Helprin, Chaucer and literary influence

Several colleagues have asked me if I don’t have some pithy and devastating response to make to the opinion piece by Mark Helprin in Sunday’s New York Times, A Great Idea Lives Forever. Shouldn’t its Copyright?  In some ways the best refutation of Helprin’s editorial is simply to consider its title carefully.  Do we really want great ideas owned by individuals forever?  While copyright does not, of course, protect ideas, perpetual copyright would vastly increase the amount of litigation needed for any new work of creativity in order to prove that its dependence on all that had preceded it was on the correct side of the idea / expression line. What a powerful weapon the James Joyce estate would wield to suppress criticism and scholarship for many, many more years if Helprin got his wish.

Should Boccaccio have been able to sue Chaucer to establish that only ideas and not expression were appropriated when Chaucer wrote his “derivative works?”  Without literary borrowing, the great works of world literature would not have been possible; Chaucer could not have written The Canterbury Tales and Mark Helprin could not have written… whatever Mark Helprin has written.  Then there is the culture of remix and parody fostered by the Internet — a whole new kind of creativity that should not be stifled in its infancy.  So perhaps the most appropriate response to Helprin is to read another recent article that celebrates the interplay and interpenetration of cultural creation, The Ecstasy of Influence by Jonathan Lethem, which appeared in Harpers in February 2007.

4 thoughts on “Helprin, Chaucer and literary influence”

  1. I just read aletter sent to the NY Times by Gigi Sohn of Public Knowledgethat offers a trenchent critique of Helprin’s position. I hope we can look for it on the letters page soon.

  2. One of my favorite derivative works is “The wind done gone” by Alice Randall. It is a witty retelling of the classic novel “Gone with the Wind” but from an African American perspective. Randall’s version is beautifully rendered broadening the discussion about the Civil War and the Ante Bellum south. She faced great difficulty publishing her work because of copyright and cultural controversy. I consider it one of many books that I now couldn’t imagine the world without.

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