Monday, June 29, 2009

When Does "Borrowing" Become "Stealing"?

pas*tiche (according to the ever-reliable wikipedia): a literary technique employing a generally light-hearted tongue-in-cheek imitation of another's style; although jocular, it is usually respectful.

I am of two minds on this subject. While, as you know, I object to J.K. Rowling suing a fan who dared to write a lexicon about her world, I also object to Fredrik Colting writing a book called 60 Years Later, based on J.D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye. (I'm assuming everyone knows what I'm talking about, but if you don't, check out the New York Times article about the lawsuit Salinger filed against Colting.)

In my mind (and not in the law, by the way), there are two different aspects of this issue to take into consideration: (1) Whether the author of the novel is alive, regardless of who holds the rights to that author's work; and (2) The nature of the "borrowing." For example, the great "J.K. Rowling vs. Raging Fan" debate irritated me because the Harry Potter Lexicon is clearly a tribute to Rowling. The very nature of the book prohibits degrading Rowling's work at all, because it is written by fans for fans. Vander Ark was not writing a book about Harry Potter's children or the relationship between Hermione and Ron. Instead, he was writing about what happened in the Harry Potter series. 60 Years Later, however, is a horse of a slightly shady color: instead of honoring Salinger (although it could be argued to be a tribute, I suppose), Colting was simply trying to ride Salinger's coattails to success, which I absolutely cannot condone.

Of course, others might see it differently. Cathy Young of Real Clear Politics, writes:

"Borrowing is an essential part of the creation of culture. If we eliminated all derivative works, we would lose, among other things, Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet (based on a story by an Italian writer), and Jean Rhys's acclaimed novel Wide Sargasso Sea, the story of Mr. Rochester's mad wife from Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre. Of course, classics have also inspired mediocre sequels or reimaginings, such as third-rate novels that continue the story of Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy from Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice. But that's for readers to decide."
The difference, in my mind, is this: Salernitano, the Italian writer whose work Shakespeare "borrowed" (through various other editions and translations), wrote his Novellino in 1476--a good century before Shakespeare even conceived of writing Romeo and Juliet. Likewise, Charlotte Bronte was not around to be irritated by the publication of Wide Sargasso Sea, and while Jane Austen may be rolling in her grave due to the various rip-offs of her work, she's dead and doesn't get a vote. J.D. Salinger, however, does get a vote--and a successful case in the U.S. justice system, unfortunately for the author of 60 Years Later.
Maybe next time, Mr. Colting, you'll pick your victim more wisely. If I were you, I'd go for Hemingway--The Old Man and the Nursing Home.

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