Art, Information, Theft, and Confusion


Continued from Part One

i. Influence

A long time ago now, discussing my book The Lathe of Heaven, I called it “a homage to Philip K. Dick” (who was then not the culture hero he has become, but a science fiction writer scorned as such by the American literary establishment, and honored mostly within the genre and in France). I said that when an art was healthy, a lot of borrowing usually went on in it, citing the period when musical invention fizzed through Europe from Handel to Haydn to Boccherini to Mozart, with composers freely emulating, borrowing, and improving on one another’s styles and technical inventions, even alluding to one another’s tunes, though not copying any actual composition. I took it as a sign of the health of science fiction that there was the same kind of interchange of techniques and subjects going on it, a lively, open, conscious exchange of artistic and intellectual ideas, everybody learning from everybody else.

I learned a lot from Phil Dick. I own the debt freely and with some pride. I told him about it, too. We were aware that we were influencing each other in some ways, aware of an area of similarity in what we were trying to do, and exchanged ideas about that, and about writing, in our letters.

Probably the biggest thing I learned from Phil was what now seems obvious but didn’t then: that you can incorporate Eastern mysticism into a Western novel without playing guru or getting woowoo. Matter-of-fact taoism, middle-class yin-yang. He had pulled it off superbly several times. I tried my own version of it in The Lathe of Heaven, and it worked for me too.

I’m trying to bring out the difference between copying a text into your own work, and applying techniques learned from a text to your own work.

Then there’s the difference between imitation and emulation. It’s subtler, but really it’s almost as clear as the difference between copying a text and being influenced by it. In Lathe of Heaven I emulated Phil Dick, but what did I imitate from him? Nothing, as far as I know. None of my characters is Phildickian. The taoism of George’s character and of the book is not Phildickian, it’s taoist. I had a yearning to put in a talking taxicab, but I couldn’t — talking taxicabs belonged to Phil. Anyhow, I knew mine would never be as funny as his.

So, then, what’s the difference between being influenced by a body of work and admitting it, and being influenced by a body of work and not admitting it?

This last is the situation, as I see it, between my A Wizard of Earthsea and J.K.Rowling’s Harry Potter. I didn’t originate the idea of a school for wizards — if anybody did it was T.H.White, though he did it in single throwaway line and didn’t develop it. I was the first to do that. Years later, Rowling took the idea and developed it along other lines. She didn't plagiarize. She didn’t copy anything. Her book, in fact, could hardly be more different from mine, in style, spirit, everything. The only thing that rankles me is her apparent reluctance to admit that she ever learned anything from other writers. When ignorant critics praised her wonderful originality in inventing the idea of a wizards’ school, and some of them even seemed to believe that she had invented fantasy, she let them do so. This, I think, was ungenerous, and in the long run unwise.

I’m happier with writers who, perhaps suffering less from the famous “anxiety of influence,” have enough sense of their own worth to appreciate their predecessors and fellow-workers in the saltmines of literature.

The whole history of a literature and of every genre within it is a chain of influences, inventions shared, discoveries made common, techniques adopted and adapted. Must I say again that this has absolutely nothing to do with copying texts, with stealing stuff?

Michael Chabon’s lighthanded, lighthearted riffs on various genres and individual authors such as Conan Doyle and Fritz Leiber are genuine homages. He’s not ripping anybody off. He’s not grinding out the thirtieth lifeless, plodding imitation of Tolkien. He’s not pretending to be original by hiding his sources or by boasting of his authenticity as a plagiarist. His sources are perfectly, radiantly obvious. He takes techniques and tropes and props of familiar genres or authors and plays with them, openly. He doesn't steal them. He recombines them, he truly recreates them, in his own highly original, inventive, and authentic terms. This is pretty much the opposite of “mix-and-match” copying.

ii. Authenticity

Sharing and stealing carry very different moral weight. Sharing is a virtue, stealing a crime. We excuse theft only on the plea of extreme need — real poverty. And I wonder if a vast poverty of imagination is at the root of the excuses made for piracy and plagiarism.

The word authentic means “of undisputed origin.” (So that’s why so many Mexican restaurants in the United State are autentico!) It’s hard to see how stealing bits of other people’s stories and passing them off as your own is a proof of authenticity.

I guess if you’re 17 years old and having your Warholian fifteen minutes of fame, and a prize jury and the New York Times and lots of trendy people tell you you’re awesome, it’s hard not to say the hell with honest poverty, take the money, and run, boasting over your shoulder of how authentic you are... That, however, does not excuse the jurors or the Times. I’d like to hear their arguments for, rather than mere assertion of, the authenticity of Hegeman’s text.

I’d like to read a plausible defense of text-theft as not only legitimate but creative. I have read such defenses, but did not find them plausible. Citations from Deconstructionist theories of criticism, the application of which to the actual reading of texts still awaits demonstration, don’t convince me.

iii. Sharing worlds

Where do “shared worlds” come in? I have no problem whatever with spin-offs, books based on films or TV series, where the worlds and characters were invented largely by teamwork in the first place. I find stories in which the writer uses locales and characters invented by another writer don’t interest me, but I don’t expect others to share my discomfort. It’s probably a symptom of my own active territoriality as an artist. When invited to open Earthsea to anybody who wanted to write an “Earthsea story,” my reaction has been instant and dragonlike: Out! Out! This is my place! Go make up your own damn islands!

(I wish I had said that to the film-makers who wanted to make an “Earthsea movie” ... but my territoriality concerns words only, and so I let them do it. If only their movies had had anything to do with Earthsea!)

Many fantasists are happy to invite other writers to use their worlds for fun and profit, and if it’s fine with them, what can be the harm? It seems to me a rather low level of invention, but comfortable, even cosy. It’s kind of like kids re-enacting books, like when my brother and I used to be Robin Hood and Little John (straight out of our edition with the great Wyeth pictures) with quarterstaffs, on the board across the ditch. Have at thee, varlet!

When the imaginary world and its characters have belonged to a lot of readers for a long time, when they are part of our common literary heritage, I have no problem whatever with “sharing” them. In fact we keep the classic texts alive by bringing them into our own time in our own terms, not only by translation but by borrowing, retelling and recreating. If we couldn’t draw on all the great epics and classic plays for plot, character, episode, reference, we’d be really and truly impoverished. And there, it seems to me, because those texts have to be brought into our own time and language and understanding, there’s no question of theft. They are our true commons. We can all pasture our goats there. I based my novel Lavinia closely on part of Vergil’s Aeneid, and even put Vergil in as a character, because I wanted to honor him and he seemed to belong in the story, which couldn’t have existed without his story, after all.

It would be utterly different, to my mind, if I took a plot from The Lord of the Rings and put Tolkien in it as a character. Tolkien’s book may well become a world classic, a story known to all, the shared property of all who hear or read it, a true commons — but that takes a while to happen. Before it’s happened, using his words or his plot or his person is mere theft from the Tolkien estate, mere exploitation of fame.

Influence is a wonderful thing. You could almost say that the whole Romance genre for years took place on the moors near Wuthering Heights.

iv. Games, interactives, and visions

What about games that use a novel-world and its characters? The reduction of a novel to a game seems to me a basic error, a sterile attempt to crossbreed species. Games are wonderful things in their own right, and ought to be invented in their own right. Stories aren’t games, and the more they resemble them the weaker they are as stories.

The complex role games that are played jointly, and played to play, not to win, are excellent entertainment, but still, I don’t think they result in story — not without changing the rules from game rules to story options. Any game, to be a game, must limit the possible moves. Story is the product of a universe in which the choices, though they may not seem so, are infinite.

What about interactive fiction? Well, if you like it, fine. It seems to me essentially a social activity. Like game-playing, it can’t result in a work of art. Writers need readers, they collaborate in a sense with their readers; but to let readers control the story is to cease to be a writer in order to be a group facilitator or member. Fine, if that’s what you want to be.

If, however, you’re a writer, and have a story you want to write, the job is your responsibility. You’re not dealing with information which can be shared and passed around; you’re dealing with a vision — your vision. It’s up to you to capture that vision in words. Nobody else can do it.

Changing a story around at the readers’ whim is at best a game. (Making major changes in a story because an agent or editor wants it to be different is not a game, but the loss of the author’s authority — or authenticity, if you will; but that’s a separate issue.) The trajectory of a story, once found, can’t be fiddled with arbitrarily; if it is, it’s lost. A story is its own truth — a subjective truth. The story as work of art can exist only on and in its own terms.

This will sound either hifalutin or meaningless to people who confuse art with information, and think of a literary text as a block of words to tinker with — an arbitrary conjunction, rearrangeable, reshapable, like any other object. And to tinker with a work of art not your own, take bits out of it, put in other bits from elsewhere, to remake it, is in fact to reduce it to an object.

This is a popular and trendy thing to do because it takes the irreducible, absolute, visionary, and formal qualities out of art. It makes art unformidable. It secularizes fiction. A story seen as “information,”as object, can be seen as a piece of salable hype, an invention no different from the advertisement blinking next to it on the computer screen. Any truth it has is a matter of chance, impermanent, subject to the next tinkering. It has no value in itself. Anybody could have written it, anybody can write it, anybody can copy it.

And so of course you don’t have pay the author for it.

v. The ansible

I have been corresponding with a man who wants to use the word “ansible” in a trademarked product name. After due consultation with local wizards I am allowing him to do so, because he isn’t trying to co-opt the word — he doesn’t want to claim he owns it, or to prevent anybody else from using it as a noun. He just wants to use it in his product name. I don’t see why not. “Microsoft Word” got trademarked, but not even Microsoft can trademark the word “word.”

Because I don’t confuse art with information, I’ve been happy to share the ansible with other science fiction writers and pleased when they use it. It’s a handy device for people who need to communicate plausibly across interstellar spacetime. An invention that has gained the honorable status of a common noun doesn’t need to be protected. The ansible, as (fake) information, belongs to anybody who wants to use it and knows how to. In the same way, Heinlein’s waldo became common property, and indeed presently became real, which I doubt the ansible will any time soon. Anyhow, the ansible is an Anarresti invention, and anarchists share stuff.

But my landscapes, my people — they’re different. They’re not stuff. I don’t loan them, or rent them, or sell them. I give them to my readers. And I keep the copyright on the stories they’re in. The product of my imagination working through native talent and learned craft, my imagined worlds and their inhabitants are, by essence and to the fullest extent I can make them so, authentic. They are of undisputed origin.

Readers are welcome to comment on this essay at Book View Cafe Blog.


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