In an attempt to respond to the challenge of creativity, I attempted to create a mash-up of my own this week, using Jonathan Lethem’s essay on copyright and literature to form the basis of the project. Published by Harper’s Magazine in February of 2007, ‘The Ecstasy of Influence’ concerns the nature of cultural borrowing among artists, specifically novelists. Nearly every word of the essay is appropriated from another source and cobbled together to form a cohesive whole. Lethem has a lengthy afterward in which he explains where each appropriation came from.
But this is more than a stunt. It’s a passionate salvo in the copyright wars, a crowd of voices coralled together by Lethem to say, basically: without borrowing, stealing, cribbing, remixing, mashing-up, collaging and compiling — without influences great and small, in other words — there is no creating. No hip hop, sure, but also no blues, no Shakespeare, no Martin Luther King’s ‘I Have a Dream.’ Everything ‘created’ comes from something else; none of it is new at all.
Yet creating a mash-up of this article with my own thoughts was much more difficult than I had imagined. For one, I am a bit unfamiliar as to how a mash-up really would work in this sort of scenario, so rather than an integrated piece, my response tends to be an annotation of Lethem’s article with thoughts of my own. While I believe I raise some worthwhile points, overall I think the mash-up fails to be its own sort of creation.
The most striking idea that kept coming to the forefront for me was the thin line we as academics use to separate plagiarism from scholarly work. In any essay I may write for class, much less for publication, at least half of the words use are either someone else’s or used to explain the ideas of another person. Certain conventions like quotation marks allow one to escape the charge of plagiarism, but it goes much further. I often will appropriate the methodology of another researcher and apply it to my own research, often with the barest of mentions. Everything I have done as a student/scholar has been based on the previous work of countless others. No one in academia is creating order out of madness; instead, that madness has been shaped into something resembling order for thousands of years and we use this without citation everyday.
While I won’t use this space to rehash all the ideas I shoved into Lethem’s essay, I will take a few moments and discuss another literary mash-up that may speak more directly to the sort of audience that reads this forum, but if you are interested in taking a look at what I’ve done with Lethem’s work, my attempt will be posted in the TRACS site and is available via email for those of you who are interested but lack access.
Announced a few months ago, the upcoming Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is a literary mash-up of Jane Austen’s famous novel by Seth Grahame-Smith. Here is the description: ‘Feisty heroine Elizabeth Bennet is determined to wipe out the zombie menace, but she’s soon distracted by the arrival of the haughty and arrogant Mr. Darcy. What ensues is a delightful comedy of manners with plenty of civilized sparring between the two young lovers—and even more violent sparring on the blood-soaked battlefield as Elizabeth wages war against hordes of flesh-eating undead.’
Grahame-Smith has been reported to use over 85% of Austen’s original text in this work and has already been signed by a publisher for two more works of a similar nature, starting with Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. He has also spawned dozens of other authors into trying something similar, including me. However, so far I have some sort of mixture of Jasper Fforde and true mash-up, and my track record on projects leads me to believe that it will never see the light of day.
Lethem’s essay is definitely worthy of your time, especially if you have even the slightest interest in the idea of copyright and how it affects art. As for Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, I haven’t read it yet, but when I do you can be sure that I will be discussing it here.