It has been said that “there is nothing new under the sun” and that “good poets borrow, great poets steal.”As such, it makes perfect sense that David Shields would “write” Reality Hunger. This book was created by taking what others (ranging from Elvis to Yeats) wrote or said and combining it into a single work. While he did not want the work to properly cite the original sources, the publisher’s lawyers decided otherwise (for obvious reasons).
Since I am a professor, I tend to see this sort of thing as plagiarism rather than a creative work (although I have seen some creative attempts at plagiarism). However, some folks do not see it this way.
One recent example is provided by Helene Hegemann. Her book, Axolotl Roadkill, allegedly contains plagiarized text. In her defense, she asserted that “there’s no such thing as originality anyway, just authenticity.” This remark nicely mixes “there is nothing new under the sun” with Tolstoy’s view that sincerity is of critical importance in art. However, Tolstoy did have the view that originality was important, as did many other great writers including Edgar Allan Poe.
While Hegemann’s remark can be dismissed as an artist’s hyperbole (or an attempt to justify plagiarism) she does raise an interesting point about art.
On one hand, it can be argued that there is no originality. After all, artists recycle old ideas that themselves are ultimately just imitations of life. True, it might be said, artists can put together old content in new ways (such as Avatar) and achieve great success. But, this sort of originality cannot be considered true (or authentic originality).
In regards to authenticity, perhaps that is what matters-to speak in a genuine voice and, presumably, with the sincerity that Tolstoy praised.
On the other hand, originality does seem to be possible in various degrees. After all, it is easy enough to distinguish between outright copying and works that provide some new element. Having graded papers for years, I have a rather clear insight into that sort of distinction. Also, if there is no originality, there would seem to be little reason to buy or experience “new” works, because there would be no such things. We would be wiser to save our money and avail ourselves of the art already in the public domain.
As far as authenticity goes, that presumably means that the work presents what the artist really thinks or feels. Presumably people can feel and think the same things, so the work of another could, for example, be an authentic expression of what Hegemann thought or felt. However, this hardly seems to be the grounds for claiming authorship. After all, suppose a student of mine turned in a paper she copied from the internet claiming that it authentically expressed her views on Descartes’ skeptical arguments in the First Meditation. Even if this claim were true, she would hardly be entitled to claim the work on her own. After all, if I see someone doing a job and say “gosh, I would work just like that” I am hardly entitled to a cut of his paycheck.
Interestingly enough, I have had students try that approach-they have said that the text they copied expressed their view and hence they regarded it as acceptable to copy it without citing the source. Obviously, I did not buy that reasoning. After all, if I caught a student copying off another student’s test, I would not accept “well, those are the answers I would have put anyway” as a legitimate excuse. The same would seem to apply in art as well.