- John Rodden (Author)
Performing the Literary Interviews. University of Nebraska Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Marilyn Randall (Author)
Pragmatic Plagiarism: Authorship, Profit, and Power. University of Toronto Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Ian Rae
Performing the Literary Interview features interviews with nine contemporary authors: Rick Bass, W.S. Di Piero, Frank Conroy, Marge Piercy, Gerald Stern, Richard Howard, John Nathan, Camille Paglia, and Isabel Allende. The interviews were conducted between 1994-97 and vary greatly in length, ranging from a five-page chat with Conroy to a twenty-seven-page debate with Paglia. All the interviews have been published before, but John Rodden has collected them here and appended an introduction in order to argue that the literary interview is a genre unto itself and worthy of critical attention. Rodden maintains that the manner in which the interviewees present themselves—that is, their voice, gesture, and rhetoric—constitutes a particular generic language that has been overlooked. Rodden aims to redress this oversight by identifying some generic features of the interview and situating this new genre somewhere between biography and performance theory.
According to Rodden, the first literary interview was published in France in 1884. However, his introduction traces the emergence of the interview from its disreputable status in the early nineteenth century (as a branch of American journalism) to its more authoritative status in the twenty-first century (as a mainstay of academic journals). From the wide range of interview styles that has developed over this period of time, Rodden devises three categories in which to place his interview subjects: Traditionalists, Raconteurs, and Advertisers. Traditionalists answer questions in a businesslike manner, placing emphasis on their writing and not on themselves. Raconteurs, in contrast, speak readily about themselves and have a flair for anecdotes and asides. Advertisers, finally, promote their literary personae instead of their writings and have a tendency to dominate their interviewer. Rodden argues that these three categories provide a foundation for the systematiza-tion of the interview as a distinct genre.
Certainly, Rodden has a point when he argues that an interview with Camille Paglia should be read as a performance. However, performance theory yields little of interest when applied to the traditionalists, whom Rodden labels "anti-performers," thereby making the traditional performance the absence of performance—a somewhat problematic foundation for a new genre. Similarly, biographical interpretations of the traditionalist interviews may fail because the subjects often will not discuss their personal lives. Some clever theorizing on Rodden’s part might have resolved these problems, but his book is hamstrung by a lack of conclusions, both in the individual chapters and at the end of the work. Rodden sets up the individual interviews with helpful introductions that detail the subjects’ backgrounds and offer some comparisons, but the book as a whole suffers from a lack of analysis. Rodden makes his arguments before his readers have the material necessary to evaluate them; and by the time they have this material, the critical debate has moved on to a new subject. This lopsided quality in Rodden’s book reinforces the truth of his opening words: "Is the interview a distinctive genre of literary performance? In two words: Not yet."
Marilyn Randall takes a rather different approach to questions of literary production in Pragmatic Plagiarism: Authorship, Profit, and Power. Randall begins her study of plagiarism with a necessary, but somewhat tedious survey of the academic, legal, and other institutional usages of the term. Although plagiarism, as a term, came into use during the rise of academic criticism in the nineteenth century, debates surrounding repetition and intertextuality have been going on for centuries. Indeed, the list of authors accused of borrowing unscrupulously is illustrious and includes everyone from Shakespeare and Molière to Kathy Acker and Martin Luther King, Jr. Randall grounds her discussion of these authors in a wide-ranging inquiry that takes into account shifting cultural norms, publishing standards, and ownership practices. She examines the distinction between plagiarism and copyright infringement, for example, and demonstrates how the profit motive shapes the plagiarism debate. Randall argues that even as the necessity of earning a livelihood pressures the modern author to appropriate, the pressure to publish in the academic world increases the number of watchdogs. Occasionally, paraphrasers and plagiarism hunters clash in an intermediary zone where the nitpicking reaches fever pitch. However, Randall has the good sense to record the humorous responses of authors to their critics, as well as of critics to other critics. For example, William Walsh issues fair warning to overzealous academics by noting the judgment of history: "On the whole, as between the plagiarist and his accuser, we prefer the plagiarist."
The most interesting parts of Pragmatic Plagiarism have to do with the authors to whom history has given this preferential treatment. For example, Randall examines the charges laid against Corneille for his numerous borrowings in Le Cid. Randall is an Associate Professor in the Department of French at the University of Western Ontario and her bilingualism greatly enriches her study, in part because the regulatory acts of the Académie française, as well as its conclusions in the Corneille case, established many important precedents in the plagiarism debate. By ruling that Corneille had significantly improved the work of a Spanish dramatist whose words and theme he appropriated, the Académie effectively sanctioned the Eliotic notion that mediocre authors borrow and great authors steal. Such theft, moreover, is likely to be condoned if an author steals from a nation that is the cultural, economic and territorial rival of his or her own. Randall therefore traces the long history of "Imperial Plagiarism" and underscores the reciprocal impact of literary pillaging on colonizer and colonized. As captive Greece seized the imagination of Imperial Rome, so contemporary postcolonial authors have captured numerous literary prizes in the language of the colonizers. However, in a few cases, these prize-winners have plagiarized extensively in their works, maintaining the right to use imperial tactics against empire. Some feminist authors have deployed a similar strategy in their efforts to subvert patriarchy and the publishing industry. Indeed, by the time Randall reaches the "Guerrilla Plagiarism" of postmodernism, the movement’s zeal for appropriation seems old-fashioned. The only fault I find with Randall’s work is the somewhat repetitious quality of her analysis as she attempts to cover this vast territory. For instance, Randall cites Hubert Aquin’s assertion that "the originality of a piece of work is directly proportional to the ignorance of its readers" far too many times. Nonetheless, by focusing on important cultural figures and controversial public moments in the plagiarism debate, Randall brings to life an academic issue with significant implications for law, finance, and popular culture.
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- Genealogy and History by Adele Perry
Books reviewed: English Immigrant Voices: Labourers' Letters From Upper Canada in the 1830s by Wendy Cameron, Sheila Haines, and Mary McDougall Maude
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MLA: Rae, Ian. Para-Literary Performers. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 9 Dec. 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #176 (Spring 2003), Anne Carson. (pg. 182 - 184)
***Please note that the articles and reviews from the Canadian Literature website (www.canlit.ca) may not be the final versions as they are printed in the journal, as additional editing sometimes takes place between the two versions. If you are quoting from the website, please indicate the date accessed when citing the web version of reviews and articles.