The Free-Appropriation Writer

Published: February 26, 2010

Here’s an exercise: Think of almost any kind of cultural endeavor and then use the word “we” to describe its creation. The communal pronoun trips easily off the tongue when talking about the world of contemporary arts and entertainment, where things are often the product of teams, workshops, studios or institutions, where collaboration and idea-swapping are the norm. But now try applying it to creative writing, especially to fiction and poetry, and it can sound absurd: “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.”

Not that there isn’t the occasional team-written novel. But the popular conception of the creative writer is still by and large one of the individual trying to wrestle language, maybe even the meaning of life, from his soul, the kind of lone battle Jonathan Franzen described himself waging in writing “The Corrections,” which he sometimes did in the dark, wearing earplugs and earmuffs, trying to hold his mind “free of clichés.”

Maybe that’s one reason for the flurry of attention recently about a teenage German novelist, Helene Hegemann, whose book about Berlin’s club scene was named a finalist for a prestigious literary prize to be awarded next month in Leipzig. After a blogger and fellow novelist announced that Ms. Hegemann had blended sizeable chunks of his own writing into hers, Ms. Hegemann, instead of following the plagiarism-gotcha script of contrition and retraction so familiar in recent years, announced that appropriating the passages from that book and other sources was her plan all along.

A 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. In a line that might have been stolen from Sartre (it wasn’t) she added: “There’s no such thing as originality anyway, just authenticity.”

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. 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. Mr. Shields, a novelist who migrated to nonfiction, has called it “far and away the most personal book” he has ever written. 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.

His manifesto and Ms. Hegemann’s novel prompted the quick drawing of battle lines, coming at a time when 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.

Patrick Ross, executive director of the Copyright Alliance, a trade group involving movie studios, networks and artists, took to the alliance’s blog immediately to condemn Ms. Hegemann. “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,” he wrote, adding that a creative culture dominated by borrowing and repurposing is a “culture that will quickly grow stale.”

But Mr. Shields argues that blatant borrowing has been a foundation of culture since man first took up pen and paintbrush, long before Terence complained in the second century B.C. that “there’s nothing to say that hasn’t been said before.” (Mr. Shields’s point about borrowing has certainly been made many times before, a fact he readily acknowledges.) 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.

But it has been a limited one, viewed with even greater suspicion now. And 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, especially in an age when the most vital artists are those “breaking larger and larger chunks of ‘reality’ into their works.”

“Why can’t literature catch up with the other arts?” he said in a recent telephone interview from Seattle, where he lives and teaches, citing recent encouraging (to him) trends like Flarf, the experimental poetry movement in which practitioners make verse out of the results of random Internet word searches. Of Ms. Hegemann’s book and her defense of it, he added: “My goodness, it’s just straight out of my brainpan. She basically did the book I wanted to do.”

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. 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?

Mr. Shields’s book relies on thinkers from Wittgenstein to DJ Spooky, melding them into a voice that can sound at times eerily consistent. He contends that 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. Even the most original-seeming writing borrows from the centuries of writing that came before, so why not simply be more honest and, he suggests, maybe do something more interesting in the process?

“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,” he said, citing a quote — this one attributed — from Graham Greene that he uses as one of the book’s epigraphs: “When we are not sure, we are alive.”

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.

“If something is really successful, then the law tends to get changed and society changes to allow it to happen,” he said. “The test has always been in the pudding.”

A version of this article appeared in print on February 28, 2010, on page WK3 of the New York edition.

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