Wednesday, August 1, 2007

Is Michiko Cuckoo? Is Laura Loopy? Literary Ethics Goes Public

The way the news has gone down lately, you would think someone really cared about the morals of authors, critics and other literary personae. The latest spark to ignite a prairie fire is the conviction of Laura Albert, the nonfictional being behind JT Leroy, who is the fictional author of the fictional work Sarah. As you undoubtedly are aware, one of the fictions jumped off the title page and signed a contract with Jeffrey Levy-Hinte, President of Antidote International Films, in which she gave no hint that she was fictional.

Michiko Kakutani, the illustrious senior literary critic for The New York Times, has also made news, offering a review of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows hours before the enormous marketing machine behind its release had approved its sale. (I don't usually insert NYTimes links because they force you to register, but even though the URL includes "restricted" I was able to link to this review through Google, for whom the right to link stands slightly above, life, liberty or the pursuit of copyright in the moral order.) Moreover she mentioned that she had simply wandered into a NYC bookstore and purchased a copy! She was also the subject of a critique in Slate
yesterday by Ben Yagoda (leave it to Slate to do a critic critique), who complains loudly that Kakutani either blows kisses or comes down with a blunt ax on books she reviews, not to mention indulges in even more pathetic uses of language than the two near-dead metaphors I just used. And that is just the tip of the iceberg. (Damn those clichés, they come so easily sometimes.) Recently, we had Mark Helprin whining on the Op-Ed page (May 20) that his family would not enjoy eternal profits from a perpetual copyright on his writings. Of course everyone remembers the plagiarism scandal of Harvard student Kaavya Viswanathan, way back in 2006. Ms. Viswanathan asserted that her extensive copying from at least two other authors was "unconscious and unintentional", sort of like George Harrison's redo of "He's So Fine" as "My Sweet Lord". Which is a step up from the college President (don't have the notes on this one in front of me) who repeated the old platitude that he had failed to keep careful notes separating his own words from those of others. More likely his note taking was a little too careful. And the list goes on, especially if we widen the scope to ethics and fictions in general, which lets film and all its foibles sneak in. Thus ON 3/29/05 we had, for example, two headlines in the Times, "Documentary Criticized for Re-enacted Scenes" , and "Historical Epic Is Focus of Copyright Dispute" (p.E1). The former concerned the film Mighty Times: The Children's March, which won an Academy Award for Bobby Houston and Robert Hudson, and included fake-vintage footage of civil rights protests. The latter the film Kindom of Heaven, which was accused by James Reston Jr. of "stealing his research", according to the Times' Sharon Waxman, including "events, characters, scenes, descriptions and character tensions". Whoa, stealing character tensions, that's got to be up there with pocketing the Golden Triangle.
Bizarre and offbeat, you say; but it leads right back to one of the biggest recent literary disputes of them all, the claim that Dan Brown stole the "architecture" of his novel The Da Vinci Code from a nonfiction work, Holy Blood, Holy Grail by Micahel Baigent and Richard Leigh. Not a single passage was alleged to have been copied; rather, elements of the plot (maybe the "character tension"?) were allegedly conceptually lifted from one genre into another.

Dan Brown won the lawsuit filed by his accusers. Laura Albert lost hers. One thing joined the two outcomes in holy matrimony forever: the lawyers were the only real winners. Albert has been ordered to pay the plaintiff's lawyers some $350,000, while the plaintiff himself got $116,000. Nice work, guys, you earned it. Brown's lawyers were to receive their just deserts of 1.3m pounds. If I thought anyone were in doubt that the entire system of contract, copyright, patent, matrimonial, consumer and medical law (to name a few prominent areas) has as its primary purpose the enrichment of lawyers themselves, I would bring this in evidence... except that I might need a lawyer to do so. Luckily, no one in their right mind has such doubts.

But beyond the obvious cynicism of the system for redressing these alleged wrongs, there are some very funny lessons to be observed here. Consider, for example, what the world of literary morality might look like if most of these plaintiffs, or mere complainers, were right:
  1. It would be okay to reinvent oneself as a fictional character, but wrong to be the self that has thus been reinvented.
  2. It would be a sin to publish information about a book one has read if one is not supposed to have read that book according to the book's author and publisher.
  3. It would be necessary to pay royalties to the heirs of John Milton before reproducing much of Paradise Lost; and indeed it might be possible to sue the likes of Nikos Kazantzakis, author of The Odyssey: A Modern Sequel, for stealing "architectures" or "research" or "character tensions" from Homer. (This situation should be found highly desirable in legal circles, as it would surely entail endless lawsuits to determine just who were the heirs of Homer or Milton.)
On the other hand, if some of the perpetrators here are within their rights, the world would look similarly interesting from a moral point of view:
  1. Who needs to write when so many millions of pages of readily available text are just sitting there waiting to be put to use? Is this not a service to the original author? For nothing provides so much publicity as a plagiarism case, and nothing helps an author's popularity so much as getting the sympathy vote after a plagiarism scandal. Why has no one appreciated the service Viswanathan did for Megan McCafferty, who I surely never heard of until her words were honored by Ms. Viswanathan?
  2. Why stop at faking vintage footage? Why not change the copyright date on the film to 1965? Why not get the winner of the 2007 Rev.Dr. Martin Luther King lookalike contest to put in an appearance? Why not carry subtitles: "The scene you are now seeing is really happening, or at least it was, or something similar was, or could have been anyway"? Zelig, anyone? (Excuse me, I meant Orlando.)
Well, I know what you thought: no parrot is going to self-incriminate by squawcking about plagiarism. And you are right to an extent. At least in this entry the main object of my interest is not plagiarism. Nor even lawyers. Nor copyright or patent or other illustrious institutions of intellectual private property. It is the self and its literary being.

First, Laura Albert. Apparently she is JT LeRoy, the author of Sarah. What was her offense? It was, first, believing that she was JT LeRoy. Well, she is JT LeRoy. Samuel Clemens was Mark Twain. And somebody, I hope, is H.A. Monk, the author of this blog. Now, suppose Sam had signed a contract as Mark Twain, would that be a problem? No, you say (I hope). Because he in effect owns the being that is Mark Twain, who might or might not have written books in the first person, without any difference in the situation. Ralph Lifschitz can sign a contract as Ralph Lauren, can't he? Now suppose someone comes along and wants to do a film on the Ralph Lauren story. He siticks a contract under the nose of Ralph Lifschitz, who promptly signs his name as "Ralph Lauren" ( don't know or care if he had it legally changed; maybe it's a DBA name or whatever). The cameras roll up, the street signs go up, the food cart lays out its feast of grapes, Kool-Aid and liverwurst, and finally the director says, "Okay, let's start from the top. Ralph, tell us your story. Roll it!" (Archaic pre-digital-era movie language, but whatever.) There sits Ralph. He begins: "My name is Ralph Lifschitz. At some point I started presenting myself to the public as Ralph Lauren because I wanted to be a famous fashion designer, and I didn't think anyone would take me seriously with a name like Lifschitz which suggests I'm a nice Jewish boy from the Bronx." "CUT!" End of film. The Director resigns and goes off to do a documentary about Walter Carlos...

Now what, literally, is wrong with this picture? Nothing, really. The Director got what he signed up for, the Ralph Lauren Story. It's just that that story is one or two sentences long. Not Ralph Lifschitz's problem. So why did Laura Albert get sued? And why did she lose? Mr. Levy-Hinte, you see, the upholder of Truth, Justice, and the Hollywood Way, believes he was duped by Ms. Albert. You see, what he wanted was a film about the "real" JT LeRoy. When he discovered that there was no "real" JT LeRoy, he decided that instead of doing a two-sentence film about JT LeRoy he wanted to do a metafilm about Laura Albert. But Ms. Albert did not believe that she had sold him the rights to a story about Laura Albert. You see, Laura Albert is JT LeRoy, but JT LeRoy is not Laura Albert. The relationship is not reciprocal. She had sold the rights to an Albert-as-LeRoy story, but not to an LeRoy-as-Albert story. But the former story makes for a very short film: "Hi, I'm fictional. Bye." Whereas the latter is no film at all, because Laura Albert does not want to be a movie star playing herself.

Mr. Levy-Hinte may have a sense of justice, however distorted, but he has no sense of humor. You see, Jeff does not realize that he is a fictional filmmaker, at least as auteur. Every novel has a fictional author. The fictionl author is the voice from whom the story comes. Ms. Albert gave her fictional author a name - JT LeRoy - and a history and personality. Mr. Levy-Hinte may not have given his fictional narrators a name, but in his films he surely has fictional narrators. And if he has any business sense at all, he would surely jump on the first opportunity to sell the rights to the real story of one of his fictional narrators. Easiest way to make money in the arts, I bet. It is hardly Ms. Albert's fault if JT LeRoy's story is as thin as a crepe. And it is certainly Mr. Levy-Hinte's fault if he doesn't understand what a fictional author is. In fact, that gives me an idea. Mr. Levy-Hinte, if you're reading this: there is this very interested guy named H.A. Monk; he's actually part man, part parrot, and sits on top of a lamppost in Brooklyn observing the NYC arts scene. Then he gets in front of his laptop and, as H.A. Monk, pumps out verbose and little-noticed blog posts about his observations. For a cool $2 million I believe he would be happy to squawck on camera about his life in the urban jungle. Whaddaya say?

Turning now to Ms. Kakutani. Note that parrots and cuckoos have certain things in common, so perhaps this is not an unbiased judgment. But neither are any of my other judgments, so there you go. Monks and Monks also have something in common, a fact to which I call your attention only because a fellow Bloogle Gogger who signs his posts "The Monk" (I assume if it were a female she should sign it "Monkee") has posted a note on Kakutani's review in which it is stated that Kakutani has lavishly praised every one of J.K. Rowling's Potter books, including Deathly Hallows, and therefore ought not to be taken to task by Rowling, as she was, for ruining the experience of millions of readers. Now, personally, I disagree with the logic of my cousin. Rowling's complaint was, at least on the surface, on behalf of her millions of readers, not herself. The complaint should be taken on its own merits, which Monk(2) does at another point, by pointing out that reviews in the NY Times are rarely read by children. Touché. And I suppose it could be added that any adult who does not wish to have their entire life devalued by hearing something about the book before the official release date should simply not read it. But another point should be made: in fact, Kakutani's description of the plot is so minimal that only a complete idiot would find the excitement of the book to have been undermined by the review. The evil ones have infiltrated Hogwarts, some well known Hogwarts characters die, Hermione is missing, Harry leads the resistance. No point in reading the book now, right?

But the trouble with the criticism goes way beyond that. Aside from the fact pointed out by a Times letter writer that reviewers are not (better not be) beholden to marketing machines, there is the fact that the vast majority of readers will not read the entire book on the day (night) it is released, and after that there will be hundreds of reviews that can be read prior to reading the book if one so chooses. Keep in mind that film companies regularly schedule pre-release screenings for critics and other film industry types; all the secrecy about the HP release strikes one as nothing more than hype.

Kakutani consistently demonstrates in her reviews that no book worth reading can be taken at face value. Every novel has a meaning or meanings beyond the plot, character development, etc. There must be a reason why characters behave his way or that, why they are put in his situation rather than hat one. Thus for example she draws attention to Potter's struggle against "the temptations of hubris and despair". There are many other such observations in her review, and frankly, it is this, rather than blame or praise in itself, that will make or break Rowling's recognition as a writer in the long run. I don't hear anyone complaining that Kakutani revealed the deeper meaning of Deathly Hallows before the release date, even though that is far more important than who wins or dies. From this perspective, the complaints make the critic's critics seem vapid and clueless.

That said, I think there is something about the superficial aspects of the Potter books that must be said now that the series is over. Rowling has, as Kakutani points out, a brilliant sense of mystery, enchantment, diobolical plots and the like, as well as insight into the fears and passions of adolescents, professors and goblins. These are what give the Potter world its raison d'etre and make the books consistently worth reading. But, bottom line, I'm sorry to say, she is not a particularly good writer. There is little elegance or poetry to Rowling's prose. Having deeper meanings is important, but the means of expression is too. Here it is easy to see that Rowling is no C.S. Lewis or J.R.R. Tolkien, and perhaps less of a writer in the fantasy genre than even Philip Pullman. Her work has intrinsic interest in almost every other way, but the basic quality of using the English language in elegant and ingenious ways is entirely missing. In short, she has no style of any great significance. I am surprised that Kakutani, who is never one to mince words, does not recognize this. Rowling is, you might say, a great author, but not a particularly notable writer.

But I digress. On the other hand, I'm done anyway, so who cares? All I really wanted to do was call attention to a couple of the current issues in literary ethics and look a little beyond the newspaper chatter. The two cases I have looked at are interesting because there are hidden conceptual issues that underlie the arguments on either side. To what extent does an author own her "self", and how many selves can she have? What constitutes deceit, and was Mr. Levy-Hinte deceived or did he deceive himself? Does an author's right to disseminate her writings include the right to ensure that no word will be spoken about her book's content prior to the release date? Does a reviewer have higher obligations than merely annointing or disparaging a work? Currently, most of the really knotty issues in literary ethics have been , obviously or not, around technology. For example, the existence of the Internet, and even more of Google, has given the issue of plagiarism a fresh urgency. But the discussion above suggests that technology alone is not the reason why literary ethics needs much more attention than its gotten. Maybe before we can understand the technological issues we need to understand things like the self and the dynamics of interpretation as they apply to literature. Which agrees in one way with the plenitude of issues I began with: we are pretty much still at sea, and have a long way to go.


jasmin said...

hi, could i email you about this post? thanks, jasmin

H.A. Monk said...

If you leave your email address or enable your Blogger profile for viewing by others I'd be happy to get in touch with you.

jasmin said...

oops, sorry.