While curiosity is natural, and reverence is healthy, there are times when an author’s familiarity with the literary universe obstructs and clutters her creativity. We like a narrator to be literate, cognisant, and even referential, but we don’t like a story that’s simply a tissue of references, or one that gets stuck in the cobwebs of the literary attic. It feels too second-hand, and too clever by half. Iris Murdoch says somewhere (I can’t find it now), the most obstructive thing for a new writer is literary tradition. This can mean that the greatness of the tradition stops a new writer before he’s begun, or it can mean that the great tradition so entangles and tongue-ties his story that he ends by adding nothing to the tradition he so admires. An overly referential story falls short because it’s written in a kind of shorthand, full of gestures to points already made, images already bodied forth, full of obeisance rather than bold strides. And it cuts to that old dichotomy between artist and critic: both know how a novel is written, but only one can write it.
This article's discussion of Colm Toibin's book about Henry James, The Master, led me to further pondering of the copyright issue. There are subtleties here, and beyond the question of whether literary borrowing is good or bad is the question of why we do it. What's the compulsion to go back instead of on? In revisiting scenes of literary greatness, what do we expect to find? Or, more probably, to leave? It's a compulsion I feel too, though I've never acted on it. (And in James' case, reverence would humble my ambition.)
I think it starts with simple curiosity. What became of the younger sister? Who might have lived in the house next door? What happened to him in those three years at sea? That curiosity is strongest where the novel's world is strongest, where the author's creation is real and robust, and carries a resonance of its own. We want to explore the empty rooms that exist by implication, the darknesses left by the limits of an author's fiat lux.
I think such curiosity and the creativity it inspires show a healthy respect for the power of good writing. “Imagination bodies forth the forms of things unknown,” and “gives to airy nothing a local habitation and a name.” Theseus, the king in Midsummer Night's Dream, knows well the power of poets to call things convincingly into being, to name and locate them so thoroughly that they have an existence outside the work which first embodied them.
At a deeper level, I think it proves my theory that art is singular: all art is part of humanity's collected works. I'm not talking about T.S. Eliot's “tradition,” or about a canon of great works, but about the inescapable connection between all works of art, whether they acknowledge it or not.
Yesterday's Book Show opened with an interesting conversation about copyright - literally the right to make copies - and the execution of literary estates, about which I've posted before. There's a court case at the moment between Christopher Tolkein, the executor of JRR's estate, and the writer of a book with the unpropitious title Mirkwood: A novel about JRR Tolkein. The issue seems to be reputational: not so much that the character of Tolkein is somehow copyrighted (how can it be?) but that the author, Hillard, is reaping where he has not sown by using, and probably abusing, Tolkein's literary reputation to advance his own. The case raises interesting questions about rights versus freedoms. Do we protect the legal rights of creators at the expense of creativity? If we relax the borders of the literary universe, do we create the conditions for a loss of creativity? Something like this loss can be seen in the film industry, where intertextuality has become naked looting, imagination plays on a narrow loop, and writers peddle endless reruns like rats in wheels. Should we then judge a case not by whether a writer has made use of another writer, but by whether she has made good use of him? Who will be the judge?