On the Origins of Appropriative Writing

I’m hugely intrigued by appropriate writing, as I think it’s the way literary fiction has been headed for some time now and will be headed for a while yet. But, a point rarely raised in this discussion is that the poets were all over this ground before the novelists. So it’s nice to see Marjorie Perloff’s Unoriginal Genius: Poetry by Other Means in the New Century.

Bookforum has a review of it.

In the first section of Unoriginal Genius Perloff surveys a century of reaction to the cult of authenticity in poetry, a century of experiments in quotation, citation, pastiche, copying, found text, and outright plagiarism. It all begins with the first generation of Modernist poets and artists, of course—T. S. Eliot larding The Waste Land with quotations from his reading, Ezra Pound beginning The Cantos with an extended translation from Homer, Picasso pasting bits of newspapers into his Cubist still lives; or more radically, Marcel Duchamp’s “ready-mades” (like the urinal turned upside down and titled “Fountain”). Walter Benjamin’s Arcades Project in its unfinished state (it’s unclear how much commentary Benjamin would have inserted among his vast sea of quotations) becomes an important precursor to contemporary “unoriginal writing,” and dovetails nicely with Language Poet Charles Bernstein’s libretto to the opera Shadowtime, which recasts Benjamin’s own texts into strict forms specified by the composer Brian Ferneyhough. . . .

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I’m really excited to read this one. I’ve been doing a lot of appropriative work with my comics (image and text appropriation), and it works well with an anthology I just finished: “Against Expression: An Anthology of Conceptual Writing” http://www.amazon.com/Against-Expression-Conceptual-Avant-Garde-Collection/dp/0810127113/

I can think of a few novelists who were using appropriation long before the modernist time; most obviously Laurence Sterne who, in the first chapter of the Vth volume of Tristram Shandy, appropriates an entire passage (from the Anatomy of Melancholy)…about how useless appropriation is. (He uses Rabelais, Swift, and Cervantes similarly).

A great portion of Anatomy of Melancholy is appropriated as well. And Diderot “borrows” from Sterne in Jacques le Fataliste.

Thanks guys. This might come as a surprise but I was actually already aware of Stern, Burton, etc.

Was more talking about specific things going on in the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s . . .


The Surrender is Veronica Scott Esposito’s “collection of facts” concerning how she embraced her true gender.


Two long essays of 10,000 words each on sex in—and out of—literature . . .

The first essay dives in to Nicholson Baker’s “sex trilogy,” explaining just what Baker is up to here and why these books ultimately fail to be as sexy as Baker might wish.

From there the book moves on to the second essay, which explains just why Spaniard Javier Marías does right what Baker does wrong . . .


5 essays. 2 interviews.

All in all, over 25,000 words of Latin American literary goodness.

3 never-before-published essays, including “The Digression”—a 4,000-word piece on the most important digression in César Aira’s career.

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