Monday, May 21, 2007

This Week In Stinginess

A few bloggers got themselves worked into a fairly justifiable tizzy not long ago, when this article about book reviewing ran in the New York Times. The article is about the peril that literary culture finds itself in, but there's quite a humdinger of a quote right at the end, that has been much reprinted over the past couple of weeks:

Of course literary bloggers argue that they do provide a multiplicity of voices. But some authors distrust those voices. Mr. [Richard] Ford, who has never looked at a literary blog, said he wanted the judgment and filter that he believed a newspaper book editor could provide. “Newspapers, by having institutional backing, have a responsible relationship not only to their publisher but to their readership,” Mr. Ford said, “in a way that some guy sitting in his basement in Terre Haute maybe doesn’t.”

It is unfortunate to see a writer as good as Richard Ford betray his insecurity in the face of the teeming literate masses. Of course he likes the literary establishment; the literary establishment likes him. But does he really think that decent criticism still needs to be vetted by the big boys to mean anything? Has Richard Ford actually read the newspaper book reviews lately? They are crap--and nobody is to blame but the establishment itself. The Times Book Review has long indulged in the bizarre tactic of only assigning intelligent reviewers to challenging books, then assigning swooning newbies to quasi-populist hackery; the result is that shitty books get great reviews and interesting books get nitpicked.

The fact is, the literary establishment has discovered it likes making money. Ford is one of the few writers who makes it money because he can actually write. But I can promise that, if his novels quit selling, his institutionally-backed admirers would quit admiring him right quick, and those of us who write online about literature for fun will keep on feeling the same way about him we used to, and who would he be grateful to then?

Anyway, the Ford flap isn't so terribly irksome, not in the face of the latest odious screed from Mark Helprin, which appeared in the Times over the weekend. It seems he would like copyrights to extend forever, thus allowing Disney to get rich off its stale creations for eternity. Here, though, is the money quote:

Were I tomorrow to write the great American novel (again?), 70 years after my death the rights to it, though taxed at inheritance, would be stripped from my children and grandchildren.

Can you see the mistake? No, no, not the parenthetical "again?", which is almost too pathetic to mention. The mistake is that the rights to his imaginary masterpiece would not be "stripped" from his heirs--in fact, his heirs would keep all their rights. They would just have to share them with everybody else.

Copyright law is odd in that it codifies the egalitarian idea that ideas themselves cannot be owned, at least not forever. An idea changes the moment it enters somebody's head. You may publish the book you wrote, but the book your readers read is never the same one; their interpretation of your prose is unique to them, the characters altered, the themes personalized. And when they go to write their own books, your book will inform their style, their approach, their execution. Students all over America are right now sketching copies of your painting out of Artforum. Amateur actors are mangling your play. The ambulating whistler is adding trills and arpeggios to your hit single.

Writers ought to be rewarded for their work, even Mark Helperin. But after a while, they have to let go, to let the world have what they wrote. Helprin's heirs could publish their own "definitive" editions of his books after he's gone, if they wanted; and more readers than not, if Helprin actually has readers after his death, would choose them over the other editions published under the public domain. The Helprin Touch can still feel special, even once his personal claim to the material has weakened. It's just that his heirs would have to actually come up with a worthwhile edition to make money. In other words they would have to, you know, earn it.

The alternative is a world in which ideas will forever belong to people like the people who now own Happy Birthday To You, a song the Hill Sisters simply ripped off in 1893, by changing a single note of an already popular tune. For this little appropriation, Warner Chappell owns your aging ass until 2030. Sorry, grandad!

As for Helprin, I suspect his bloated tales of triumphalist self-actualization will be about as popular after he's gone as the neocon horseshit he's been ghostwriting for the past decade or two. But what do I know, I'm just a guy writing on the internet.


Anonymous said...

I've never heard of this Helperin character. Who is he?

Anonymous said...

He's written several novels, Winter's Tale being probably the best known. He also wrote Bob Dole's more literary-sounding speeches when Dole ran for President.