Here’s my question: Are Lewis Hyde, author of Common as Air: Revolution, Art, and Ownership, and David Shields, who wrote the controversially provocative Reality Hunger, actually on the same page? But I couldn’t get Hyde to weigh in about Shields in last week’s Q and A at the Los Angeles Public Library. He said he was ‘familiar’ with Reality Hunger but he didn’t want to talk about it. Hyde, who also wrote The Gift, was at the Central Library downtown for the ALOUD series, in conversation with director Peter Sellars, who described Hyde’s prose with words like deep, thoughtful, delicate, and graceful. Hyde himself was self-deprecating – articulate and funny, but sweetly embarrassed by the attention, it seemed. There was a genuine “aw shucks” aura wafting off the guy, and a bohemian affect I wouldn’t have predicted, dressed as he was in a drapey velvet jacket, whose long wing-like lapels he played with in his lap for most of the program. Sellars, meanwhile, is nothing if not persistent; not that Hyde was withholding exactly – but his ideas as revealed in the book are perhaps not easily encapsulated. So, for instance, Sellars would ask about a specific chapter, and Hyde would demur – “… but that chapter is 40 pages long” – then, Sellars, undeterred, would fine-tune question after question so as to get to the anecdotes he was after. In that way he managed to get Hyde to cover a lot of ground in an hour’s time, about the implications of intellectual copyright; about the importance of public access and discourse; about not just freedom of expression, but what Hyde called ‘freedom of listening’ – that is, our right to hear, absorb, and integrate the ideas of others with our own. In spite of the values on which our country was founded, he argued, we are now determined to sacrifice the greater good to individual gain, having not much to do with protecting integrity or originality of vision, but rather with insuring exclusive commercial reward. “What don’t we have to pay for?” asked Hyde, and he told a story about a Russian artist who’d used Mickey Mouse in one his paintings only to have the Disney corporation make him take it off the gallery wall; as if the artist were claiming he’d invented Mickey – as if he meant to deceive us or to cheat Walt.
Hyde reminded his audience that Bob Dylan wouldn’t be Bob Dylan, if he hadn’t freely borrowed the inflections of other artists in and out of the public domain. He quoted Benjamin Franklin, who said, “I’ve never taken ownership in my ideas; to do so would sour the temper.” Also Goethe, who wrote, “My work is the work of a collective being that bears the name of Goethe.”
And why did I ask about Shields? Because Reality Hunger, a ‘manifesto’ for nonfiction as the wave of the literary future, has created all kinds of tumult in the writing community; not just because it argues that fiction is dead (hogwash), but because it’s a purposeful hodge podge in which Shields uses the work of other writers without quotation marks or attributions; word is, he was forced by his publisher to list his citations, which he did, reluctantly – all the while insisting that he shouldn’t have to – in small-print footnotes at the very end of the book.
Look, it’s one thing to offer a mock-up of Armani for a fraction of the price (see Johanna Blakley’s good talk for TED, “Lessons from Fashion’s Free Culture”).
Perfectly acceptable – even a good idea – to imitate and incorporate the stylings of Woody Guthrie, or Martha Graham, or Paul Cezanne – that is to pay homage to the masters by allowing their work to inform ours.
Fine to speak in famous aphorisms, if that’s your wont.
Even a hoot to enter “The Bad Hemingway Contest” if you’re so inclined.
But to pass off somebody else’s poetry – her actual voice – as your own? (Hey, remember Milli Vanilli?) That gets my back up. I’m thinking that’s not ok. And, I admit, I wanted to hear Hyde say so.
But, though he’d earlier remarked that he wasn’t advocating for plagiarism, he wouldn’t play. So what to do with my righteous outrage? Well – at some point in their conversation, Sellars asked Hyde to talk about “the place you write from.” Hyde considered, and then: “Where you get angry,” he said, “ is one of the places where you know who you are.” But he added that, “anger doesn’t have staying power.” Worth quoting, right? And worth keeping in mind.