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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)

"I did 'The Searchers' from the point of view of the Natalie Wood character," he says. "On Mars."

And Ford's film was just one of his starting points.

Lethem goes on to cite "a number of books that I adore" with teenage girls as protagonists, among them "The Member of the Wedding," by Carson McCullers, and "We Have Always Lived in the Castle," by Shirley Jackson. Then he points to the even bigger -- yet totally unconscious -- influence of "one of the greatest novels ever written."

"I also, inadvertently, rewrote E.M. Forster's 'A Passage to India,' " he explains. "I constructed the book around a rape that may or may not have happened in a secret place."

"So this is a book that is all influences. And yet it's all mine."

Okay. But to get back to that Harper's piece: Influence is one thing, but surely plagiarism is another -- isn't it?

Yup.

"It's a provocation for me to be using the word 'plagiarism' the way I do," Lethem says, "and you could argue that I'm damaging its usual, more precise function." Employing it was "a way to get attention."

And yet:

Plagiarism is also a "rubbery" term he wanted to define as "value neutral" in order to confront the question "What's the good plagiarism and what's the bad plagiarism?"

Bad plagiarism, Lethem believes, is something we know when we see it. It doesn't add value by transforming the borrowed material into something new. It is deceptive, in that it refuses to acknowledge its influences. It can feel, particularly if the plagiarizer is a big cultural fish, like the worst kind of theft.

And good plagiarism? Think of Shakespeare's borrowing from Ovid, he says, which helped produce "Romeo and Juliet," and the subsequent borrowing by Leonard Bernstein that produced "West Side Story."


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