Anxious About Our Influences

Thinking through the question of when creative influence becomes plagiarism, Rachel Hodin comes to this conclusion: “All we can say for sure is that it’s not only fair to take ideas and inspiration from others, it’s necessary for the survival of art”:

As humans, we take ideas, information, and insight from others every second of our waking days, and more often than not, this process is subconscious. For this reason, we have no authority to claim the right and wrong ways of drawing influence from others; all we can do is observe, and take note. And it’s worth noting that both Hemingway and Fitzgerald were influenced by Tolstoy. Hemingway “took on board every technique that Tolstoy ever devised,” except he never took on Tolstoy’s themes when they weren’t true to him: “He could never imagine himself as a weak [man], and the idea of a strong man weakened by an emotional dependency was not within his imaginative compass.” Whereas Fitzgerald had no qualms about taking Tolstoy’s themes. And while there’s no clear answer as to why, Hemingway’s approach, when compared to Fitzgerald’s, just seems more genuine — and all the more so when you consider the fact that Fitzgerald’s writing never came close to anything Tolstoy ever wrote.

In a 2007 Harper‘s essay plumbing similar themes, Jonathan Lethem connects art to the idea of a “gift economy,” arguing against those who view “the culture as a market in which everything of value should be owned by someone or other”:

Artists and their surrogates who fall into the trap of seeking recompense for every possible second use end up attacking their own best audience members for the crime of exalting and enshrining their work. The Recording Industry Association of America prosecuting their own record-buying public makes as little sense as the novelists who bristle at autographing used copies of their books for collectors. And artists, or their heirs, who fall into the trap of attacking the collagists and satirists and digital samplers of their work are attacking the next generation of creators for the crime of being influenced, for the crime of responding with the same mixture of intoxication, resentment, lust, and glee that characterizes all artistic successors. By doing so they make the world smaller, betraying what seems to me the primary motivation for participating in the world of culture in the first place: to make the world larger.

Access to Lethem’s article is free for Dish readers this weekend, courtesy of Byliner. Related Dish on the subject here.