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Stealing Stories or Just Borrowing Ideas?

Artists copy artists, musicians take samples, and writers are no different. What is art in all its myriad forms if not a series of responses to what came prior? Perhaps a statement too banal to be a part of conversation, too blatantly obvious to be a part of our daily musings on the books we read, or perhaps also a source of guilt for writers, is that literature is recyclable. It’s an unspoken truth, but one worth talking about, at least in a brief article.  

It’s not difficult to guess where Pride and Prejudice and Zombies found its inspiration, or see The Tempest’s place in A Brave New World. But elsewhere the evidence is less obvious and the stealing (or borrowing if you prefer) a bit more cunning. Titles can be a sly nod to a predecessor’s works, as David Foster Wallace’s totem achievement, Infinite Jest is a hint at Hamlet. Scores of others wear their influence on their sleeves (and covers).

Getting down to the nitty gritty of character and narrative, there’s even more overlap between writers. If you strip away all the nuance and authorial flare of characters and narrative, there are essential bones that appear rather ubiquitous throughout every book we read. Moral of the story: stealing is common ground to all; no author is immune.

So what’s the difference between inspiration and full blown kleptomania? And when authors cross seas and cultures to claim a work that they connect with, what is the difference between embracing another culture and appropriating it? Any esteemed work runs the risk of becoming reduced to a superficial form or alternatively, held on a pedestal for others to claim – neither of which does the original much good.

A recent discussion between New York Times’ Craig Jenkins and Frank Guan on Vulture has rekindled the debate when it comes to borrowing (or stealing), specifically when it comes to music. In response, the literary community is giving the debate closer consideration in the book domain.

Signature cites one recent read that explores the topic and attempts to pick away at the gauzy distinction between borrowing and stealing. The Glamour of Strangeness: Artists and the Last Age of the Exotic by Jamie James focuses on the “the voluntary exile who goes to distant lands in search of a new home with no intent to repatriate.” It sets up an idea of cultural exchange (in which authors embrace another’s culture) using two artists as primary case studies: Raden Saleh and Walter Spies, two European artists that spent time in Indonesia.

He the pins the two against a more complex case, Paul Gauguin, who was an advocate for the Tahitian people he lived with while abroad, and simultaneously an adversary in “his horrifically bigoted statements about the island’s Chinese population.”

What the debate seems to boil down to is a difference between the artists’ mindsets, not the act of taking in and of itself. The artist that draws inspiration from another embraces, as where the artist who steals veers towards a colonialist judgment. One is urged by admiration, while the other is intrigued by an exoticism and ‘otherness’ that lacks reality. Underneath each mindset however, something is still taken. The manner it’s taken in – is it wilfully given, is it handled with care and respect, is credit given where it’s due? – gives body to the fuzzy line between inspiration and appropriation, not the actual exchange.

Yet even with a grasp on the distinction, the debate is still slippery, and a proper exchange can still leave room for devastating consequences. Borrowing can create cultural links and community just as easy as it can perpetuate cultural stereotypes. If an author isn’t completely immersed in the culture, the reader inevitably only gets a slim view of another’s reality. Positive or negative, it can be horribly reductive.

There’s really no sure fire way to go about borrowing, without the snags and snafus of social politics. Doing another culture justice in literature entails a long gruelling process of research and in all likelihood a fair share of travel and schlepping about. In an era of instant gratification, where frantic Google searching is synonymous with field work, the process is even more gigantic and looming. But creating a polished final product, after all, takes time and thought, and an awareness to the imbalances of cultural trades is part and parcel with the process. Despite the extra effort, the long road is worth enduring, and far more rewarding for writer and reader alike.

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