Monday, February 5, 2007

The unbearable length of this blog entry is my way of compensating for what will surely be a lackluster oral history of my own. So, you know, get excited.

I think I’m going to talk mostly about Jonathan Lethem’s thing. The first lady I ever loved, and perhaps the only, I’m still not sure, gave me Lethem’s Motherless Brooklyn when I was a junior in high school. I read it with the unnerving fervor of a lad who wants to like a book in order to legitimize his love for a lady out of his league. I wanted to like it, but I didn’t. The novel deals with an orphan with Tourette’s syndrome who grows up to become a private detective. I know, lame. After finishing the book, I didn’t feel like I had a much better sense of Tourette’s. Lethem doesn’t have that particular syndrome, so perhaps he couldn’t help it. Still, maybe I’m old-fashioned, but I feel like that’s sort of an obligation of a book like this one. A novel is a genre where the novelist has infinite agency, so Tourette’s is a choice for JL. He took a risk by working it in and I don’t think it panned out. Really, the only concrete thing I remember from that book is the protagonist’s “fist-like penis.” And I remember it because it’s the kind of description I hate: it’s evocative at the expense of being illuminating. It’s a weird image, but it doesn’t help you visualize his grenis. And nothing ruins a good book like the hauntingly beautiful image of a wang that the mind’s eye cannot render due to a lack of grounding in reality.

That was all a long way of saying I don’t fully trust Jonathan Lethem’s creative instincts.

Anyway, to me, Lethem’s argument follows the form of, say, a chemistry equation that needs to be balanced or else it collapses into untruth. On one side of the equals sign are the artists and their financiers, eager for incentive to take the risks that inspire the plebes. On the other side are the plebes, waiting for more and cheaper intellectual property to shunt into their tireless mouths. I don’t think he puts the proper coefficients into this equation, so it rings false to me. He makes a good point about our ancestral legacy and the foolishness of claiming anything as original. But come on. When you write a novel of 100,000 words, a lot of them are going to deviate from any other novel, regardless of what sublimated memories you’re harboring against your will.

I have a very real concern about people who would not turn to art if you couldn’t make a living from it. There are some citizens of our world who love producing art and would do it for its own sake, no matter what the sacrifice. But what about the huge stacks of people who want to create, but care more about the less glamorous but undeniably mammalian drives of food, water, shelter and caring for their young? I fit squarely into that latter category. As a young teen, no one spoke to me louder than Metallica, who have emphatically proven that their spine-busting riffs are at least partially fueled by the Benjamins. How do artists make a living without intellectual property? It’s a question that Lethem doesn’t answer to my satisfaction, not even in 12,000 words. You’d think he could have just plagiarized someone who had the answer and then smugly acknowledged it at the end.

Also: I’m not certain about the numbers of Jonathan Lethem’s contracts, but I suspect that he’s a successful enough writer that he doesn’t need to move even one more paperback for his kids to go to whatever school they want. I could be wrong, but let’s assume I’m not. Therefore, his giving away of his stories—mind you, not the ones that were deemed good enough for publication, the ones that stand to profit him directly—is kind of a hollow gesture, especially given the preachy and prescriptive nature of it. Lethem tempers this full-on open source attitude in the last lines of his essay, asking the reader to respect the sanctity of his additions, but to freely draw inspiration from them. Well, OK, thanks. I’ll be sure to shoehorn a fist-penis into my next piece, Jon. The stand Lethem takes here is ambiguous; how would he feel about Motherless Brooklyn fan fiction?

Oh, one more thing. Lethem discusses how stealing a purse is different than downloading a song. That’s true. But if someone were to appropriate or sample pieces of that song and weave them into a new song, it is entirely possible to cheapen the original work. Let’s use the popular example of Mickey Mouse. Suppose that as soon as he was created, he was fair game. Mickey’s popularity would lead to immediate saturation of Mickey Mouse. Within five years, he would be overexposed; do you think we’ll be watching Star Wars Kid in 2077? Now in these past 80 years, Mickey Mouse has become iconic. If you ask me to, I will tell you the tale of an intelligent, ostensibly grown man who loves nothing more than Disney Mythology and happily conducts the Disneyland jungle cruise for $7.35 an hour. You may not like Mickey because he symbolizes a corporate brand or the gluttonous status quo of intellectual property. I don’t care for him either. But he has attained a greater position in our cultural consciousness under the stewardship of Walt Disney than he would have if the right to exploit his likeness was freely distributed to the seething hordes of unwashed hacks. Would Emperor Hirohito have treasured his Mickey Mouse watch if ten thousand crappy cartoons had been spat out in the late ‘20s? And, you know, maybe every cartoon was voiced differently, and some of the voices were bad and unexpressive, and others didn’t synch well with the cels, some of which didn’t really even look like Mickey.

I submit that Emperor Hirohito would not have worn that watch.

I should also mention that I have no real experience in this arena. I work on a humor magazine that freely borrows from copyrighted material, but we shield ourselves with the fair use clause that permits parody. But the Kevlar plating of fair use is nothing compared to the stealth technology of being such a podunk operation that The Cheesecake Factory couldn’t give two shits about whether or not the Chappie intimates that they use slave labor in their cheesecake refineries. So maybe in the future when the righteous indignation of a man denied his jokes by joyless copyright holders sings in my veins, I’ll reverse field on this. One never can tell.

The father of Motherless Brooklyn also cites neurology, which doesn’t prove anything. Similar parts of the brain light up. So what. Did you know that they don’t even do studies on left-handed people? Lefties aren’t in any of the experiments because they’re wired completely differently and would shank the data. We lefties are a complete fucking mystery to neurologists, who are alarmingly incurious about us. We lefties die seven years earlier than right-handed people on average. That’s a bigger difference than between men and women. And yet science doesn’t give a tinker’s dam about the ol’ southern paw. Don’t mind us, we’ll just keep on swerving the wrong way and dying in car wrecks.

Ahem. Lethem finishes up with a clever rhetorical ploy; the final fourth of his piece consists of frank, dutiful citations to the authors he plagiarized, which takes you completely by surprise when your only guide to the remaining verbiage are the two shades of grey that are the Firefox scroll bar. But how about another novel approach: Recognize that you’re tempted to use these literary lions’ words and then don’t plagiarize them. People with papers due have been using this system for centuries. Why can’t Jonathan Lethem?

Then again, like all things we seem to look at in this course, it boils down to a definition, in this case, plagiarism. Jonathan Lethem would have me believe that Love Actually plagiarizes Jane Eyre, for all intents and purposes. I’m not so quick to throw down that scarlet ‘P.’ Perhaps for that reason, I’m not so willing to label the whole realm of creative endeavor as one big plagiaristic swinger party. No one owns “courtship story, with complications.” But I do think you should own your own particular permutation of words, your epigrams and your characters.

Now, as for oral history…

This American Life has been probably the happiest discovery of college for me. The driving force behind the NPR show, as I perceive it, is the idea that there are billions of fantastic stories out there that are held by people who are perhaps not best equipped to tell them. Adam expressed a beautiful idea in that technology removes the need for summarization, in that it allows, say, every soldier in Iraq to tell his story. That’s very cool, but it’s sort of an archivist’s way of looking at things. The reality, or at least my reality, is that we need some sort of choosing process. I would no sooner hear every Iraq narrative than I would go through YouTube alphabetically. And that’s kind of the beauty of This American Life. I trust Ira Glass and associates to pick good stories and polish them until they’re great, with the help of incidental Mark Mothersbaugh music.

A specific episode I want to talk about is Before It Had A Name. (I can't link directly becaust it's a javascript hing and I'm not good enough, so just scroll down or Ctrl-F your way there). Listen or don’t. It’s the perfect thing to do while folding laundry, however, so if you have a hot, fresh pile, you might as well throw this bad girl on. All TALs are oral history, but this one is oral history about oral history. The first act of this ep chronicles a man who was among the first to interview Holocaust survivors. A lot of fascinating stuff emerges, one small detail of which is the undeveloped vocabulary about the Holocaust that the interviewer had to work with. Both the journalist and his subjects feel obliged to refer to “The Auschwitz Labor Camp” rather than the modern colloquial “Auschwitz.” A woman he interviews relates the “Work will set you free” sentence etched over the gates of Auschwitz in a matter-of-fact way, devoid of the bitter irony we’ve developed since then. This journalist—an amateur, mind you, whose real job escapes me at the moment—died penniless and unlauded. All in all, it reminds me of that Civil War daguerreotypist that Adam talked about. They were both guys who crawled down deep into the pain, using the chronicling powers of new technology to record stuff that was too real for the public.

I am also going to relate the saddest thing I have ever heard, because it pertains to This American Life and also oral history. I wish I could point you to the episode, but I can’t remember it. A young boy’s father was away, working to support his family. Every week, the boy recorded a tape for his father. It was essentially a letter, just a kid discussing snips, snails, puppy dog tails, etc. That was Side A. Side B was left blank, for his father to record on and send back to him. There would be a wonderful circularity and wholeness there, you see; this was the auditory equivalent of a father-son fishing trip. But father crapped the bed. Father received every tape and never once recorded his side or mailed it back. For like 5 years and 200 tapes. Decades later, son confronted father about this with the distinctly un-Povich-like Ira Glass moderating. I think a song from the Rushmore soundtrack played in the background.
(I have to paraphrase this, but I'm being faithful.)
Son asked father, “How come you never sent anything back to me?”
Father replied, “Oh geez, I don’t know, I guess I was going through a tough time.”
I don’t know.

That is The Saddest Thing.


Lauren said...

This post is missing a title. I nominate "Penis Fist."

Adam said...

I agree with much of this post, especially the heroic mission of This American Life. I, too, was disappointed by Motherless Brooklyn, mostly because of genre issues that come from mashing the coming of age novel with detective noir--I really, really wanted it to work, but no.

I'm certainly not against an artist making a living off his or her work; one of my concerns is that there's little room between "all rights reserved" and "no rights reserved." Look at how hard it is for Lethem to play in both worlds.