Is authorship a mere declaration of ownership? Is it merely a matter of choice? Is that what distinguishes it from creation?
In 1969 the conceptual artist Douglas Huebler wrote, “The world is full of objects, more or less interesting; I do not wish to add any more.” I’ve come to embrace Huebler’s idea, though it might be retooled as: “The world is full of texts, more or less interesting; I do not wish to add any more.”
It seems an appropriate response to a new condition in writing today: Faced with an unprecedented amount of available digital text, our problem is not that we need to write more of it; instead, we must learn to negotiate the vast quantity that exists. How I make my way through this thicket of information—how I manage it, how I parse it, how I organize and distribute it—is what distinguishes my writing from yours.
Does “co-authorship” require consent from all parties?
In the case of Richard Prince’s new book, the answer is resolutely no. The premise of the book was achingly simple: a reproduction of the first edition of The Catcher in the Rye, identical in every way except the author’s name was swapped from J.D. Salinger to Richard Prince. The production value of the book was astonishingly high, a perfect facsimile of the original, right down to the thick, creamy paper stock and classic typeface. The text on the dust jacket—replete with the same iconic line drawing of the angry red horse—began, “Anyone who has read Richard Prince’s New Yorker stories, particularly ‘A Perfect Day for Bananafish,’ ‘Uncle Wiggly in Connecticut,’ ‘The Laughing Man,’ and ‘For Esmé–with Love and Squalor,’ will not be surprised by the fact that his first novel is full of children.” It was a dead-ringer through and through—not a word was changed—with the exception that the following disclaimer was added to the colophon page: “This is an artwork by Richard Prince. Any similarity to a book is coincidental and not intended by the artist.” Most shockingly, the colophon concluded with: “© Richard Prince.” Clearly he didn’t require consent from Mr. Salinger, but he might very well hear from Salinger’s estate. But, unlike most appropriation artists, Richard Prince has the money to settle with them.
So there can be co-authorship without consent?
Of course. The provocation of Richard Prince is just the tip of the iceberg. Over the past five years, we have seen numerous examples of appropriation in literature. We’ve seen a retyping of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road in its entirety, a page a day, every day, on a blog for a year; an appropriation of the complete text of a day’s copy of the New York Times published as a 900-page book; a list poem that is nothing more than re-framing a listing of stores from a shopping-mall directory into a poetic form; an impoverished writer who has taken every credit-card application sent to him and bound them into an 800-page print-on-demand book so costly that even he can’t afford a copy; a poet who has parsed the text of an entire 19th-century book on grammar according to its own methods, even down to the book’s index; a lawyer who re-presents the legal briefs of her day job as poetry in their entirety without changing a word; another writer who spends her days at the British Library copying down the first verse of Dante’s Inferno from every English translation that the library possesses, one after another, page after page, until she exhausts the library’s supply and those are just a few. None of these writers have requested consent: they’ve just gone ahead and taken what they’ve wanted. Nobody seems to care.
Nearly a century ago, the art world put to rest conventional notions of originality and replication with the gestures of Marcel Duchamp’s readymades, Francis Picabia’s mechanical drawings, and Walter Benjamin’s oft-quoted essay, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” Since then, a parade of blue-chip artists, from Andy Warhol to Matthew Barney, has taken these ideas to new levels, resulting in terribly complex ideas about identity, media, and culture. These, of course, have become part and parcel of mainstream art-world discourse, to the point where counter reactions based on sincerity and representation have emerged.
Similarly, in music, sampling—entire tracks constructed from other tracks—has become commonplace. From Napster to gaming, from karaoke to torrent files, the culture appears to be embracing the digital and all the complexity it entails—with the exception of writing, which is still mostly wedded to promoting an authentic and stable identity, at all costs.
And yet most writing proceeds as if the Internet had never happened. The literary world still gets regularly scandalized by age-old bouts of fraudulence, plagiarism, and hoaxes in ways that would make, say, the art, music, computing, or science worlds chuckle with disbelief. It’s hard to imagine the James Frey or J.T. Leroy scandals upsetting anybody familiar with the sophisticated, purposely fraudulent provocations of Jeff Koons or the re-photographing of advertisements by Richard Prince, who was awarded a Guggenheim retrospective for his plagiaristic tendencies.
In 1959 the poet and artist Brion Gysin claimed that writing was 50 years behind painting. And he might still be right. In the art world, since Impressionism, the avant-garde has been the mainstream. Innovation and risk taking have been consistently rewarded. But, in spite of the successes of modernism, literature has remained on two parallel tracks: the mainstream and the avant-garde, with the two rarely intersecting. Yet the conditions of digital culture have unexpectedly forced a collision, scrambling the once-sure footing of both camps. Suddenly, we all find ourselves in the same boat, grappling with new questions concerning authorship, originality, and the way meaning is forged.