Wordsmash #1: Remixing an article about literary remixing

March 2, 2010 in Wordsmash by snark

James Joyce and Helene Hagemann“So much of the energy of great work to me is feeling the echo effect on every line, of not knowing where it came from.” But it has been a limited one, viewed with even greater suspicion now. “Why can’t literature catch up with the other arts?”

The news made waves in the United States with an almost novelistic kind of timing, just before the publication last week of a highly anticipated book by David Shields, “Reality Hunger,” a feisty literary “manifesto” built almost entirely of quotations from other writers and thinkers.

“Our would-be novelist says nothing is original, yet the passages she lifted from other books were original expressions in those books, even if the ideas were not new.” But Mr. Shields argues that blatant borrowing has been a foundation of culture since man first took up pen and paintbrush. “The test has always been in the pudding.”

The law and conventional ethics are still probably a long way from embracing the kind of world that Mr. Shields and Ms. Hegemann envision. But Louis Menand, the Harvard professor and New Yorker staff writer, suggested that, as with any creative movement, if the results are compelling and profound enough, even rigid conventions come around to making what seemed like a sin into a virtue.

“My goodness, it’s just straight out of my brainpan.”

Even the most original-seeming writing borrows from the centuries of writing that came before, so why not simply be more honest and maybe do something more interesting in the process? “We worked for years on the character development and the voice, and when we finally nailed the subtle epiphany, we cracked open a bottle of Champagne to celebrate.”

The borrowed words are marshaled to make a case against what Mr. Shields sees as boring fiction and in favor of genre-bending forms like the lyric essay. You could argue, of course, that Warhol’s use of a soup can or Danger Mouse’s use of the Beatles and Jay-Z on the Grey Album represent one thing, a re-contextualizing of cultural artifacts so well known they are a kind of shorthand. “There’s no such thing as originality anyway, just authenticity.”

Ms. Hegemann announced that appropriating the passages from that book and other sources was her plan all along. And Terence complained in the second century B.C. that “there’s nothing to say that hasn’t been said before.”

Mr. Shields, so firmly in the camp that sees appropriation as just another kind of collaboration, laments that expressive writing has lagged behind the other arts in using appropriation as a tool. “She basically did the book I wanted to do.”

Helene Hagemann and James JoyceA child of a media-saturated generation, she presented herself as a writer whose birthright is the remix, the use of anything at hand she feels suits her purposes, an idea of communal creativity that certainly wasn’t shared by those from whom she borrowed. His manifesto and Ms. Hegemann’s novel prompted the quick drawing of battle lines.

But does lifting from an obscure blogger — or even importing a description of a sunset by Steinbeck or a suburban tableau from Updike — accomplish the same thing? The most vital artists are those “breaking larger and larger chunks of ‘reality’ into their works.” Mr. Shields, a novelist who migrated to nonfiction, has called it “far and away the most personal book” he has ever written.

Mr. Shields’s book relies on thinkers from Wittgenstein to DJ Spooky, melding them into a voice that can sound at times eerily consistent. “If something is really successful, then the law tends to get changed and society changes to allow it to happen,” he said.

And though publishing-house lawyers required him to include an appendix listing his sources (at least those he could remember) Mr. Shields asks the reader to honor the spirit of the book by taking a pair of scissors and giving it an appendectomy. Maybe that’s one reason for the flurry of attention recently about a teenage German novelist, Helene Hegemann. Think of almost any kind of cultural endeavor and then use the word “we” to describe its creation.

Tensions have probably never been higher between a growing culture of borrowing and appropriation on one side and, on the other, copyright advocates and those who fear a steady erosion of creative protections. Flarf, the experimental poetry movement in which practitioners make verse out of the results of random Internet word searches — for those times “when we are not sure we are alive.”

Appropriation has breathed life into music, art and theater, he argues, and he lines up a kind of murderers’ row of writers, including Sterne, Emerson, Eliot and Joyce (“I am quite content to go down to posterity as a scissors and paste man”) to make the case that it has been an important tradition in writing, too.

A creative culture dominated by borrowing and repurposing is a “culture that will quickly grow stale.” In a world where the death of the novel has been announced with great regularity for almost half a century, such an open-source approach is the only way to keep literature alive.

Unmix this mashup at the New York Times, The Free-Appropriation Writer.