This article's discussion of Colm Toibin's book about Henry James, The Master, led me to further pondering of the copyright issue. There are subtleties here, and beyond the question of whether literary borrowing is good or bad is the question of why we do it. What's the compulsion to go back instead of on? In revisiting scenes of literary greatness, what do we expect to find? Or, more probably, to leave? It's a compulsion I feel too, though I've never acted on it. (And in James' case, reverence would humble my ambition.)
I think it starts with simple curiosity. What became of the younger sister? Who might have lived in the house next door? What happened to him in those three years at sea? That curiosity is strongest where the novel's world is strongest, where the author's creation is real and robust, and carries a resonance of its own. We want to explore the empty rooms that exist by implication, the darknesses left by the limits of an author's fiat lux.
I think such curiosity and the creativity it inspires show a healthy respect for the power of good writing. “Imagination bodies forth the forms of things unknown,” and “gives to airy nothing a local habitation and a name.” Theseus, the king in Midsummer Night's Dream, knows well the power of poets to call things convincingly into being, to name and locate them so thoroughly that they have an existence outside the work which first embodied them.
At a deeper level, I think it proves my theory that art is singular: all art is part of humanity's collected works. I'm not talking about T.S. Eliot's “tradition,” or about a canon of great works, but about the inescapable connection between all works of art, whether they acknowledge it or not.