22 February 2007

Lethem / Plagiarism / The Litigator in the Rye

Having now finished the article by Jonathan Lethem in January Harper's ''The Ecstasy of Influence. A Plagiarism' l finally get the drift of his banter. Much of the article is a collage of pieces from other writers. It is, as signalled in the title, a plagiarism in itself - this is explained in copious footnotes of attribution at the end. It is a sustained attack on our litigious, over proprietorial culture. A classic example give by Lethem is this:
A few years ago, the Film Society of Lincoln Center announced a retrospective of the works of Dariush Mehrjui, then a fresh enthusiasm of mine. Mehrjui is one of Iran's finest filmmakers, and...opportunities to view his films were—and remain—rare indeed. I headed uptown for one, an adaptation of J. D. Salinger's Franny and Zooey, titled Pari, only to discover at the door of the Walter Reade Theater that the screening had been canceled: its announcement had brought threat of a lawsuit down on the Film Society. True, these were Salinger's rights under the law. Yet why would he care that some obscure Iranian filmmaker had paid him homage with a meditation on his heroine? Would it have damaged his book or robbed him of some crucial remuneration had the screening been permitted? The fertile spirit of stray connection—one stretching across what is presently seen as the direst of international breaches—had in this case been snuffed out. The cold, undead hand of one of my childhood literary heroes had reached out from its New Hampshire redoubt to arrest my present-day curiosity.

I guess the one thing a litigious geezer like Salinger cannot sue for is for someone calling him litigious. Think about it. That line of Lethem's about the 'cold, undead hand' reaching out, although unattributed by him certainly rings a bell. Lethem's article is almost a manifesto, and having worked in a bookshop for 10 years the dude has paid his dues (see post of 15 February). As Eliot said "Immature poets borrow, mature poets steal." Rave on.

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