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Writing Under The Influence
Jonathan Lethem Ponders a Good Side to Plagiarism

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.

Yet he couldn't resist ending his published response with a continuation of his argument.

"There are no quotation marks around the elements in a Robert Rauschenberg collage or around Quentin Tarantino's swipes from lesser-known movies," he wrote. And T.S. Eliot's immortal "The Waste Land," famous for its highbrow literary liftings, "has only end-notes -- which, I suspect, are much less often read than the poem itself."

'Searchers' on Mars

He's a harmless-looking fellow, this novelist-provocateur, especially compared with the brooding youth featured on the front cover of "You Don't Love Me Yet." Body stiff, no hint of a smile, shirt buttoned in the neck-choking fashion that inexplicably took hold a couple of decades back, the younger Lethem stares out at potential purchasers as if to say: Don't read this book, it's your loss. I'm too cool to care.

The midlife version -- at 43, he's "not a young writer anymore, but I'm not that old" -- has rounder features and a bit more bulk on his compact frame. Over lunch at Cafe Atlantico, Lethem (pronounced "Leethum") radiates seriousness about his work. But he also laughs easily and seizes the occasional opportunity to make fun of himself.

Was he ever part of a musical group, he is asked, when he was his characters' age?

"Barely," he says. "For just a minute, I was a kind of pathetic frontman for a band. My vocals could best be described as sub-Lou Reed mumblings."

His preoccupation with artistic influence, he says, really began with "a completely personal instinct or leaning, which is that I've always liked collage art." He likes seeing "chunks of recognizable things in a new matrix," whether in a painting or a Bob Dylan song. And because he believes this kind of aesthetic borrowing is "very near the center of the impulse to create in the first place," he finds it strange that some artists appear embarrassed by influences and feel the need to "overstate their originality."

Take, for example, his own first novel.

"Gun, With Occasional Music," Lethem says, was reviewed as being "a cross-fertilization of Raymond Chandler and Philip K. Dick." People would tell him, thinking it's what he wanted to hear, that his work was far more original than such a simplistic comparison could possibly convey.

"And I felt like saying: 'Well, actually, I was kind of trying to do Chandler meets Dick! I'm really glad it was clear what I was doing!'"

Or take "Girl in Landscape," the 1998 novel Lethem calls "a very deliberate attempt to rewrite John Ford's movie 'The Searchers' in an interplanetary context."

When plotting "Girl in Landscape," he used what he calls a "traditional kind of literary appropriating move, which you could call the 'Mary Reilly' move." He's referring to the Valerie Martin novel that retells the story of "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde" from the point of view of the maid.

"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."

"If these are examples of plagiarism, then we want more plagiarism," Lethem wrote in his Harper's piece.

Except that he didn't write it, really.

As he acknowledges, he flat out stole that line from U.S. Appeals Court Judge Richard Posner.

Listen to Jonathan Lethem hold forth long enough and you'll come to understand that he sees the question of literary borrowing as part of a larger dialogue between private property and "the commons." He thinks that artists who take an absolutist position on copyright are complicit in "what is essentially an attack on the public good" -- the privatization of things "that should belong to everyone."

He's talking about copyright-obsessed corporations like Disney, which Lethem likens to a creative roach motel ("cultural debts flow in, but they don't flow out"). He's talking about environmentally essential wetlands paved for private profit. He's talking about private fortunes exempted from estate taxes because they were supposedly amassed independently of the social fabric surrounding them. He's talking . . .

But hold on.

The man is supposed to be on a book tour here.

Time to get back to that lyrics-challenged rock band in L.A.

'Monster Eyes'

"You Don't Love Me Yet" is, among other things, Lethem's deliberate attempt to change gears after his previous novel, 2003's sprawling, ambitious "Fortress of Solitude." Lauded as "melancholy and marvelous" by New York Times critic A.O. Scott, "Fortress" tells the story of two motherless 1970s teens, one white and one black, growing up in the same not-yet-gentrified Brooklyn neighborhood in which Lethem's idealistic and somewhat clueless parents chose to raise him and in which he lives today.

Many young fiction writers go straight to the autobiographical well, but Lethem waited -- and it paid off. "I couldn't have written 'Fortress of Solitude' without developing certain tools as a writer," he says. But when he'd finished, he was ready to be done with fathers and sons and Brooklyn for a while, to write something "mischievous and defiantly playful" once again.

The result was "You Don't Love Me Yet," an almost weightless tale of four Los Angeles band mates trying to negotiate that disconcerting, exhilarating stage of life in which parents are invisible, identities mutable, careers nonexistent and relationships about as stable as hydrogen.

Its one nod to seriousness?

Plagiarism is a central plot element.

To summarize briefly: Lethem's protagonist, Lucinda, is the bass player for a musical foursome so fledgling it hasn't yet settled on a name. To make its debut, the band needs more songs, but its perpetually malnourished songwriter is blocked. One of the other musicians sums up the grim situation this way:

"We're turning thirty and we haven't done anything. Look at Bedwin. He can't even feed himself, and he's our genius."

Help arrives after Lucinda is hired to answer a "complaint line" set up as part of a performance art piece. She gets attached to one of her regular callers, mesmerized by tales from his dysfunctional life. "I have this condition called monster eyes," the complainer tells her one day, and he goes on to explain that whenever he gets involved with a woman, he wrecks the relationship by boring in on some attribute of hers that he can't stand.

Cut to a rehearsal. Bedwin has written new music, but no lyrics.

"Monster eyes!" Lucinda finds herself calling out as the band hits the chorus. "Best thing I ever did for you, was get you out of range of my monster eyes."

She appropriates more of the complainer's language for more songs, and the band is on its way. But who, exactly, deserves the credit for this development? File under "mysteries of authorship." It's the kind of cultural collaboration that fascinates Lethem.

And it's all the more fascinating because -- as the author of "You Don't Love Me Yet" is quick to volunteer -- the novel itself started out as someone else's idea.

More than a decade ago, when Lethem was living in Berkeley, Calif., working in a bookstore and starting to write, he became friends with a grad student in English named Amy Greenstadt. "I had this idea that I wanted to make a video," says Greenstadt, who's now teaching at Portland State University, "but I didn't have the confidence to do it on my own."

So she asked Lethem if he'd like to help.

Greenstadt's idea originated with TV ads she'd seen for a New York "confession line." She thought: What if there were a really terrible band -- the kind, say, that did grunge covers of Joe Jackson songs -- and one of the members got intrigued with the confession line? She imagined many confessers, not just one, but when she and Lethem started working on the story together, "we came up with the idea of the one annoying confesser who eventually shows up and tries to join the band."

Neither of them knew anything about video, but they liked the idea of a collective art project, so they decided to bring in more collaborators. After a few weeks, however, "the whole thing just died, as these things often do."

Well, not quite.

"I'm very compulsive about narrative," Lethem says. "I don't leave a lot of unfinished stories lying around." A few years ago, he asked if he could use the material. Greenstadt readily agreed.

"He's the artist. I never would have done anything with it," she says -- though she did find herself "a little sad" that he changed her confession line to a complaint line.

Greenstadt says she finds Lethem's ideas on artistic influence and cultural borrowing intriguing. When he came through Oregon on his book tour, she invited him to speak at Portland State on the questions raised by his Harper's piece.

Still, she has a bottom line.

"As a teacher, I need to have plagiarism mean plagiarism," she says, and laughs. "We can't be messing with it."

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