Sunday, July 11, 2010

Sunday Reading: Mashing Up Literature

reality hunger Surely you’ve heard of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.  How about Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters?  Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter?  This crop of public domain fan fiction is mere child’s play compared to David Shields’ Reality Hunger: A Manifesto.

In a recent interview with Wired, Shields claims that he’s trying to “rescue nonfiction as art” by repurposing the words of others.  These (deliberately) poorly cited quotations don’t just support his argument.  They are his argument.

Shields sees media like television and music constantly gathering, mixing, and distilling various sources into new content.  Reality TV and song mash-ups don’t have literary analogues, and Shields is out to change that.  When Wired’s Jason Tanz asks if Shields is the “Vanilla Ice of Writing,” he replies:

“We’re all Vanilla Ice. Look at Girl Talk and Danger Mouse. Look at William Burroughs, whose cut-up books antedate hip hop sampling by decades. Shakespeare remixed passages of Holinshed’s Chronicles in Henry VI. Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture embeds the French national anthem. Good poets borrow; great poets steal. As James Joyce once said, I am quite content to go down to posterity as a scissors-and-paste man.”

Burroughs, Shakespeare, Tchaikovsky, Joyce.  If nothing else, Shields certainly knows who to plagiarize from.  Or is he plagiarizing?  To Shields, “in many senses, creativity and “plagiarism” are nearly indivisible.”

To match Shields’ style, Jason Tanz composes his interview by cribbing questions, words, and phrases from a list of sources that includes Stephen Colbert and Sandra Day O’Connor.  Oh Wired, you so clever.