the fine print october 2009: the generous, promiscuous Jonathan Lethem

October 11, 2009

This being Thanksgiving, I thought I’d give a little thanks for a writer who has made me laugh, moved me and inspired me by his own example to stop trying to fit my writing ideas into particular kind of shoe box, but rather to use the shoe box they came in, maybe tart them up a little, but to go with what you’ve got. That sort of thing. That he’s promiscuous puts me over the moon.

Jonathan Lethem. Brooklyn-born author of essays, reviews, short stories and a couple of celebrated novels. Got a new novel, out on Oct. 16, 2009, called Chronic City, that has lovers separated by Earth’s atmosphere, with the protagonist pining on the ground and his gal stuck in the international space station. Modern love. Lots more wacky characters. Mashups of genres is sort of his specialty. He’s pulled it off quite nicely in the past. You can try an excerpt of Chronic City here.

But the new novel is not why I want to tell you about this guy or remind you about this guy. Nor is it to remind you that he creates heartbreakingly funny beautiful characters, like the wanna-be graffiti artist and sometime superhero who grows up to be a rock writer in The Fortress of Solitude or the Tourette’s-afflicted street orphan gumshoe in Motherless Brooklyn. Also not because of his drop-dead gorgeous essays, including the love letter to a Brooklyn subway station titled Speak, Hoyt-Schermerhorn or his thoughts on seeing Star Wars a stupid amount of times with his mother in the piece titled 13, 1977, 21, which earns every one of the five Kleenexes you’ll go through. Both of the latter are from his first collection of essays, The Disappointment Artist.

No, the reason I want to introduce or remind you about Jonathan Lethem is because of a little project on his website called The Promiscuous Materials Project.

What open source is to software, what sampling is to music, what collage is to the original works it strips pieces from, what is theft in some people’s eyes … Lethem is begging  you to recycle pieces of his literature and make them your own. He offers, for the sum of $1 and a formal agreement, the use of any of 17 stories for adaptation into short films or one-act plays and a handful of songs for musical adaptation.

He is still in business to earn a living; no book or story adaptations are permitted as, he says, they would infringe on his agreements with his publishers. But I love this formalizing of generosity, of tipping the hat to art that is inspired by other art, and isn’t it all?

“Most artists are brought to their vocation when their own nascent gifts are awakened by the work of a master. That is to say, most artists are converted to art by art itself,” he writes in his essay The Ecstasy of Influence: A Plagiarism.

Using his usual mix of high (Nabokov’s Lolita) and low (The Simpsons) throughout the essay, he illustrates the wrongheadedness of trying to isolate one creator for one idea, the joy of seeing and acknowledging the web of creation, but also the need to acknowledge each new kaleidoscopic “click” as an individual piece of art in its own right. I like this bit in particular:

“In 1941, on his front porch, Muddy Waters recorded a song for the folklorist Alan Lomax. After singing the song, which he told Lomax was entitled Country Blues, Waters described how he came to write it. ‘I made it on about the eighth of October ’38,’ Waters said. ‘I was fixin’ a puncture on a car. I had been mistreated by a girl. I just felt blue, and the song fell into my mind and it come to me just like that and I started singing.’ Then Lomax, who knew of the Robert Johnson recording called Walkin’ Blues, asked Waters if there were any other songs that used the same tune. ‘There’s been some blues played like that,’ Waters replied. “This song comes from the cotton field and a boy once put a record out—Robert Johnson. He put it out as named Walkin’ Blues. I heard the tune before I heard it on the record. I learned it from Son House.’ In nearly one breath, Waters offers five accounts: his own active authorship: he ‘made it’ on a specific date. Then the ‘passive’ explanation: ‘it come to me just like that.’ After Lomax raises the question of influence, Waters, without shame, misgivings, or trepidation, says that he heard a version by Johnson, but that his mentor, Son House, taught it to him. In the middle of that complex genealogy, Waters declares that ‘this song comes from the cotton field.’ “

Want to crunch your brain some more? Click here to read the full essay, The Ecstasy of Influence: A Plagiarism, and thanks to Harpers for making it available (because they don’t always).

Outside of the Promiscuous project, but definitely worth your while, this excerpt introduces the Tourette’s-afflicted hero in Motherless Brooklyn.

Or check out Speak, Hoyt-Schermerhorn and some other of Lethem’s essays in The Disappointment Artist collection at Google Books (in free preview as of this writing; lemme know if you find a broken or blocked link).

And if that gets your literary heart racing, and you’re more Montreal than Winnipeg, consider a road trip to see Lethem read in Manchester, Vermont on Saturday, November 21, 2009 at 7 p.m. at Northshire Books, 4869 Main St. Here’s a map.

Denise Duguay


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