Writing Under The Influence

In an ingenious Harper's article and a new novel about a rock band in search of lyrics, Jonathan Lethem makes a provocative argument.
In an ingenious Harper's article and a new novel about a rock band in search of lyrics, Jonathan Lethem makes a provocative argument. (By Lois Raimondo -- The Washington Post)

Network News

X Profile
View More Activity
By Bob Thompson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 16, 2007

No, no, Jonathan Lethem concedes, he's not really in favor of plagiarism. At least not the deceptive, thieving kind.

But he does want to spark an argument that will "explode the word."

The Brooklyn-bred novelist ("Motherless Brooklyn," "Fortress of Solitude") is fascinated by what he calls "the mysteries of authorship -- the idea that things arise in culture that don't quite belong to anyone."

This fascination helped inspire his new novel, "You Don't Love Me Yet," in which four identity-seeking 20-somethings in a Los Angeles rock band latch onto some striking words and images that don't quite belong to them, with consequences no one involved could have foreseen.

It also drove Lethem to make a more serious argument about "the fundamental appropriating nature of creativity" in a lengthy article that ran in the February issue of Harper's, titled "The Ecstasy of Influence: A Plagiarism."

The subtitle is no joke.

After 10 pages of carefully constructed argument against "those who view the culture as a market in which everything of value should be owned by someone or other," Lethem reveals that just about every line in his piece is something he "stole, warped, and cobbled together" from the work of others. He then annotates his borrowings, reporting, for example, that the "culture as a market" quote derives from "The Tyranny of Copyright?," by Robert Boynton, in the New York Times Magazine.

Lethem's piece is a brilliant stunt, a high-concept attention-grabber. In a letter to Harper's, Stanford law professor Lawrence Lessig -- one of the best-known public advocates for less restrictive copyright laws -- called it "beautifully crafted" argument that "teaches more about the importance of what I call 'remix' than any other work I have read."

Still, Lessig had a small bone to pick.

It seems some cherished words of his own had been appropriated, words the professor declined to specify but which constituted "the only sentence I have ever written that I truly like."

Ouch.

Lethem apologized.


CONTINUED     1                 >

© 2007 The Washington Post Company

Network News

X My Profile
View More Activity