Mashing MoLit Redux

More than a year ago I wrote about the possibility of a mashup of Mormon literary works a la Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. Now, this past week I came across an that not only argues for “repurposing” other works, but advocates using these techniques in education.

While acknowledging the view that these works are basically plagiarism, the article’s author, Kenneth Goldsmith argues (successfully, IMO) that our understanding of creativity as requiring wholly original works is flawed, and that even the organization of pre-existing material can be highly creative. Goldsmith, who teaches creative writing at the University of Pennsylvania, bases his argument on a course he teaches called “Uncreative Writing,” in which students are penalized for showing any originality and creativity. Everything they produce must be plagiarized.

While his article does explore the issues around plagiarism, Goldsmith ignores plagiarism’s more formal and rigid sibling, copyright infringement. Unless the source works an “author” uses for these works are in the public domain, publishers and print-on-demand service providers will hesitate to accept these works when they know about them. While I find these ideas invigorating, I, too, hesitate at the copyright issues (I think the plagiarism is easy to resolve — simply disclose what you’ve done).

If nothing else, Goldsmith’s article gave me a lot more food for thought, and more ideas about possible mashups, patchwriting, sampling, etc. Given that more than 10,000 General Conference talks have been given since the 1850s, surely a patchwritten talk would be easy to come up with. I sometimes think that enough has been said in General Conference that a creative “author” could say almost anything he wanted!

Or what about poetry mashups? Already archives of poetry contain thousands of poems; how hard would it be to piece together something new from a bunch of similar poems?

Even scripture, I think, is a source candidate. Of course many chapters and verses of scripture already come from other scriptures. In particular Proverbs and the other books of wisdom literature have been pieced together from many sources. It might be simple to do the same with favorite Mormon scriptures, perhaps constructing a doctrinal argument by moving from verse to verse on a topic. Or, the words of a favorite scripture might, with a bit of work, be transformed into poetry, even if the original wasn’t poetry.

Goldsmith explains his plagiarism requirement for his “Uncreative Writing” course by saying “the suppression of self-expression is impossible.” And that seems right to me. But it also leaves me wondering why we don’t have more self-expression from Mormons. I suspect that we lack writing of this nature because of issues like plagiarism and what we believe to be the appropriate ways to use sources, we self-censor. Perhaps using techniques like these might help us overcome this self-censorship.

11 thoughts on “Mashing MoLit Redux”

  1. Okaaay … But what’s the point of being deliberately, unrelentingly unoriginal? I mean, once you’ve done Price and Prejudice and Zombies, what’s the point of doing Adam and Zombies and Noah and Zombies and Nephi and Zombies and Solomon and Zombies and Mosiah and Zombies and Joseph Smith — Zombies and The Articles of Zombies? Why is suppressing the urge toward originality more conducive to self-expression than the effort to, you know, actually be self-expressive? (Maybe Goldsmith addresses this, but the idea doesn’t seem interesting enough to click through and read his article.)

  2. Ardis, he explains a lot better than I do in the article. Basically, it comes down to “the suppression of self-expression is impossible.” When you actively try to eliminate creativity, especially among those who are creative, their creative self-expression comes out somehow anyway.

  3. Self-censorship in Mormon writing can’t be due to fears of plagerism. Lord knows how many Sacrament Meeting talks are ripped off from conference addresses and books by General Authorities with no acknowledgement of sources.

  4. 3: This past Sunday a young stake conference speaker seemed to be using language far beyond her age and experience. When she used one especially colorful phrase, I googled it on my Kindle … and read the rest of Neal A. Maxwell’s chapter along with her.

  5. I am actually a big fan of mash-ups, although not Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. (I don’t like P&P and I don’t like zombies.) I have tried the mash-up approach on several occasions with poetry. I think in the hands of a more skilled poet it can be awesome. My own efforts leave something wanting, they are meaningful to me but not so much to other readers. . .but I think it’s my own authorial immaturity that causes that.

    I’ve also done a couple of re-write/mash-up with scriptures to try to reflect my inner experience with a section of verses. My favorite that I’ve done was a mash-up of Nephi’s Psalm. The process really helped me deconstruct my understanding of repentance and my own carnal nature.

    I would love to see other people’s efforts in this vein. Maybe that could be another AMV contest???

    To respond to Ardis, I think you are right about the Zombies theme. Once it’s been done with P&P it really doesn’t need to be revisited. But writing a mash-up doesn’t have to involve zombies or even something wonderful with something unsavory. My favorite mash-up that I’ve written was one about May Swensen that combined titles of her poems with sections of her nonfiction writing to form a sort of eulogy/homage. The poem is less than perfect and of course suffers from my literary limitations, but the chance to dig into Swensen’s work and to interact with her was immensely valuable to me.

    To speak more to the point of Kent’s post, I would say that our possibly low levels of self-expression come more from repressive tendencies within our culture than a fear of plagiarism. (Holla! comment #3. Such a pet peeve on my part!!) I think as a people we are conditioned to be very aware that Mormons are easily labeled with a great deal of stereotypes and the fear of those stereotypes limits our expressions. I think most creative types in the Mormon arts fall into two camps. 1) They go full tilt against the grain and write things that are very risky for a Mormon audience or 2) They stay as far away from “the line” as possible and create things that are entirely comfortable.

    I don’t think there’s anything necessarily wrong about either approach, except that they are both extremely reductive. If a middle ground could be hammered out a greater variety of expression would flourish.

    Again, I would LOVE to see other people’s efforts in this area.

    And here’s the link (if I can make it work) to the mash up poem about May Swensen:

  6. Okay, so I always embarrass myself by leaving multiple comments on a post, but here I go anyway. Two thoughts:

    1)The root of self-censorship is probably fear. Course Correction’s comment about plagiarizes General Authority talks in sacrament meeting is a perfect example. Most people are scared spitless by the prospect of talking about their spirituality in front of a hundred people–especially when those hundred people function like an extended family with all the love and acceptance AND back chatter about personal circumstances. To write something and ask someone to front the money to publish it and then ask others to buy it and read it, well, that takes a lot of moxie. I bet fear holds more people back than we think. I know it hold me back.

    2) In his book, What the Dog Saw, Malcolm Gladwell includes and essay he wrote for the New Yorker about plagiarism. A playwright plagiarized an article of Gladwell’s and then began receiving awards for that play. Gladwell initially hired a lawyer (he was flaggergasted that the woman didn’t at least cite him as a source or include his work in her acknowledgements) but later dropped all charges because he couldn’t help but realize how much of his very own work is derivative. The essay was fascinating in part because of Gladwell’s surreal experience, but also because Gladwell put into words what so many writers inherently know but don’t articulate. The lines between writing a derivative work, being inspired by a work, ripping off a work, and plagiarizing a work are blurry. Most writers go off instinct on these kinds of issues, and sometimes our instincts lead us awry.

    Incidentally, Gladwell also pointed out that the legal system and artistic cultures at large don’t have the same issues of plagiarism with music and art. Music in particular, is massively derivative–to the point that it is not only accepted but almost expected.

    The end. I will now refrain from more ridiculously long comments. At least for now.

  7. One factor I consider is the sacred nature of some of these source texts. I would think twice–or more–about changing the words of Holy Scripture, yet I will stand up and tell a Gospel Doctrine class that Ammon had a “coat of arms.”
    Now, in the fanfic world, the mashup/crossover is a common form, where the characters from “Gilligan’s Island” might be grafted onto “Lost,” or Buffy and/or the Highlander might be welded into everything from “A Visit from St. Nicholas” to a Harry Potter adventure.

  8. In regards to teaching purposes, I suggest that educators in the social sciences could do a great deal of good by taking known works and simply changing the characters gender or race. I think it would provide students with clear example of how our experiences, culture and prejudices modify our understanding of the world around us on a continual basis. It wouldn’t have to be dramatic like making Tom Sawyer black, for example. One could simply make all Harry Potters best friends male (goodbye Hermione and hello Hank), etc. The resulting discussions could be enlightening.

    What would it take to extract the text from a eReader and copy/replace pronouns and names? Why hasn’t this been done already just for amusement? Copyright aside, couldn’t authors embrace the eReader technology and allow consumers to choose the gender and race of the protagonist? If consumers could choose for the antagonist, would studies show a consistent bias toward social stereotypes? Done cleverly (and sincerely), I think the resulting novelties (pun intended) could be excellent. Personally, I’d like to read Irvine Welsh’s Filth with a female voice just to see if I like/hate the book more/less than the original.

  9. I have a secret, heartfelt desire to write a “farcequin.”

    Like, those 40’s, 50’s, 60’s era Harelquin romances? My sisters and I collect them. We go to thrift stores and used bookstores and buy them by the dozen and read them and laugh so hard over them… oh, how I love myself a good old-style harlequin. I have always wanted to write a harlequin as a farce: the stereotypical characters, like the perfect, weepy, submissive heroine, and the domineering, sardonic hero bristling with chest hair and bruising his love interest with his ferocious kisses, and the red-fingernailed, perfectly coiffed villianess who snarls and, quite often, drowns in a bog…
    and as a foil, I’d include minor characters who were normal, and completely baffled, by the main characters.

    Come to think of it, it might be quite easy to put an LDS twist on such a project 😀 nobody steal my idea, now!

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