling a story in which the crucial line was "But see, I knew it was her image, thought up by her, not me. So I felt I needed to ask" – and she italicised the word "knew", for emphasis. It's what you know in your heart that's important, isn't it? And VAnessa believed that she did not have the right to use that idea without discussion with the person she felt in her heart had created it. I too would have felt that I needed/wanted to ask permission in that instance. Others may mock that extension of integrity, but it feels right to me.I found the suggestion (and perhaps I've misread this) that this was about "ladies being nice" peculiarly sexist – and I'm not someone who usually cares much about stuff like that. A bit patronising?I don't see it as "genteel procedural practices" – I see it as searching your heart as a writer to unpick what is your own idea and what is not, or how to interpret an idea in your own way (which are two different things, i know, and the blurredness between them is why cases of apparent plagiarism are so hard to judge.)Anyway, I don't know why this has sprung up here and I'd just like to say that I liked Nik's post, and Vanessa's post, and found the video utterly moving. So, thank you for posting it.

  14.  by  Anonymous

    Thanks Mr Perring, for your response. This is all very interesting. I am at a loss how one can say that an idea is owned… even Ms Gebbie admits that the idea of digging up spoons isn't something that is owned by the writer friend of hers… so it was just courtesy, her asking the writer friend? I have nothing against courtesy, but I am trying to understand the whole theft thiggummyjig and this only makes me a bit confused.Thanks too to Ms Jane Smith. I am not involved in the incident you mention. The person you name – is that the same person you fell out with because he challenged you over an editorial decision you made on a joint project you were working on, a decision that some at least think was justified if some of the comments I have read are to be believed, I see you have removed the 'offending' writer's work so I had trouble fully understanding what this was all about.I have, just trawled through a couple of hours worth of comments on all that and visited the person's blogsite too. He seems to give a different version of what he wrote. Is there any evidence that we can see for what he did so we can make our own minds up on what he did, or must we rely on what you and others connected to you say… afterall, you have a good enough reason to not like this man for what he has done to your Greyling Bay project… I note that this seems to have stalled to a complete halt since the removing of this person's work from the site. Where can we see for ourselves this person's work and the comparison pieces so we can judge if if theft has occurred? And where can a person read a precise and legal definition of the law on this kind of theft of ideas in a literary work? And has this person not been taken to court and has he been found guilty of what you claim?All, very fascinating.Dan Brown's 'Da Vinci Code' was cleared of all theft charges when it was said that 'The Holy Blood and The Holy Grail' was a history book and so it was a legitimate thing to take from history… but some consider that it is about as historical as 'Winnie The Pooh', and if it is eventualy shown to be hokum will that mean that Dan B could be pronounced a thief then? I should like to read the law that pronounces on literary theft and yet allows such loopholes so that people like Dan B can slip through.Yes, all very interesting.Thansk so much.Audrey

  15.  by  Nik Perring

    Thanks for your input, Jane and Nicola.Audrey, I've seen both stories involved in the original case and there's no doubting they're copies; Douglas has even admitted this.I know also that various legal people have been involved and if they, as experts in that are of law say it's plagiarism then I'm not going to disagree with them.Nik

  16.  by  Vanessa Gebbie

    NikI have no idea why Douglas felt it right to post these comments here. In any other scenario I would laugh at his choice of Audrey as a pseudonym, but I am not laughing. I worked closely with the guy for over a year, exchanging both fiction and emails on an almost-daily basis for a long time. I know his style very well, the slightly ponderous/pompous syntax – the letters he wrote to my solicitor contain almost identical phrasing. He appears to enjoy prolonging these exchanges for whatever reason. But interestingly in so doing, show clearly that he has no understanding of the boundaries that exist between writers and friends. Or rather that it is inconvenient to admit such understanding.Moving on. I am delighted you and others enjoyed Chimamanda N A's talk. Not sure I deserve to be called 'brilliant' any more than Saint – but will bask in the warmth of my halo for a moment or two.

  17.  by  Sarah Hilary

    I haven't much to add to what's already been said, unless it's the fact that referring to events that injured a lot of people as "silliness" isn't helpful. Communicating online is never easy; indeed, in my experience, the only easy part is being misunderstood. Certainly there is a lot of confusion and hurt in the wake of what has happened, even if as Jane says, the legal lines are clearly drawn. I'm lucky enough not to have been one of those hurt by what happened, but my friends have been and that upsets me. I was happy to be able to post a positive comment on the issue, when Vanessa was kind enough to say that something I wrote inspired something she is writing. I never claimed to own the image she liked (but I do own the story in which it appeared, to clear up that issue).It's a pity that a positive note had be soured by this fresh bout of sniping by Audrey. And I certainly don't think the sense of injury caused in the first place can be dismissed as "silliness". That seems at best disingenuous, at worst malicious. Audrey, why get involved at all when, as you admit, you hadn't read the full facts? Or, if you wanted to get involved, why go about it in such a contentious way? You have nothing to help, and everything to harm the healing process. Very sad.

  18.  by  Jane Smith

    Nik, I've just noticed something on your desk which looks suspiciously like An A-Z Of Possible Worlds. Is it as good as so many people have been saying? I've forked out some real money for a copy which hasn't arrived yet (I don't think it's published until the end of the month) and am impatient to see it. It does LOOK gorgeous.

  19.  by  Nik Perring

    Thanks Vanessa and Sarah.Jane, how eagle-eyed of you. That is indeed what it is. And, yes, I think it's as good as people have been saying, and it's presented beautifully.Nik

  20.  by  Nik Perring

    Douglas/Audrey/whoever (and if you're Audrey or Whoever, please pass this on to Douglas): if you've not done anything wrong then you'll have no objection to posting, on your blog, where all can see and make up their own minds, your JBWB prizewinning story entitled 'Mondays Smell of Burned Toast' without changing it, together with a link to Tania Hershman's winning story.The least you can do is give people the opportunity to make up their own minds on nothing other than the evidence.Nik

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