I’m about halfway through The Best American Essays 2008 and am greatly enjoying it. There are some stunningly good essays in the collection, and even the ones that aren’t stunningly good are still entertaining. There’s one on a lesbian wedding that I liked and one on how often great and famous quotations aren’t quoted correctly — the phrase “nice guys finish last” was originally “The nice guys are all over there, in seventh place,” but the longer phrase was shortened to make a better headline.
I also really liked Jonathan Lethem’s essay on plagiarism called “The Ecstasy of Influence.” Lethem argues that our copyright laws are too strict. All art is essentially borrowing and we should be encouraging the free movement of art and ideas rather than trying to turn them into property and to increase profits from them as much as possible.
These aren’t the most original ideas in the world, but, it turns out, that is kind of the point. I enjoyed reading the essay because about halfway through it I decided to flip to the end to see how long the essay was and I noticed some interesting-looking endnote-type things there, although there weren’t any endnote numbers. I looked a little more closely and realized that the endnotes explained where he got his material from — and that much of the essay was plagiarized. I just now looked over the essay to write about it and realized that the essay is subtitled “A Plagiarism.” A big clue I missed, right?
That made the essay even more fun to read because from that point on, I kept flipping back and forth to see what was original Lethem and what was plagiarized. I had to laugh at myself for really liking a certain line that I later found out is plagiarized from the introduction to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, something I’ve read multiple times and should have remembered:
Invention, it must be humbly admitted, does not consist in creating out of the void but out of chaos.
That’s a good sentence to steal for my class on creativity, I think.
Lethem has taken big chunks of text from lots of different sources; I don’t really know what percentage of the essay is from other people, but that percentage is pretty high. But the essay isn’t really plagiarized, obviously, since he documents where his quotations come from pretty carefully. He also says the whole idea of writing a “collage text” isn’t new to him — of course.
One of the most interesting ideas in the essay is about how art participates in a gift economy, in addition to the market economy — the economy we are used to thinking of where things are bought and sold. The difference between the two is that “a gift establishes a feeling-bond between two people, whereas the sale of a commodity leaves no necessary connection.” We buy things and feel no connectedness to the salesperson, but when we receive a gift, there is an emotional connection between us and the giver.
Art participates in both these economies at once — it can be bought and sold, obviously; we buy books, tickets to plays, and paintings to hang on our wall. But it also means something to us beyond that:
Art that matters to us — which moves the heart, or revives the soul, or delights the senses, or offers courage for living, however we choose to describe the experience — is received as a gift is received.
The way art participates in both kinds of economies is complicated, but what it means is that while art is a commodity, it can’t be fully reduced to a commodity. The problem with copyright laws as they exist now is that they push art too close to commodity status and try to negate the gift element of it:
But if it is true that in the essential commerce of art a gift is carried by the work from the artist to his audience, if I am right to say that where there is no gift there is no art, then it may be possible to destroy a work of art by converting it into a pure commodity. I don’t maintain that art can’t be bought and sold, but that the gift portion of the work places a constraint upon our merchandising.
Interesting, isn’t it? Should I give Lethem credit for these ideas? Who knows.