All mankind is of one author, and is one volume; when one man dies, one chapter is not torn out of the book, but translated into a better language; and every chapter must be so translated….John Donne
Imagine a scale of influences upon a writer where at one extreme, a subtle unconscious return of a forgotten sentence or passage by a writer is used by another writer. At the mid-point of the scale, a writer quotes or reworks the words of another writer with due citation or acknowledgement. Lastly, at the other extreme, a writer copies or plagiarizes the work of another writer, without any citation or acknowledgement.
According to F. K Taylor the first is known as Cryptomnesia that he defines as the return of a memory without its being recognized as such by a writer who believes it is something new and original instead of the work of someone else.
In his widely discussed essay The Ecstasy of Influence, Jonathan Lethem suggests that many writers and artists may have exhibited a form of Cryptomnesia. “The history of literature is not without examples of this phenomenon…”
He wonders, for example, if Nabokov’s Lolita might in fact have been based on an unacknowledged memory of an almost identical tale written by Heinz von Lichberg published forty years before Nabokov’s novel. In addition, he claims unrecognized “appropriation” has occurred in a good deal of Dylan’s and other songwriter’s music.
David Shields recent “manifesto” Reality Hunger is an example a work that falls at the mid-point of influence where an author quotes or remixes the words of another writer with some citation or acknowledgement. Shield’s book is made of up 618 numbered sentences or paragraphs that are largely drawn from other sources. He claims that a collage of this sort overcomes the tedium and boredom in reading novels which he believes are outmoded and have come to the end of their line. We need to get this word out to all those devoted readers of literary fiction.
I read Shields book or more accurately I tried to read it and I found it utterly boring, indeed, I had to push myself to get from one sentence to the next and ended up skimming the second half as quickly as I could. Readers need or want or expect stories. As Joan Didion put it, “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” There is no story in Reality Hunger. And it is not especially edifying either.
While Shields did cite the sources of his quotations, he only did so at the insistence of his publisher in order to avoid allegations of copyright infringement. They are also placed at the end of the book that, in my view, greatly interferes with the reading experience in contrast to footnoting them on the same page where they are quoted.
At the other extreme are examples of outright plagiarism where a writer literally copies all or portions of the work of another writer without acknowledgement or citation. Lethem cites, as an example, William Burroughs’ Naked Lunch that he claims “incorporated snippets of other writers’ texts into his work, an action I knew my teachers would have called plagiarism.” Still Lethem admits this method did nothing to detract from the enormous excitement and thrill he experienced in reading the novel.
In the final analysis, most works of literature appear to be a “mélange” of quotation, remixing, and “original” writing. Can it be otherwise? It is all but impossible to know the sources of our ideas, what we draw upon in composing our work, or how we came to compose the lines we end up writing.
Giorgos Seferis, the Greek poet, put it this way: “Don’t ask who’s influenced me. A lion is made up of the lambs he’s digested, and I’ve been reading all my life.” And it may very be as Helene Hegemann, said in defense of her controversial novel, Axolotl Roadkill that incorporates a great many passages from other works, “There’s no such thing as originality anyway, just authenticity,”
Lethem concludes his essay on this note: Any text that has infiltrated the common mind to the extent of Gone With the Wind or Lolita or Ulysses inexorably joins the language of culture….The authors and their heirs should consider the subsequent parodies, refractions, quotations, and revisions an honor, or at least, the price of a rare success.
In the surprising and lengthy final section of his essay Lethem provides a Key that "names the source of every line I stole, warped, and cobbled together as I “wrote” (except, alas, those sources I forgot along the way)…Nearly every sentence I culled I also revised, at least slightly—for necessities of space, in order, to produce a more consistent tone, or simply because I felt like it.”
Note: I am indebted to Jonathan Lethem for the John Donne passage that he quoted in his essay, The Ecstasy of Influence, published initially in Harper’s Magazine, February 2007.