We Can Understand Why

“There is a lot more to discuss about ‘rights’ and ‘ownership’ of fictions and facts in a capitalist consumer society, the things that can and cannot be written about, and who can and cannot write them....Somehow we are encouraged, forced even, to stay (and think and write) within our own little boxes. Sadly.” -- David Peace.


Who have we the right to speak for? Who has the right to speak for us? Who owns our speech? Can I, a white male, say, speak for – speak as – a black, a woman? In 1839 in Paris, a workers’ paper, La Ruche Populaire, permitted only workers to write for it. We understand why, not just because we can’t write of what we are ignorant, but to presume to do so is to speak for someone who should speak for himself.


Yet every day writers copy and borrow from other writers, other lives. Shakespeare’s description of Cleopatra in his play is taken nearly verbatim from Plutarch. In defense of Ian McEwan’s novel, Atonement, which has been accused of misappropriating material, Thomas Pynchon argues, “Unless we were actually there, we must turn to people who were, or to letters, contemporary reporting, the encyclopedia, the Internet...to discover in the course of research some engaging detail we know we can put into a story.” Where else do we find detail or description, if we were not there?


Nevertheless the novelist has to be exact in his facts, Philip Roth says, wherever he gleans them, or no one will trust him as a writer. If you can’t see the Wrigley Building in Chicago from Michigan Avenue, you’ll be dismissed as a serious writer, no matter what you might say about people or life. Put Roth against Franz Kafka’s Amerika, whose research for the book consisted of several travel brochures. When Karl Rossman, Kafka’s hero, arrives in New York, he spies the Statue of Liberty with her sword raised high.


A writer may transform a text in his use of it. Ron Johnson has taken Milton’s Paradise Lost and whited out letters and words to create his own poem. Milton’s Paradise Lost has become Johnson’s Radi Os. Kathy Acker made Don Quixote in her version of his life a woman. “The act of describing,” Acker writes, “assumes one event can be a different event....If you changed the context of the text you therefore changed the text.”


The recent concerns in the last several years over plagiarism have come about, in part, because the freedom and democracy of the Internet have made it problematic for copyright – ownership – to be enforced. However, they have also surfaced because the control of data, information, and language increasingly is power. In William Gibson’s science fiction novel, Neuromancer, information and data in the future are like oil today, coal and steel in the last century. He who controls them controls the world; their ownership, as Peace suggests, is power.


As writers we have to understand that our rights extend beyond those of political correctness, capitalist consumption or governmental hegemony. At the same time, we have to own what we write. (Secretary of State Colin Powell told President Bush that the Iraq War was like a purchase in a store; if you break it, you own it.) If this means writing about what we cannot or should not write about, then we must do so, as T. J. Clark argued Impressionist painters had to do when they painted laborers, prostitutes, peasants – the wretched of the earth. “If it was impossible to paint the proletariat,” Clark writes, “it was equally impossible to paint anything else.”
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Volume 3, Issue 5, Posted