A Case for Minor Larceny?

Malcolm Gladwell’s latest article chronicles how artists across several mediums are prone to sampling. While the obvious examples such as George Harrison’s “My Sweet Lord” (taken subconsciously from “She’s So Fine”) and Tarantino’s wholesale lift of the magic marker anecdote from Scorsese’s American Boy are left out, Gladwell does make a strong case for greater sensitivity in how artists “steal.”

If Gene Wolfe hadn’t been inspired by Jack Vance, we wouldn’t have his fantastic Sun books. Nor would we have Eric Kraft without Proust, or David Foster Wallace without Borges, Coover and Gaddis. Lindsay Anderson’s cinematic masterpiece, O Lucky Man!, couldn’t have come into being, had Malcolm McDowell and Anderson not been inspired by Voltaire’s Candide. Should we damn David Mitchell from the blatant Haruki Murakami inspiration in Number9Dream?

I once interviewed Guy Ritchie and pointed out that his subtitles in Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels reminded me of the jive talking from Airplane. Apparently, nobody else had pointed this out to him and the stylistic similarity had never occurred to him until that moment. But the scene in question helps to give Lock its lived-in feel.

Months after writing Wrestling an Alligator, while there were a few conscious nods (and revisions) to other influences (the argument clinic sketch from Monty Python, Daffy Duck running around like a loon in his early Warner Brothers appearances), I was shocked to learn that I had unexpectedly included a line from Superman II (a film I had watched too many times as a child): “I’ve seen a lot of sleazy moves in my time.” When Mark finishes his novel, I have no doubt that John Banville will work his way in there somewhere.

I’d hate to see a world where “stealing” becomes so rigid that it fails to account for an artist’s subconscious inspirations. The simple fact is that we are just as inspired from what we read as we are from what we experience. There’s an idea in this somewhere about the pros and cons of novelists as cultural and literary stenographers.


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