Writing at the Poetry Foundation blog Harriet, Kenneth Goldsmith points out that the recent spate of books that aggressively “borrow” from other texts may have less to do with the death of the novel, the death of the author, or any other such nonsense. It’s just that today it’s a lot easier to copy and paste:
The previous forms of borrowing in literature, collage and pastiche—taking a word from here, a sentence from there—were developed based on the amount of labor involved. Having to manually retype or hand-copy an entire book on a typewriter is one thing; cutting and pasting an entire book with three keystrokes—select all / copy / paste—is another.
From there, Goldsmith recalls a conversation with a creative writing student who was flummoxed by an assignment in which she had to write a passage in the style of a particular author—in her case, Jack Kerouac. Goldsmith suggests she might have learned more about writing if she had copied out a passage of On the Road, or, better still, the entire book. “Wouldn’t she have really understood Kerouac’s style in a profound way that was bound to stick with her?” he asks. Probably. But understanding style isn’t really the end goal of the copy-and-paste set—David Shields‘ Reality Hunger or Ander Monson‘s Vanishing Point are more interested in questioning the identity of the author than the quality of writing. (In a way, they’re actually somewhat against the quality of writing, or at least defiantly disinterested in it—Monson’s “assembloirs,” built from snippets of other memoirs, are designed to call out the same-ness in tone that afflicts such books, stripping away whatever pathos or individuality they might have.) That’s not to say that copying and pasting can’t make for some interesting commentary—just that the commentary will inevitably be about authors, not writing.