Everybody loves a train wreck. This one started when Jonathan Lethem came barreling down the tracks with an essay in Harper’s called “The Ecstasy of Influence,” in which most of the lines were cribbed from other sources and then ingeniously stitched together to argue in favor of appropriation and against the tired old 20th-century notion that an artist owns what he or she makes – that dinosaur known as copyright. Then right behind him on the same tracks came David Shields with last year’s sensational freight train of a book, Reality Hunger: A Manifesto, an expanded echo of Lethem’s themes made up of a pastiche of Shields’s own words and the words of many other artists. Among Shields’s words: “Reality-based art hijacks its material and doesn’t apologize.”
Then suddenly – watch out! – along came the little engine that could, Marco Roth chuffing down the tracks in the opposite direction with an essay in the journal n+1 called “Throwback Throwdown,” in which he set out to derail the two speeding locomotives. He called Shields’s book “an authentic act of copying” that fits snugly into the “pervasive and growing fantasy of the writer as hip-hop DJ.” Roth added, “To a certain kind of white writer, engaged in the increasingly professionalized and seemingly ‘nice’ work of churning out novels, poems, essays and reviews, the rapper DJ comes to stand for this brazen, unapologetic appropriator, regardless of whether actual rappers think of themselves as heroes of ‘copyleft,’ Proudhonists of the ghetto.”
Once the collision took place, as you can imagine, there was a lot of twisted metal on the tracks. But before the smoke cleared, an actual rapper, the superstar Jay-Z, plowed into the debris with a book called Decoded that cleverly turned the train wreck upside-down by showing how a master of an art form built on appropriation uses old-school literary techniques and a quaint thing called imagination to write lyrics that bristle with originality and socially potent meaning. For good measure, Jay-Z tells the story about the time he stabbed a rival for stealing his music. Train wrecks don’t get any more perfect than this.
Which brings us to the fun part. Now we get to sift through the wreckage, counting bodies and looking for survivors.
I just found a survivor. It’s Michel Houellebecq, the baddest bad boy in French lit today. All this racket about copyright and appropriation (or bricolage, sampling, collage, poaching, rip-off, homage, plagiarism, call it what you will) – it bloodied him a bit but he’s actually in excellent shape. His latest novel, The Map and the Territory, was an instant smash – until someone pointed out that Houellebecq had lifted several uncredited passages almost verbatim from Wikipedia and other websites, including an entry on how flies have sex. The bad boy went ballistic when the word “plagiarism” was uttered. “If those people really think that (this is plagiarism), they haven’t the first notion of what literature is,” he fumed. “This is part of my method. This approach, muddling real documents and fiction, has been used by many authors. I have been influenced especially by Perec and Borges… I hope that this contributes to the beauty of my books, using this kind of material.” The novel wound up winning France’s prestigious Prix Goncourt.
Sitting next to Houellebecq, also battered but in remarkably good shape, is a German teenager named Helene Hegemann. Her novel about Berlin nightclub kids, Axolotl Roadkill, was a best-seller in Germany last year and was nominated for a major prize at the Leipzig Book Fair. Then word got out that she had lifted passages from several other sources. After admitting to “thoughtlessness” and “narcissism,” an unrepentant Hegemann told Die Welt newspaper: “But for me personally, it doesn’t matter at all where people get their material. What matters is what they do with it. If my novel is interpreted as representing our times, then it has to be recognized that the novel was created in accord with what we saw in the last decade – that is, with the rejection of all those copyright excesses and the embrace of a right to copy and to transform.” The newsmagazine Der Spiegel agreed, comparing Axolotl Roadkill to Naked Lunch and Manhattan Transfer: “Everything from newspaper articles to ads to all kinds of other texts are embedded in these foundational works of literary modernism.” In a statement released by her publisher, Hegemann added, “There’s no such thing as originality anyway, just authenticity.”
James Frey is slumped in a seat across the aisle. He’s not going to make it. As far as Shields and Lethem are concerned, his fatal mistake was not that he fabricated much of his “memoir,” A Million Little Pieces; it was that he went on TV and apologized for it and, to prove his contrition, allowed Oprah to pillory him publicly. He forgot the First Commandment of the 21st Century: “Reality-based art hijacks its material and doesn’t apologize.” Frey is toast.
Jay-Z came through without a scratch, of course, which brings us to this train wreck’s central irony. The makers of popular music have been brazen and fruitful plunderers for many years because, let’s face it, there are only so many ways to arrange a simple melody and only so many ways to say “I love you” or “It’s over” or “You tore my heart out and stomped that sucker flat.” While blues and jazz artists and practitioners of other more saccharine forms of pop music have been borrowing for years, hip-hop DJs were perhaps the first to revel in their piracy, though they made a point of dressing it up with the lofty word “sampling.” Being a pirate, an outlaw, a gangsta has always been central to the rapper’s pose. Jay-Z didn’t need to do a lot of posing, it turns out, because he was an industrious purveyor of cocaine long before he transformed himself into a one-man corporation.
The source of Decoded’s fascination, for me, is not the author’s projects-to-the-penthouse biographical arc, nor his tales of hustling drugs and hobnobbing with Russell Simmons and Bono and starting his own clothing line and helping turn Cristal champagne into a bling brand. The book’s fascination comes from three very different and very surprising sources.
First, it’s beautifully made – lavish illustrations, clever layouts and ingenious use of fonts, quality paper, plus a Warhol on the cover. Second, and most importantly, the book allows us to peek into the tent of Jay-Z’s creative process. He begins with his epiphany, the day he heard a kid named Slate rhyming couplet after couplet before a rapt, clapping audience at the Marcy projects in Brooklyn. Jay-Z writes that he “felt like a planet pulled into orbit by a star.” That day he started writing rhymes feverishly in a spiral notebook and poring over the dictionary to expand his vocabulary. (This brings to mind Lewis Hyde’s contention: “Most artists are converted to art by art itself.”)
Decoded illustrates its author’s creative process by laying out song lyrics on one page, then on the facing page letting Jay-Z deconstruct (decode) the sources and meanings of the lyrics through elaborate footnotes. It’s a revelation. On one drug-selling run to New Jersey, for instance, here’s how he describes his crew watching television while they work – Watchin Erik Estrada baggin up at the Ramada. In the corresponding footnote he writes: “There are a lot of motel references in my songs. Hotels are where a lot of our work got done, where we bagged our powder.”
There’s a telling reference to the made-up selves of rappers. The lyric “They’re all actors” is limned like this: “When I say that rappers are actors, I mean it in two ways: first, a lot of them are pretending to be something they’re not outside the booth; second, it also means that those who are being real often use a core reality as a basis for a great fantasy, the way a great method actor like DeNiro does.”
Street slang is dissected. “Spike Lees” are “the best seats in the house – in this case whether it’s at the arena or in the jet.” “Sprees” are “custom rims that have internal discs that spin when the car stops, named after Latrell Sprewell… Fun for kids, but for grown-ups, a sign that you might be trying too hard.” Sometimes the reader absorbs the method without aid of footnotes, as when the words “breakfast,” “Lexus” and “necklace” cozy up to each other in a single couplet. Jay-Z freely acknowledges that he plundered his parents’ vinyl record collection, floor-to-ceiling stacks of Motown, pop, R&B, soul and funk, but the act of plundering led to his creative birth, not to mere mimicry. “We were kids without fathers,” he writes, “so we found our fathers on wax and on the streets and in history, and in a way, that was a gift. We got to pick and choose the ancestors who would inspire the world we were going to make for ourselves… Rap took the remnants of a dying society and created something new. Our fathers were gone, usually because they just bounced, but we took their old records and used them to build something fresh.”
The book’s elaborate footnotes demolish twin misconceptions: that rappers are merely brazen, unapologetic appropriators with nothing original to say; and there’s no longer such a thing as originality, just authenticity. Jay-Z, for one, does not see himself as a hero of “copyleft” or a Proudhonist of the ghetto. As he puts it, “I’m not a businessman. I’m a business, man.” He’s also a writer in the purest, oldest sense of the word – that is, he’s someone who uses his experiences, his influences and his skill with language to say something original and new.
I agree with what Michiko Kakutani wrote recently in the New York Times: “In the end, Decoded leaves the reader with a keen appreciation of how rap artists have worked myriad variations on a series of familiar themes (hustling, partying and ‘the most familiar subject in the history of rap — why I’m dope’) by putting a street twist on an arsenal of traditional literary devices (hyperbole, double entendres, puns, alliteration and allusions), and how the author himself magically stacks rhymes upon rhymes, mixing and matching metaphors even as he makes unexpected stream-of-consciousness leaps that rework old clichés and play clever aural jokes on the listener (‘ruthless’ and ‘roofless,’ ‘tears’ and ‘tiers,’ ‘sense’ and ‘since’).”
To say that rappers possess originality and that they rely on traditional literary devices is not to say that they don’t – or shouldn’t – borrow from other sources. And it’s not to say that writers of prose and poetry shouldn’t borrow from other writers of prose and poetry and, for that matter, from rappers and jazz musicians and newspaper reporters and advertising copywriters and absolutely anyone else. All art comes from art. To admit this is not to concede that there’s no such thing as originality any more than it’s a license to borrow without attribution and then call it your own. William S. Burroughs freely admitted that he cut up texts and re-arranged them and inserted the results in his novels. Michel Houellebecq is free to be influenced by Perec and Borges and Burroughs (and anyone else), but I think he’s making a mistake if he thinks copying from Wikipedia adds to the beauty of his books. He’s too good a writer to make such a lazy claim. And while I agree with Helene Hegemann that what matters is not where artists get their materials but what they do with them, I believe all artists need to give up the cheap crutch of claiming that since it’s all been done before, all they can hope to do is rearrange the familiar in some unfamiliar way and then call it “authenticity.” That trivializes art. And it’s stupid and wrong.
Back in 1992 Cormac McCarthy told an interviewer: “The ugly fact is, books are made out of books. The novel depends for its life on the novels that have been written.” That’s not to say that writers do nothing but steal from other writers; it is, rather, to admit that literature comes to us not through a writer’s unfiltered experience of life, but through that experience as filtered through the things the writer has read, as well as the things the reader has read.
In “The Ecstasy of Influence” Lethem writes, “The kernel, the soul – let us go further and say the substance, the bulk, the actual and valuable material of all human utterances – is plagiarism. For substantially all ideas are secondhand, consciously and unconsciously drawn from a million outside sources, and daily used by the garnerer with a pride and satisfaction born of the superstition that he originated them; whereas there is not a rag of originality about them anywhere except the little discoloration they get from his mental and moral caliber and his temperament, and which is revealed in characteristics of phrasing. Old and new make the warp and woof of every moment. There is no thread that is not a twist of these two strands. By necessity, by proclivity, and by delight, we all quote.”
Of course we all quote. But if quoting is all we do, then we don’t do very much. Shields and Lethem seem to acknowledge this without fully admitting it, because they do so much more than merely quote in Reality Hunger and “The Ecstasy of Influence.” As Roth put it in his essay in n+1: “Art may be theft, as Shields likes to quote Picasso, but it doesn’t follow that theft is art. Art is not ex-nihilo, but neither is it all ‘ready-mades.'” Precisely.
Lynne McTaggart, who won a plagiarism lawsuit against Doris Kearns Goodwin, acknowledged in the New York Times in 2002 that all writers are “relentless scavengers.” Then McTaggart added, “Writers don’t own facts. Writers don’t own ideas. All that we own is the way we express our thoughts… But it is important not to excuse the larger sins of appropriation. In this age of clever electronic tools, writing can easily turn into a process of pressing the cut and paste buttons, or gluing together the work of a team of researchers, rather than the long and lonely slog of placing one word after another in a new and arresting way.”
I think she’s right. Shouldn’t we expect novelists to do more than cut and paste Wikipedia descriptions of how flies have sex?
The third and final source of Decoded’s appeal is the revealing story Jay-Z tells about what happened the night of December 1, 1999 at New York’s Kit Kat Club. His album Vol. 3, Life and Times of S. Carter was not due to be released for a month, but bootlegged copies were already selling on the street. This infuriated Jay-Z. After all, he’s a business, man. He believes that he – and he alone – should get paid for the music he makes. When a rival record producer showed up at the club and admitted that he was behind the bootlegging, Jay-Z stabbed him twice.
This violent outburst left no doubt about Jay-Z’s opinion of people who hijack his material and don’t apologize – and take money out of his pocket while they’re at it. You might argue that bootlegging is more invasive than sampling, and that it goes way beyond the relatively benign forms of plagiarism Lethem and Shields so ingeniously espouse. In fact, Lethem admits as much in the closing lines of his essay: “Don’t pirate my editions; do plunder my visions. The name of the game is Give All. You, reader, are welcome to my stories. They were never mine in the first place, but I gave them to you. If you have the inclination to pick them up, take them with my blessing.”
It’s a seductive bill of goods, but you simply can’t have it both ways. You can’t say Pay me for what’s rightfully mine and feel free to rob me while you’re at it. Jay-Z, who understands the workings and the worth of originality, isn’t buying this bill of goods. Neither is Marco Roth. Neither am I.