Tuesday, May 29, 2007


This is old news, but I finally got around to reading Jonathan Lethem’s much publicized, debated, lauded and criticized essay on the subject of plagiarism. It seems ludicrous that there is such privilege paid to the idea of originality when so little can be original. And if a seemingly singular voice comes around, chances are its influences are apparent, provided you peel back enough layers.

As many have pointed out, including Lethem, even the Bard was not above synthesizing things he read into his plays. Lethem cites Romeo and Juliet, but the most obvious example I have read is in The Tempest, wherein Willy bites off a big chunk of Montaigne’s “Of Cannibals.”

Like Marquez? Read Faulkner. Like Faulkner? Read Anderson. And so on. Yes, even my most cherished authors could be derivative at times. Arenas certainly studied his moderns, as well as Orwell and Kafka. Bulgakov, it is rumored, lifted some things for his masterwork, The Master and Margarita. And then there’s the whole Winterson by way of Woolf thing. None of this will get me to stop reading these wonderful writers.

The real question is not whether or not a writer or actor or musician is picking up other’s examples and running with them but whether they are doing a good job of it and, one hopes, placing their stamp on the old standby. God knows the Stones and Led Zeppelin copped their sound from American blues men. I’m not even going to talk about Quentin Tarantino. So why do we expect more from writers?

Anyway, Lethem does a better job than I am doing, so without further ado: