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Credit where credit's due.

In his beautifully crafted February criticism, "The Ecstasy of Influence," Jonathan Lethem teaches more about the importance of what I call "remix" than any other work I have read. Certainly more than my own work. It is not terribly difficult to pound out a thousand words espousing the value of synthetic creativity. I do it all the time. But it is extraordinarily difficult to do it by drawing upon the very creativity you seek to illustrate. A culture practiced in the skill Lethem demonstrates is one that understands itself. It knows its past. It understands subtle references. It expresses respect for those who have created by building upon their creativity in ways that extend it, or at least make it relevant, to a different time and different place.

But I confess I was troubled by the link between the creativity evinced in the essay and "plagiarism"--especially troubled when I found buried in the text the only sentence I have ever written that I truly like. (Which sentence will remain a mystery here.) I was troubled because the freedom that Lethem depends upon--the freedom to integrate and build upon the work of others--does not need the license the plagiarist takes. The rules against plagiarism, after all, require only that words borrowed be acknowledged as borrowed.

Creativity requires that the artist be free to borrow freely. It demands that he not be required to get permission in advance. But it does not require that he be allowed to hide an expression's borrowing. Whether ideas are borrowed is too hard to know. We should thus leave them alone. But it is not too much to demand that a beautiful (or ugly) borrowed sentence be wrapped in simple quotation marks.

But maybe Lethem's essay, with its careful end credits, teaches that, too. For his work can't help but force those on the side of this insane regulation to think again. I hope it also helps those at the other extreme to think again as well.

Lawrence Lessig

Professor of Law

Stanford Law School

Stanford, Calif.

After reading Jonathan Lethem's essay, I couldn't help but note that by truncating another person's words, one might then create mistakes. Take, for example, the attribution of "Beautiful as the chance encounter of a sewing machine and an umbrella on an operating table" to Andre Breton. In fact, as Breton and Christian Keathley (Lethem's source for the quote) point out, the simile was by the Comte de Lautreamont, one of many (and by no means the most striking) that festoon his Cantos of Maldoror. It was the same Lautreamont, this rime writing under his original name, Isidore Ducasse, who also made the apropos comment: "Plagiarism is necessary. Progress implies it. It closely grasps an author's sentence, uses his expressions, deletes a false idea, replaces it with the right one." And he should know: the book that contains this quote, Poesies, is itself largely composed of repurposed maxims from the great French moralists.

Mark Polizzotti


Thank you for Jonathan Lethem's fun and illuminating essay. I first clued in to the textual appropriations with "his" assertion that collage "might be called the art form of the twentieth century." Lethem confesses he got this idea from filmmaker Craig Baldwin. I, however, recognized the line from John Guare's play Six Degrees of Separation. Toward the end, one character asks another, "Did you see Donald Barthelme's obituary? He said collage was the art form of the twentieth century." Here, of course, the source is even more elusive. At any rate, the reply, I think, is apt: "Everything is somebody else's."

Dave Madden

Lincoln, Nebr.

Jonathan Lethem responds:

While assembling "The Ecstasy of Influence," I was faced with a decision: contact those still-living writers whose words I'd harvested, or allow them to discover my thefts after I'd published. I settled on the latter. An essay with all my samples "cleared" wouldn't mean as much. To risk some disgruntlement meant having the courage of my convictions and was part of the provocation I had intended. Besides, such reactions might extend the conversation in unexpected ways. I did, however, promise myself then that if I was confronted, whether in a private or a public way, and no matter how gently, I would apologize. I do apologize to Lawrence Lessig now, for a discomfort for which I take full responsibility.

Still, it strikes me that the yearning for a clear and universally applicable standard for plagiarism highlights an essential difference in temperament between a public advocate for reform like Lessig (who, let me be clear, is my personal hero among public advocates) and working artists wading in the glorious murk of overlapping forms and methods. A call for quotation marks suggests that an essay such as mine ought to be considered in the context of academic, scientific, or journalistic discourses--realms where standards of accurate citation are necessary and sensible. Perhaps my essay should be judged in that context. Yet in assembling it, I was aware of my own impulses to beguile, cajole, evoke sensation, and even to manipulate, impulses not so different from those underlying my novels and stories--or, I presume, those underlying the efforts of many creators in other realms.

Artists are, among other things, mischievous, and we should try to remember that we wish them to be. In songs, films, paintings, and much poetry, allusions and even direct quotations (whether acquired by digital means or otherwise) are subsumed within the voice of the artist who claims them. Citations come afterward, if at all. There are no quotation marks around the elements in a Robert Rauschenberg collage or around Quentin Tarantino's swipes from lesser-known movies. And T. S. Eliot's "The Waste Land" has only endnotes--which, I suspect, are much less often read than the poem itself.
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Author:Lessig, Lawrence; Polizzotti, Mark; Madden, Dave; Lethem, Jonathan
Publication:Harper's Magazine
Article Type:Letter to the editor
Date:Apr 1, 2007
Previous Article:Findings.
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