I really like this article by Kenneth Goldsmith on ‘Uncreative Writing‘ – it has some intriguing ideas (and it references Lethem’s ‘Ecstasy of Influence’ which is a favourite essay of mine). It’s not all uncontentious, even if you’re me and you like meta and postmodernism, but it is worth thinking about.
I’m interested in the moment where he talks about James Frey and J.T. Leroy (neither of whom I’ve read), and says:
Imagine all the pains that could have been avoided had Frey or Leroy taken a Koonsian tack from the outset and admitted that their strategy was one of embellishment, with dashes of inauthenticity, falseness, and unoriginality thrown in. But no.
It’s an interesting point – but if they’d done that they’d have written different books – both in their minds and in the minds of their readers. It’s worth thinking about why readers *want* the kind of work that Frey produced – and what they’d have got that was different if he had presented it as literary fiction a postmodern approach to autobiography (whatever the heck that would look like, ‘A Staggering Work of Heartbreaking Genius’, probably). I imagine an entirely different set of people would have read it, and enjoyed it for an entirely different set of reasons.
It seems to me that there’s a difference between using ‘uncreativity’ or plagiarism where the audience knows that this kind of creative practice (because it is a creative practice) is likely to exist and using it where the audience doesn’t – a situation where it effectively deceives, even if it doesn’t mean to. I mean, I have no idea what James Frey’s motivation was – maybe he did intend to create an elaborate game where he pulled the rug out from under his readers, but outside the book. Maybe he just wanted to make a lot of money by writing in a genre (can you call it a genre?) where there’s a lot of money to be made. Personally, I think it’s a little unfair – just like I think academic plagiarism is unfair – because it makes the audience think they’re getting one thing, whilst giving them another, and not giving them the choice to buy into that experience. I like reading things that might pull the rug out – but not everyone likes reading the stuff I read. I also like to give credit, or see credit given – be it in acknowledgements listed at the end of a work (as Lethem’s essay does). You can do an awful lot that’s new and creative with things that you borrow from other people or are influenced by, and it becomes your own as you remake it, but you have to sneak in some acknowledgements. If James Frey had taken a set of circumstances, embellished them, written a barnstorming book, and let the reader in on the secret all within the text – then that would be a book that I’d be likely to read.