Because mutiny on the bounty's what we're all about
I'm gonna board your ship and turn it on out
No soft sucker with a parrot on his shoulder
'Cause I'm bad gettin' bolder - cold getting colder
Terrorizing suckers on the seven seas
And if you've got beef - you'll get capped in the knees
We got sixteen men on a dead man's chest
And I shot those suckers and I'll shoot the rest
-Beastie Boys, "Rhymin' and Stealin'"
I went through some of my old CDs tonight and saw the Beastie Boy's Licensed to Ill CD. Decided to play it for the first time in years and the memories started to rush back. Hard to believe that 22 years after its 1986 release that this CD sounds just as vital today as it did back when I was entering puberty and I wanted to fight for my right to party. Perhaps it is just nostalgia, but there is something about early rap albums such as this one that grabs my attention more than the current releases.
Thinking about it for a bit, I concluded that a major reason is that artists such as the Beastie Boys dared to steal brazenly from a wide variety of sources, including Led Zeppelin. Yet despite the familiar drum riff of Zeppelin's "When the Levee Breaks" driving the beat for "Rhymin' and Stealin'," this song doesn't suffer from depending on the original, but rather such a recognizable sources serves to ground the bombastic beats in a way that makes for a fresh-feeling song. Sure, it's a questionable tactic that today would lead to all sorts of plagiarism lawsuits, but I find it ironic that in the act of theft, the "stolen" matter is transmuted, becoming something much different than its original source material.
Today, remixes are fairly common. From the authorized remixes of popular songs into "dance" or "electronic" formats to the ever-more sophisticated samplings, to I-pods and I-tunes and Zume and YouTube creating ever bolder versions that play off of the familiarity of the originals to create vibrant new versions, remixes are becoming ever more ubiquitous today. Yet in literature, despite its own rich history of "rhymin' and stealin'," the remix phenomenon hasn't really caught on. Despite authors such as Cory Doctorow experimenting with allowing readers to alter his stories via the Creative Commons license (with many coming up with visual/textual amalgamations that are stunning to behold), there is something inherently conservative about the printed medium and the notion that an author's writing is uniquely his/hers.
It is ironic to a degree, because of the very dependence upon written rhythms and cadences to drive a story. While there are a multitude of writing styles, ultimately in English it is reduced to forms of Subject-Verb-Object, with interesting little grammatical bits scattered to and fro. Breaking such a holy grammatical trinity is anathema, but what about the ideas embedded in such a milieu? Are ideas (and by extension, tropes) ultimately individual property?
I would argue that to an extent (and only to an extent) that ideas are a communal cultural artifact, free to be utilized, played with, altered, and transformed as the writer dares to do. Borrowing literary expression has a long distinguished history. From the various "Homers" to Vergil to Dante to Ariosto to Joyce, themes and literary expressions are there for the taking; just add water, perspiration, and inspiration to the mix and let the yeast rise before leaving some of the dough for the next person.
Of course, borrowing and stealing has its limits. Those who lambast certain writers for aping the manners and styles of their predecessors have a point. If Literature (capitalized to refer only to writing/storytelling as a form of material culture) is to "grow," then things have to be added to the pot. Limiting oneself to just a single prescribed manner or refusing to dip into the communal well of literary expressions often leads to sterile, lifeless works. If a work is to be vibrant, I would argue that it has to show the author's adeptness in knowing what to borrow and steal as much it illustrates that writer's talent for "remixing." But too often, it seems that is the forbidden "R" word. A shame, since there is so much going on in various literary genres that judicious borrowing and adaptation could lead to so many exciting reads.