Over at the LA Times great book blog, Jacket Copy Carolyn Kellogg writes about another case of appropriation, this time with somewhat more of a positive spin than others I've mentioned here in the past (as an aside, although I myself have (sort of) likened literary appropriation to Hip Hop, it is nonetheless a little disconcerting to find it derogated as "sampling" (for the record, she takes care not to leave it at "sampling")-- you know, something for the kids, which apparently is how the issue is being handled in Germany-- if only because it ignores the fact that appropriation isn't particularly innovative or new: it is the technology that is new (which Ms. Kellogg does acknowledge), and the idea of copyright that is -innovative-).
Ms. Kellogg makes reference to the great Jonathan Lethem essay, The Ecstasy of Influence that appeared in Harper's a few years ago (and that I feel certain I have mentioned here at some point), and takes Mr. Lethem's point to be that "borrowing and rebuilding are desirable, even unavoidable elements of creation in our postmodern era." She argues that attribution is sufficient, perhaps necessary, to the process, and I do not disagree with her; if "everyone [is to] win" all of their tickets should be in the drawing.
One wonders, of course, if this is all a question of degree: as the recent J. D. California case demonstrated, when this sort of appropriation becomes a kind of "cover version," it is no longer tolerated (or is it only that Hegemann's book hasn't been published in the litigious and copyright-crazy US yet?). Certainly, California went out of his way to acknowledge his debt to Salinger, from his pen-name to the creation of a character named Salinger, and yet, he was met with a less-than-friendly reception; certainly not the reception that Hegemann's appropriation has so far met with. But what, precisely, is the difference? How can we fairly judge intention, even with attribution?
Is attribution merely placatory? Do we offer it up as token payment, no matter how reverent the token? I do not say that one ought to ignore attribution, just that it often seems somehow flaccid. Do we really want/have to know? If all novels came with the author's reading list, would anyone be likely to actually read every book on it, trying to source where and how the ideas and language came into it? Would that add anything to the experience of reading it? These aren't necessarily rhetorical questions, but look at the liner notes from a P Diddy album (or Kanye West, or any other relatively "big," sample-happy rap artist): is that really what we want to see on every artwork, from here on out? Or is it enough that that information be implicit in the borrowing itself? Homer didn't preface his telling of the Odyssey with a list of sources, though he obviously didn't make it up out of whole-cloth. He just invoked the Muse and moved on. Is there a modern-day equivalent out there?