Saturday, January 13, 2018


by Lincoln Michel

This morning I took my cup of coffee and laptop to a desk to work on an old short story I’ve been kicking around when I made the greatest mistake any writer can make: I opened Facebook.

Between posts on the current horrors of the Trump administration, my timeline was filled with discussions about Sadia Shepard’s debut short story “Foreign-Returned” in this week’s New Yorker, which the author Francine Prose had been attacking in a series of Facebook posts. Prose was offended by the fact that Shepard’s story used plot elements and even language from a story by the late Mavis Gallant: “the only major difference being that the main characters here are Pakistanis in Connecticut during the Trump era instead of Canadians in post-WW II Geneva,” Prose said, calling the story a “travesty.” Other authors pushed back, with Marlon James, for example, noting that he didn’t notice this “self-righteous venom being dished out […] when Jonathan Safran Foer took as much as he wanted from Jessica Soffer’s “Beginning, End.”

The short story I had opened, and then abandoned as I fell into the social media hole, is titled “A Feeling Artist.” It is an homage to Kafka that takes the plot of “A Hunger Artist,” but sets it in a version of the contemporary world where a “feeling artist” finds his popularity eclipsed by young cellphone app and YouTube artists who do rapid-fire feeling acts instead of his carefully crafted long-form sadness performances. I don’t know if this story will work or not, but I know that taking an element or two (or even three or four) from a work I love and reconfiguring them into something new is one of my most generative practices. So I immediately got sucked into the debate.

In the comments of Prose’s posts, other authors said they were contacting the New Yorker to complain and many suggested they’d never read something that was inspired by another piece or used similar structures or plots because they wanted to read “original” pieces with “imagination.” No matter how one feels about Shepard’s story, the ahistoricity of these comments, though predictable, was still surprising. We know, for example, that William Shakespeare’s plays frequently borrowed plots, characters, and even names from other plays. And we know that countless great works of art have been created by adapting Shakespeare’s plots to different settings (Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood) or reworking his characters in a new way (Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead). And yet time and again I see authors act like homage, pastiche, and remixing is some kind of lesser form of creation. That it doesn’t count.

An art form is a conversation between artists. Literature is massive ballroom stretching through time in which authors debate, rebut, woo, and chat with each other. (A genre is perhaps a dialogue in one corner of the party.) They steal ideas to make them better. Or to make them different. Or to expose the problems in them. We know all this, and influences are regularly discussed in English lit classes. And yet, in the world of contemporary creative writing, people get upset when that dialogue is something we overhear.

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