The art of copying

Dame Jane Goodall’s use of Wikipedia is part of a more decisive shift in authorial culture.

In the 21st century, a writer facing allegations of copying is in for a distressing time. The veteran naturalist Dame Jane Goodall certainly discovered this for herself several weeks ago, when she admitted that her forthcoming book Seeds of Hope lifts passages verbatim, without proper attribution, from several internet sources including Wikipedia. Goodall, known for her pioneering primatology work in the 1960s, has seen the publication date of her 25th book put back as well as finding herself the subject of intense media scrutiny.

I was immediately reminded of the literary self-destruction last year of another science author. The New Yorker's young star Jonah Lehrer’s  suicidal fabrication of Bob Dylan quotations for his book Imagine aroused the suspicions of the Tablet’s Michael Moynihan. Lehrer had already been caught out for "self-plagiarising" and inevitably he was forced to resign from his position at the New Yorker. In a similar move earlier this week, Moynihan turned his critical eye on Goodall, riffling through Seeds of Hope to uncover not only instances of borrowing but also her disturbing "embrace of dubious science". )
 
The kamikaze tendencies of Lehrer and Goodall, who both had big intellectual reputations, are bewildering at best. What drives such writers to run the risk of forever tainting their stellar careers? In a startling assessment of Lehrer, the New Statesman’s Yo Zushi found that Dylan’s actual sentiments and Lehrer’s pseudo-quotations were far from mismatched: "Lehrer could easily have used bits from real interviews to make his point," Zushi observed. "The perplexing thing is that he didn’t." )
 
It is unsatisfactory to dismiss Lehrer and Goodall as cases of creative burnout. What is particularly interesting about the two science writers, with Lehrer truly a child of the digital age and Goodall surely embedded in print culture, is that both have fallen victim to more powerful obsessions with intellectual property that run through 21st-century western society. Such extremes have been criticised by the journalist Malcolm Gladwell, who recalls being asked to "match" stories from other newspapers. "The ethics of plagiarism have turned into the narcissism of small differences," he damningly writes about the nature of news copy, "because journalism cannot own up to its heavily derivative nature, it must enforce originality on the level of the sentence." ).
 
Several years ago, the French novelist Michel Houllebecq was pushed into making a spirited defence after facing accusations that his book La carte et le territoire had lifted passages from Wikipedia. Instead of denial, Houllebecq turned round on his critics and pointed out that the whole ethos of his literary style was premised on incorporating the derivative into an act of transformative creation. "This approach, muddling real documents and fiction, has been used by many authors," Houellebecq argued. Creation and copying exist in a state of symbiosis.
 
The truth is that this century has been littered with such stories. As we invest ever more in the construction of copyright and the possession of intellectual property, violations of such emotionally charged boundaries have surged. But do authors deserve to see their careers ruined in the process? As Houllebecq suggests, artistic plagiarism can be imbued with aesthetic qualities. And ultimately, does it really matter if banal sources such as Wikipedia are plundered in the quest for creating something greater? Wikipedia itself is subject to the Creative Commons licence which demands proper attribution. But the open commonwealth of knowledge that fills the virtual world is often hazy, frequently messy. Who and what exactly were Goodall and Lehrer violating?
 
Attempts to distinguish "good" and "dishonourable" acts of literary poaching are missing the point. In the digital age, we are all plagiarists. There are also powerful geographical forces that point to a different future. We need only look a little further east. The gold rush fever that infects the Chinese cultural world has turned global attention onto a new set of artistic entrepreneurs. China has carried a long classical tradition of pedagogical copying. Enforced by the Maoist rejection of private ownership, this ideology has exploded in the reform era into outright "plagiarisms". This has been most persuasively expressed by the Chinese novelist Yu Hua, writing on the "copycat phenomenon".  Yu describes his encounter with a pirated edition of his seminal novel Brothers. “No, it’s not a pirated edition,” the street vendor informed him, “it’s a copycat”.
 
Whether or not we choose to accept the unceasing stream of ideas that inundate the creative landscape, China’s cultural scene heralds a new age of unabashed artistic emulation.

 

Jane Goodall pictured earlier this year in Nairobi (Photograph: Getty Image)

En Liang Khong is an arts writer and cellist.

Follow on twitter @en_khong

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Marc Maron: a conversation with the anxiety co-pilot

Now that the interview-based podcast WTF has had millions of downloads and featured guests from Iggy Pop and Barack Obama, what does its host Marc Maron want to say?

Richard Pryor decided to talk about race. Sam Kinison used his fame and his family history to talk about God. Bill Hicks asked why nothing produced in America seemed quite worthy of the people who consumed it. Now that the intimate, interview-based podcast WTF has had millions of downloads on iTunes and has featured guests from Mel Brooks to Iggy Pop and, this summer, Barack Obama, what does its host, the comedian Marc Maron – adopter of stray cats, recovered addict and vinyl hoarder – feel he has to say?

“I think the type of conversations that I have on the show are something that is missing in our lives,” Maron told me one recent Friday, down the line from the garage in the garden of his home in Highland Park, Los Angeles, where WTF has been recorded twice a week since 2009. “We’ve lost the knowledge that it’s not that hard to have an hour-long conversation with someone. You’re built to carry whatever problems they have. I think it’s good for the heart.”

If the Maron family crest bore a motto, it might be that timeless adage: “Wherever you go, there you are.” Born in 1963, Maron was raised by a real-estate broker mother and an orthopaedic surgeon father, first in New Jersey, then in Alaska, then in Albuquerque, New Mexico. “My father is and was both an overactive hypochondriac and a physician,” he wrote in his 2013 memoir, Attempting Normal, “which is a bad combination.” After studying English at Boston University, he began performing stand-up comedy at the age of 24.

“I don’t think of myself as a joke guy,” he told me. “Most of what I do is creating a dialogue around my own problems. Some people call it ‘navel-gazing’ but I’d prefer to call it ‘compulsive self-awareness’.”

And there have been many problems. Maron, now 51, began his 2013 comedy special Thinky Pain by telling the audience in the basement of the Village Gate nightclub in New York that he didn’t “have a lot of respect for people that don’t have the courage to lose complete control of their life for a few years”.

When Maron was 35, unhappily married, hoovering up booze, weed and cocaine most evenings, he met a beautiful aspiring comedian 12 years his junior, who told him he looked dreadful and offered to help him get sober. And she did, more or less. He divorced his first wife and pinned his hopes on his second. By 2009, he was living on the US west coast, divorced for a second time, barely able to work and newly dismissed from the morning talk show he’d co-hosted on the left-leaning Air America radio network.

“It was a period where I needed to talk a lot,” he said, “but also to sort of re-engage with something I think I had practised as a child: being part of somebody else.” With the former Air America producer Brendan McDonald, Maron began recording conversations with comedian friends, seeking advice, delving into their lives. He asked stock questions, such as “What did your old man do?” and “Who were your guys?”, as if they might provide some clue to where he had gone wrong. Then people started to listen.

“I started getting emails saying somehow or other the dialogue with my guests, or my monologues, were making people feel better or getting them through dark times,” he said. “I never anticipated people would get that type of help from the show.”

In a recent episode with Ian McKellen, Maron explained to the British actor that his listeners were “sensitive, slightly aggravated, usually intelligent people”, not so much “a demographic, more of a disposition”. By 2010, WTF had attracted a cult following. Robin Williams came to the garage and talked about his depression. Maron’s fellow stand-up Todd Glass came out as gay on the show after a string of suicides among young LGBT people. Friends whom Maron had known throughout his career, including David Cross, Sarah Silverman and Bob Odenkirk, joined him to reminisce. His 2010 interview with Louis CK, arguably the best-known US comedian of recent years, was voted the greatest podcast episode ever by the online magazine Slate.

“Comedians in their infancy are generally selfish, irresponsible, emotionally retarded, morally dubious, substance-addicted animals who live out of boxes and milk crates,” Maron wrote in his memoir. Yet, as they mature, they can become “some of the most thoughtful, philosophical, open-minded . . . creative people in the world”.

“The best comics are people that have taken the chance to live a life independent of mainstream culture and expectations,” he told me. “They’re constantly looking for an angle on the information coming in. They write things down. It’s the life of a thinker, or a philosopher, or poet – however you want to put it.”

I suggested that poetry was an ideal analogy for comedy, not only because poets reframe reality in a truthful way but also because they can be savage and resentful, particularly to fellow poets. It’s a fact Maron openly concedes about himself.

“I’m the clown that thought Louis CK’s show Louie should be called F*** You, Marc Maron,” he said at the 2011 Just for Laughs Comedy Festival in Montreal. The episode of WTF with Louis CK, a friend since the late 1980s, is remarkable not only for the moment when CK becomes audibly emotional as he discusses the birth of his first child, but for the way in which he unflinchingly airs his grievances with Maron, who confesses to envying CK’s success so much that they lost contact for a time. “You were being a shitty friend by being jealous,” CK says. “I could’ve used you . . . I got divorced. I got a show cancelled. I could’ve used a friend.”

So, in 2015, with a TV series about his life on the IFC cable network concluding its third series, the widely discussed interview in which Obama opened up about parenting, gun control and racism in the US and a series of high-profile appearances in Dublin, London and Sydney booked to showcase new material, surely the glass at last looks half full? “Maybe,” he said. “There are some people whose ego is able to accept the love and adoration of an audience. I’ve always been one to question that.”

Yet the improvements to his life – recognition, financial security, reconciliation with old friends – are undeniable. “Most creative people move through a tremendous amount of insecurity, which can turn to hostility. But the podcast became socially relevant and some of the insecurities dissipated. I could accept myself, for the most part, and realise that all the hard work I’d done for half my life had manifested into something that connects with people.”

Maron’s biggest anxiety today, he explained at the end of our talk, before opening the garage door to face the day, is that he’s “swamped with work all the f***ing time”.

“I beat myself up feeling like I should be out in the world, seeing a play or some art or something. Often, when I do monologues, I think, ‘I’ve got nothing to talk about.’ But then I go on and talk about nothing.”

The truth is that Marc Maron isn’t Richard Pryor or Bill Hicks – but that’s OK. We live in a different time. Perhaps what listeners need most is not more opinions, but a little help getting out of their own way: a co-pilot to navigate the anxieties of living day to day. “That’s exactly right,” he said. “The little things.”

Marc Maron performs at the Southbank Centre, London SE1, on 3 and 4 September

Philip Maughan is Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 03 September 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Pope of the masses