Why you should care

The taboo against literary larceny actually makes for less original reading.

It’s not yours — it’s mine. That’s what artist Richard Prince effectively said when he took strangers’ Instagram photos, blew them up to poster size, hung them in a New York gallery and then sold them for nearly $100,000 a pop. The concept split critics decisively: Some gave it a like, while others denounced it as lazy, uncreative, morally bankrupt, etc.

Not that Prince is the only artist out there transforming others’ work into his own — there’s sampling and remixing in hip-hop, arrangements in jazz and collage and pastiche in visual arts. At least since Andy Warhol, all those artists have borrowed without scruples or guilt. And yet when it comes to literature? All guilt and scruple. Forget that William Shakespeare himself was a lexical larcenist who stole plots and lifted lines: In “the trial by Google age,” author David Shields says, we’re in denial that authors have always “plundered” one another’s work. His own Reality Hunger is basically an arrangement of quotations and passages from other writers.

Let’s all be more like Mr. Shakespeare — and like Mr. Shields too — and bury, once and for all, the notion that writers shouldn’t take from other writers. First off, they already do: By 2010, according to the Google Books project, 129,864,880 books had been published, and only the naive would believe that none of them involved some serious lifting. Many of the canon’s most heralded works — Ulysses and The Wasteland among them — began in theft. Besides that, borrowing benefits readers. There’s a bit of excitement in reading literature that treats you as an “equal,” Shields argues, someone able to get references. More important, if we dispensed with the stigma against those who copy, we might actually bring literary newness into this digital world. As it is, most critically acclaimed authors are still “playing by 19th-century rules,” Shields argues. We tend to agree. To us, most “original” literature is like original potato chips: boring and plain.

Of course, copying comes with consequences. Most every writer not named Stephen King either feels or actually is broke. Perhaps authors would lack motivation to write books if someone could take their work along with its economic potential. Readers — who are also supposed to benefit from copyright laws, Columbia law professor June Besek tells us — might not like it either. Would literature descend into commentary? And then commentary on commentary? And then … well the chain of reactions might end up in places that are just bad. Because really, sometimes people don’t want literature that navel-gazes. They just want a story. The David Shieldses and the Pierre Menards of the world might feel new now. But when you begin to imagine everything as meta-collage-pastiche-wholesale-copying, the idea begins to sound tired.

But here’s the thing. There’s probably no way to stop this trend. We’ll soon see auto-generated texts that are literally created from previously written words. We may as well accept that it’s a new era for creativity. You can cut all the flowers, but you cannot keep spring from coming. Maybe I said that, or maybe it was written before.

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