Monday, March 30, 2009

The joys of plagiarism

My younger son, the composer and soon-to-be itinerant bass player, sent me a link to a Harper's article by Jonathan Letham (February 2007). Letham explores how writers often appropriate the works of other writers in ways ranging from the subtle echoing of influences to outright theft. At the end of the article, Letham reveals that he has fabricated the entire article using quotations, thereby cleverly using plagiarism to explain plagiarism. To give the reader insight into the artistic process of plagiarizing (and perhaps to avoid litigation), Letham provides attributions for all his quotation sources in an appendix.

In a tour de force of literary cut-and-paste, Letham cobbles together quotations from sources as disparate as Mary Shelley and Ned Rorem to construct a graceful summation:

"Most artists are brought to their vocation when their own nascent gifts are awakened by the work of a master. That is to say, most artists are converted to art by art itself. Finding one's voice isn't just an emptying and purifying oneself of the words of others but an adopting and embracing of filiations, communities, and discourses. Inspiration could be called inhaling the memory of an act never experienced. Invention, it must be humbly admitted, does not consist in creating out of void but out of chaos. Any artist knows these truths, no matter how deeply he or she submerges that knowing."

As one having more ability as a reviser than as a creator, I have often considered pursuing a writing career based on plagiarism. Not as a thief, mind you, but as an editor transforming someone else's prose beyond all recognition. My goal would be to perform such radical editing that my product would bear no trace of the original author's words or sensibility. Only a structural resemblance would persist.

As an example of this process, consider this opening paragraph from bestselling author Robert Ludlam concerning the return of an agent to the spy bureau known as the Directorate:

"The patient was conveyed by a chartered jet to a private landing strip twenty miles northwest of Washington, D.C. Although the patient was the only passenger on the entire aircraft, no one spoke to him except to ascertain his immediate needs. No one knew his name. All they knew was that this was clearly an extremely important passenger. The flight's arrival appeared on no aviation logs anywhere, military or civilian."

Now, to transform this paragraph, let's make the agent a female. A chartered jet is a bit ostentatious; let's substitute a kayak instead. An air of mystery should be retained. The objective is to have the agent arrive at Washington, D.C. discreetly. Here goes.

In the cold dawn of early March, a woman paddled a white kayak like a long dagger of ice in the gray water of the Potomac River. Precise, silent strokes brought her along the shore and into a secluded inlet of East Potomac Park, four miles south of the White House. She tied off the boat, clambered up the river bank, and looked all around. Nobody was in sight. She tucked her long, brown hair beneath the collar of her windbreaker and pulled the hood snug to cover her face. She headed north along the shoreline trail. Near the park entrance a pair of joggers came toward her. She put her head down and buried her hands in her pockets, shoulders hunched, as if shrinking from the morning chill. The joggers passed without giving her a look.