1) I began David Schields’s much talked-about essay/manifesto Reality Hunger last night–a book which liberally uses unaccredited excerpts from a range of sources and compiles them into a kind of long list of inter-referential comments, anecdotes and arguments. On the first page of the appendix, Schields writes that he’d wanted to leave out all citations, but that:

“Random House lawyers determined that it was necessary for me to provide a complete list of citations; the list follows (except, of course, for any sources I couldn’t find or forgot along the way).

If you would like to restore the book to the form in which I intended it to be read, simply grab a sharp pair of scissors or a razor blade or box cutter [ed: is this an intentional nod toward terrorism?] and remove pages 210-218 by cutting along the dotted line.”

Indeed, Random House humored David, and included the dotted line near the spine of the pages in question.

2) I woke up to read of a German 17 year old author named Helene Hegemann, who, after winning rave reviews and consideration for one of Germany’s top literary prizes for her intriguingly titled novel “Axolotl Roadkill,” has since received (unwanted?) accusations of plagiarism. This may not be big news as such–such stories break every year or so–but having apparently in at least one case lifted nearly an entire page from another novel, her defense caught my eye. The Times article states that Helene

“has also defended herself as the representative of a different generation, one that freely mixes and matches from the whirring flood of information across new and old media, to create something new. ‘There’s no such thing as originality anyway, just authenticity,’ said Ms. Hegemann in a statement released by her publisher after the scandal broke.”

In other words, she’s entirely unrepentant. Not only that, but the prize committee considering her for a 25k award, knew about these charges before entering her book into consideration! And they’re okay with it! Certainly there have been great artists who’ve experimented with cut and paste techniques, and no one would deny that unique, important works of art can be made entirely of “borrowed” material. So are these two wildly divergent authors right?

I’ve posted before about whether or not artists should be paid, and whether or not it makes sense to copyright our work, but these moral questions sidestep the perhaps more central point: that society could be moving toward a less constrictive view of intellectual property whether we like it or not.

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SHYA SCANLON is the Fiction Reviews Editor for The Nervous Breakdown. Scanlon's work has appeared in the Mississippi Review, Literary Review, New York Quarterly, Guernica Magazine, Opium Magazine, and others. His book of prose poetry, In This Alone Impulse, was published by Noemi Press in January, 2010. In 2009, his novel Forecast was serialized online across 42 journals and literary blogs as part of the Forecast 42 Project. Forecast will be published by Flatmancrooked in December, 2010. He received his MFA from Brown University, where he was awarded the John Hawkes Prize in Fiction. Please visit him at www.shyascanlon.com.

6 responses to “Take what you can get.”

  1. Becky says:

    This is nothing new, actually. Per usual, the prose writers lag behind… (JOKING! Lord Jesus, deliver me from the angry mob of novelists that is about to descend on me…)

    But it’s true that, in the poetry world, at least, this is absolutely nothing new.
    Check out the Cento form: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cento_%28poetry%29

    So Hegemann’s argument that it has anything at all to do with her generation is kind of bogus, though she may not realize that.

    Th Cento, for example, is at least 1700 years old. I’ve written one. I didn’t publish it because it was not very good. It is surprisingly difficult to merge 100 different voices into one. So I have to admit that I don’t think the practice is entirely artless. Collage is another example. Like, do collage artists have to credit the photos they use?

    It has less to do with artists changing and more with social attitudes towards intellectual property changing. Like, one might even make the case that we’re not moving forward to a permissive notion of of ownership, but back to it.

    It’s interesting, you know…I mean, there was the debate surrounding Eliot’s wasteland for some of the same reasons, but at the same time, the lines between borrowing, referencing, and stealing/plagiarism has never been clear–or easily made clear–in poetry. Most poets have reacted to this quandary with a generally permissive attitude towards this type of borrowing, considering things on a case-by-case basis.

    And I recently saw an article about the privatization of language. I can’t remember who tweeted it. Might have even been TNB. Or maybe it was Will Entrekin. At any rate, it an argument for the downside to declaring certain short configurations of words or language “mine.”

    Here it is: http://zenhabits.net/2009/04/feel-the-fear-and-do-it-anyway-or-the-privatization-of-the-english-language/

    • Shya Scanlon says:

      You’re right that there are countless examples throughout history of “cut-up” approaches to literature. David Schields finds them among the ancient greeks, etc. And there are always people who persist in producing superlative examples of it. Have you heard of “Woman’s World”? http://www.softskull.com/detailedbook.php?isbn=1-59376-183-X –no one would say that he saved himself any time or creative expenditure by using entirely pre-existing content.

      (The idea that language itself is free is an interesting one, but why stop there? How about the alphabet, or phonemes? Everything that goes into anything one does or says is built on received information, ideas, or tools.)

      Anyway, so I would agree that the notion has been around forever, but never has it fought for legitimacy in an era wherein corporations (big social/financial organisms which survive on ownership) have the legal status of individuals. In other words, there’s a war going on, which is the real reason this conversation is now more relevant and urgent than ever.

  2. Becky says:

    I have always avoided using, “like,” in my written speech, but started doing it recently thinking it made me sound more affable and conversational and also stupider and less sure of myself, since I am often accused of being a know-it-all.

    But after reading what I just wrote, I have changed my mind yet again.

    I would like to give “like” back to whomever it belongs.

    Like anyone’s going to fess up to it now. *sigh*

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