Art, Information, Theft, and Confusion, Part Two

Continued from Part One

i. Influence

A long time ago now, discussing my book The Lathe of Heaven, I called it “a homage to Philip K. Dick” (who was then not the culture hero he has become, but a science fiction writer scorned as such by the American literary establishment, and honored mostly within the genre and in France). I said that when an art was healthy, a lot of borrowing usually went on in it, citing the period when musical invention fizzed through Europe from Handel to Haydn to Boccherini to Mozart, with composers freely emulating, borrowing, and improving on one another’s styles and technical inventions, even alluding to one another’s tunes, though not copying any actual composition. I took it as a sign of the health of science fiction that there was the same kind of interchange of techniques and subjects going on it, a lively, open, conscious exchange of artistic and intellectual ideas, everybody learning from everybody else.

I learned a lot from Phil Dick. I own the debt freely and with some pride. I told him about it, too. We were aware that we were influencing each other in some ways, aware of an area of similarity in what we were trying to do, and exchanged ideas about that, and about writing, in our letters.

Probably the biggest thing I learned from Phil was what now seems obvious but didn’t then: that you can incorporate Eastern mysticism into a Western novel without playing guru or getting woowoo. Matter-of-fact taoism, middle-class yin-yang. He had pulled it off superbly several times. I tried my own version of it in The Lathe of Heaven, and it worked for me too.

I’m trying to bring out the difference between copying a text into your own work, and applying techniques learned from a text to your own work.

Then there’s the difference between imitation and emulation. It’s subtler, but really it’s almost as clear as the difference between copying a text and being influenced by it. In Lathe of Heaven I emulated Phil Dick, but what did I imitate from him? Nothing, as far as I know. None of my characters is Phildickian. The taoism of George’s character and of the book is not Phildickian, it’s taoist. I had a yearning to put in a talking taxicab, but I couldn’t — talking taxicabs belonged to Phil. Anyhow, I knew mine would never be as funny as his.

So, then, what’s the difference between being influenced by a body of work and admitting it, and being influenced by a body of work and not admitting it?

This last is the situation, as I see it, between my A Wizard of Earthsea and J.K.Rowling’s Harry Potter. I didn’t originate the idea of a school for wizards — if anybody did it was T.H.White, though he did it in single throwaway line and didn’t develop it. I was the first to do that. Years later, Rowling took the idea and developed it along other lines. She didn’t plagiarize. She didn’t copy anything. Her book, in fact, could hardly be more different from mine, in style, spirit, everything. The only thing that rankles me is her apparent reluctance to admit that she ever learned anything from other writers. When ignorant critics praised her wonderful originality in inventing the idea of a wizards’ school, and some of them even seemed to believe that she had invented fantasy, she let them do so. This, I think, was ungenerous, and in the long run unwise.

I’m happier with writers who, perhaps suffering less from the famous “anxiety of influence,” have enough sense of their own worth to appreciate their predecessors and fellow-workers in the saltmines of literature.

The whole history of a literature and of every genre within it is a chain of influences, inventions shared, discoveries made common, techniques adopted and adapted. Must I say again that this has absolutely nothing to do with copying texts, with stealing stuff?

Michael Chabon’s lighthanded, lighthearted riffs on various genres and individual authors such as Conan Doyle and Fritz Leiber are genuine homages. He’s not ripping anybody off. He’s not grinding out the thirtieth lifeless, plodding imitation of Tolkien. He’s not pretending to be original by hiding his sources or by boasting of his authenticity as a plagiarist. His sources are perfectly, radiantly obvious. He takes techniques and tropes and props of familiar genres or authors and plays with them, openly. He doesn’t steal them. He recombines them, he truly recreates them, in his own highly original, inventive, and authentic terms. This is pretty much the opposite of “mix-and-match” copying.

ii. Authenticity

Sharing and stealing carry very different moral weight. Sharing is a virtue, stealing a crime. We excuse theft only on the plea of extreme need — real poverty. And I wonder if a vast poverty of imagination is at the root of the excuses made for piracy and plagiarism.

The word authentic means “of undisputed origin.” (So that’s why so many Mexican restaurants in the United State are autentico!) It’s hard to see how stealing bits of other people’s stories and passing them off as your own is a proof of authenticity.

I guess if you’re 17 years old and having your Warholian fifteen minutes of fame, and a prize jury and the New York Times and lots of trendy people tell you you’re awesome, it’s hard not to say the hell with honest poverty, take the money, and run, boasting over your shoulder of how authentic you are… That, however, does not excuse the jurors or the Times. I’d like to hear their arguments for, rather than mere assertion of, the authenticity of Hegeman’s text.

I’d like to read a plausible defense of text-theft as not only legitimate but creative. I have read such defenses, but did not find them plausible. Citations from Deconstructionist theories of criticism, the application of which to the actual reading of texts still awaits demonstration, don’t convince me.

iii. Sharing worlds

Where do “shared worlds” come in? I have no problem whatever with spin-offs, books based on films or TV series, where the worlds and characters were invented largely by teamwork in the first place. I find stories in which the writer uses locales and characters invented by another writer don’t interest me, but I don’t expect others to share my discomfort. It’s probably a symptom of my own active territoriality as an artist. When invited to open Earthsea to anybody who wanted to write an “Earthsea story,” my reaction has been instant and dragonlike: Out! Out! This is my place! Go make up your own damn islands!

(I wish I had said that to the film-makers who wanted to make an “Earthsea movie” … but my territoriality concerns words only, and so I let them do it. If only their movies had had anything to do with Earthsea!)

Many fantasists are happy to invite other writers to use their worlds for fun and profit, and if it’s fine with them, what can be the harm? It seems to me a rather low level of invention, but comfortable, even cosy. It’s kind of like kids re-enacting books, like when my brother and I used to be Robin Hood and Little John (straight out of our edition with the great Wyeth pictures) with quarterstaffs, on the board across the ditch. Have at thee, varlet!

When the imaginary world and its characters have belonged to a lot of readers for a long time, when they are part of our common literary heritage, I have no problem whatever with “sharing” them. In fact we keep the classic texts alive by bringing them into our own time in our own terms, not only by translation but by borrowing, retelling and recreating. If we couldn’t draw on all the great epics and classic plays for plot, character, episode, reference, we’d be really and truly impoverished. And there, it seems to me, because those texts have to be brought into our own time and language and understanding, there’s no question of theft. They are our true commons. We can all pasture our goats there. I based my novel Lavinia closely on part of Vergil’s Aeneid, and even put Vergil in as a character, because I wanted to honor him and he seemed to belong in the story, which couldn’t have existed without his story, after all.

It would be utterly different, to my mind, if I took a plot from The Lord of the Rings and put Tolkien in it as a character. Tolkien’s book may well become a world classic, a story known to all, the shared property of all who hear or read it, a true commons — but that takes a while to happen. Before it’s happened, using his words or his plot or his person is mere theft from the Tolkien estate, mere exploitation of fame.

Influence is a wonderful thing. You could almost say that the whole Romance genre for years took place on the moors near Wuthering Heights.

iv. Games, interactives, and visions

What about games that use a novel-world and its characters? The reduction of a novel to a game seems to me a basic error, a sterile attempt to crossbreed species. Games are wonderful things in their own right, and ought to be invented in their own right. Stories aren’t games, and the more they resemble them the weaker they are as stories.

The complex role games that are played jointly, and played to play, not to win, are excellent entertainment, but still, I don’t think they result in story — not without changing the rules from game rules to story options. Any game, to be a game, must limit the possible moves. Story is the product of a universe in which the choices, though they may not seem so, are infinite.

What about interactive fiction? Well, if you like it, fine. It seems to me essentially a social activity. Like game-playing, it can’t result in a work of art. Writers need readers, they collaborate in a sense with their readers; but to let readers control the story is to cease to be a writer in order to be a group facilitator or member. Fine, if that’s what you want to be.

If, however, you’re a writer, and have a story you want to write, the job is your responsibility. You’re not dealing with information which can be shared and passed around; you’re dealing with a vision — your vision. It’s up to you to capture that vision in words. Nobody else can do it.

Changing a story around at the readers’ whim is at best a game. (Making major changes in a story because an agent or editor wants it to be different is not a game, but the loss of the author’s authority — or authenticity, if you will; but that’s a separate issue.) The trajectory of a story, once found, can’t be fiddled with arbitrarily; if it is, it’s lost. A story is its own truth — a subjective truth. The story as work of art can exist only on and in its own terms.

This will sound either hifalutin or meaningless to people who confuse art with information, and think of a literary text as a block of words to tinker with — an arbitrary conjunction, rearrangeable, reshapable, like any other object. And to tinker with a work of art not your own, take bits out of it, put in other bits from elsewhere, to remake it, is in fact to reduce it to an object.

This is a popular and trendy thing to do because it takes the irreducible, absolute, visionary, and formal qualities out of art. It makes art unformidable. It secularizes fiction. A story seen as “information,”as object, can be seen as a piece of salable hype, an invention no different from the advertisement blinking next to it on the computer screen. Any truth it has is a matter of chance, impermanent, subject to the next tinkering. It has no value in itself. Anybody could have written it, anybody can write it, anybody can copy it.

And so of course you don’t have pay the author for it.

v. The ansible

I have been corresponding with a man who wants to use the word “ansible” in a trademarked product name. After due consultation with local wizards I am allowing him to do so, because he isn’t trying to co-opt the word — he doesn’t want to claim he owns it, or to prevent anybody else from using it as a noun. He just wants to use it in his product name. I don’t see why not. “Microsoft Word” got trademarked, but not even Microsoft can trademark the word “word.”

Because I don’t confuse art with information, I’ve been happy to share the ansible with other science fiction writers and pleased when they use it. It’s a handy device for people who need to communicate plausibly across interstellar spacetime. An invention that has gained the honorable status of a common noun doesn’t need to be protected. The ansible, as (fake) information, belongs to anybody who wants to use it and knows how to. In the same way, Heinlein’s waldo became common property, and indeed presently became real, which I doubt the ansible will any time soon. Anyhow, the ansible is an Anarresti invention, and anarchists share stuff.

But my landscapes, my people — they’re different. They’re not stuff. I don’t loan them, or rent them, or sell them. I give them to my readers. And I keep the copyright on the stories they’re in. The product of my imagination working through native talent and learned craft, my imagined worlds and their inhabitants are, by essence and to the fullest extent I can make them so, authentic. They are of undisputed origin.

— Ursula K. Le Guin

Ursula K. Le Guin is a founding member of Book View Cafe. Visit her Book View Cafe bookshelf.



Art, Information, Theft, and Confusion, Part Two — 12 Comments

  1. Ursula, this is the clearest explanation of the differences among dialogue with other writers, influences, homage, and plagiarism I have ever seen. I note the NY Times has yet another article about students’ ideas about what they can use in a paper. Perhaps you should market this essay to colleges for use in a training program on the subject.

  2. I respectfully disagree with Ms. Le Guinn in two places.

    First, she says that when you learn a math forumula, that formula becomes yours, but that that is not so with a written story.

    I disagree. If you don’t want a story to become a reader’s, you should not publish the story at all.

    Certainly a reader is free to recite the story orally? But they are not allowed to write it down? What if they write it down but don’t sell it?

    Also, in part ii, where she says she has yet to hear an argument for how plagiarism can be creative.

    If you think of an author as an actor, and think of writing as a performance, then writing somebody else’s words is tantamount to acting in a play.

    It is a person adopting something of the spirit of the original author. It is a natural, human impulse. It is the impulse to connect. It is something that should be acknowledged as human and looked at as something to understand, rather than as something to demonize.

  3. Also, I wonder if Ms. Le Guin has any thoughts on the Creative Commons licensing ideas that people like Cory Doctorow have initiated. It seems like the mess with the German author’s work could have been avoided if the work she ripped off had been licensed in such a way to allow for ripping off. Some of those CC licenses allow for non-commercial ripping off; others indicate that ripping off for commercial purposes requires attribution and/or permission.

    The point of the Creative Commons licensing, though, is that the original creator can pick and choose the different details of how she wants the use of the work to go. If she doesn’t care what happens to it or how it is used, she can say so. But putting that license on it with a date can at least indicate that she was there first if she ever wants to prove it to anybody for bragging rights, etc.

  4. It’s a matter of ownership, the writer as artist being entitled to create their work, profit from it if they are able, and keep its integrity intact.

    Influence, inspiration, and even echoing of a style are friendly and culturally constructive acts; appropriating a substantial amount of the work is theft.

  5. William V. Burns, I see your point, but it still seems like much is left out of the argument. For example, when little babies learn the human language, they do so by mimicry. While infants are capable of trying out different combinations of phonemes, when it comes to correct usage of individual words, they are using words they have heard before.

    To me, it seems like such a profound demonstration of human behavior at work when it comes to issues of mimicry and copying, it is so hard to believe that people just rather thoughtlessly castigate the concept at theft.

    Are you familiar with the concept of mirroring in salesmanship? How about the concept of unconscious mimicry? How about the concept of empathy? Do you know how to demonstrate empathy with a fellow human being? Oftentimes, it involves repeating something of the behavior or attitude of the person you are feeling empathy for.

    How does one create an identity for oneself? Might this involve playing a role?

    Would you ever consider theft to be justified? The concept of theft can be interpreted to be defined strictly by the powerful. For example, a colonialized population may be accused of theft for taking something from the ruling class. Because the ruling class is the ruling class, they define the action as theft. However, the ruled class defines their own action as justice. In the eyes of the ruled class, the colonialists are the real thieves. But because the power structure is the way it is, the colonialist definition of theft wins out.

    In the U.S., individuals and organizations that have much invested in “intellectual property” naturally advocate for stricter copyright laws, enforcement, etc. Even people who don’t have much invested in “intellectual property” side with those groups because they have bought into the myth that it is a vital structure if we wish for creativity to survive.

    However, people like me might say that Ms. Le Guin is wrong to claim that she should own the concept of the wizard school. If Ms. Le Guin was born in raised in a room with plain walls and no interaction with humans or human culture for her entire life, and still managed to write a book about wizard schools, then yes, she should own it. However, she did not grow up in a vaccuum.

    While I admire her for acknowledging her debt to Philip K. Dick, I believe she is at fault for not acknowledging the debt she owes to everyone else who has ever existed and has been a part of bringing our language and culture to the point is was when she did write a book about wizard schools.

    There’s just something that rubs me the wrong way about these discussion of “Intellectual property.” It is such a tremendously rich and complicated topic.

    There is an interesting article in The Atlantic out right now. Among other things, the article mentions that Benjamin Franklin made his fortune reproducing and selling work he had no particular right to.

    Perhaps the difference between the German reaction to “plagiarism” and the American reaction has something to do with the American notion of individuality, among other things.

  6. Dana —

    In what universe do you get “However, people like me might say that Ms. Le Guin is wrong to claim that she should own the concept of the wizard school” out of:

    I didn’t originate the idea of a school for wizards

    which is what UKL actually wrote, above.

    Much of her essay is about acknowledging one’s influences.

    The number of straw men you set up so you can knock them over is making my head spin, so I’ll leave it at that.


  7. Obviously I should have reread the essay before this last post. Thanks for point it out.

    I do stand by my assertion that most voices in this debate tend to leave out bits and pieces of information that might complicate their arguments.

    I wish somebody would acknowledge that human beings are natural copy machines. Literally from the moment of conception when we begin replicating DNA to when we begin learning language (a process that never ends, by the way), we copy copy copy.

    Learning itself is basically a process of co-opting ideas that have come before.

    Even scientists have a mandate to copy one another in order to verify the validity of experiments.

    In that regard, legislating against copying is like legislating against eating and drinking. All three (copying, eating, drinking) are perfectly normal, necessary human phenomenon.

    Now over the last few hundred years, we have developed legal structures that have a purpose of extracting monetary value from certain human phenomenon, so we end up with laws that are at odds with basic human behavior.

    Jane Goodall has famously observed that some primate groups encourage copying behavior, while others discourage it. She found that the groups that encourage copying have a much more advanced culture (measured by tool use, etc.)

  8. Dana–Though you acknowledge that you misread Le Guin’s essay, and grotesquely mischaracterized it, you don’t acknowledge that your misreading and mischaracterization (not to mention your entire loftful of straw men) undercut your argument. In fact, your over-the-top analogies make your argument ridiculous.

    What do you think, that the copyright police are going to kick down your door if your kid says “ba ba ba” back to you while you’re engaging in baby talk?

    I think you’re trolling, so I’m going to leave you to it. Have fun.


  9. I agree I am a bit of a troll. But I do have a legitimate interest in the topic. I sincerely believe it is a fascinating, rich issue with much at stake for my own personal philosophy and for the culture at large.

    You bring up a good point about fair-use provisions. I should do a bit of studying on that aspect of the issue.

    I don’t really have a problem with using straw men. This is the blog of a fiction writer, after all, and in fiction, straw men are acceptable, no? Aren’t straw men the same thing as characters?

    Here’s a quote from the article in The Nation I linked to:

    “Copyright opponents present themselves as advocates of culture, but their rhetoric masks their true animus, which is fundamentally antipathy to the market.”

    He may be correct here, but what is wrong with that? I think the point that I have been trying to make is that instead of framing the whole issue of copyright and “intellectual property” in terms of the market place and in terms of monetary value and in terms of business, couldn’t we frame the argument in terms of human behavior or in terms of community or organizational cooperation or in terms of spirituality?

    Case in point from ULG’s essay above:

    “We excuse theft only on the plea of extreme need — real poverty. And I wonder if a vast poverty of imagination is at the root of the excuses made for piracy and plagiarism.”

    So she identifies economic poverty as a driving force. But what about emotional poverty?

    ‘All the lonely people, where do they all come from?’

    It is well established that unconcious mimicry is observed more readily in the socially excluded. People feel socially excluded at times, some more than others. At those times, there is nothing more natural than co-opting something of the other in order to feel as if we have some connection with the rest of the human race. That’s what I mean by framing the conversation in terms of emotion or spirituality rather than scrictly in terms of business and money.

    And yes, there are people with limited imaginations, so they aren’t up to making up their own stories. So they reach out and steal stories, experience, whatever they can to alleviate the misery of extreme alienation.

    In another way, why not acknowledge that throughout history much more is shared and copied and stolen and built upon what has come before, and that the truly unique is but a tiny fraction of all that has been? Why all this energy now being spent to protect protect protect? Stop the copiers stop the copiers stop the copiers.

    I wonder if there isn’t some symbolic or metaphoric reason a group would have such a fetish for putting the clamps down on mimicry?

    I think what the writer of the Nation article gets right is that the opponents of copyright do demonstrate antipathy of the market. I believe the opponents of copyright are more interested in experiencing human culture in terms of cooperation rather than in terms of competition. The author sees that as a bad thing, I see it as a good thing.

    Also, on another note, this topic would be a good way to investigate the shift from storytelling as record keeping to a form of “expression”… I’m thinking of the conventional wisdom explanation for the origins of literature: ancient people reciting ancient stories/poems to record history and mythology and pass it on from generation to generation. At some point, story telling and the exercise of creativity became something else. I would be interested to know how we got from oral history to “intellectual property.”

    I wish the conversation about copyright and “intellectual property” would include more of these lines of inquiry.