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reality hunger’s performative contradiction

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One of the only good things to happen to me over the last ten days was to happen upon a discarded review copy of David Shields’s forthcoming Reality Hunger near the office recycling bin. I want to review it myself, and will try to sort that out in the next few days, so I’m not going to say everything I have to say on here and right now. I can’t understand the breathless blurbage it’s received. I know what blurbs are and aren’t, believe me believe me, but still. I should have a chance to ask one of the Major Blurbbers what he was thinking at an Xmas party in a couple of hours. We’ll see.

Just for now: one of the things that Shields does in this book is copy other people’s stuff seamlessly into the book without attribution. Well, almost without attribution. There’s an appendix that starts as follows:

This book contains hundreds of quotations that go unacknowledged in the body of the text. I’m trying to regain a freedom that writers from Montaigne to Burroughs took for granted and that we have lost. Your uncertainty about whose words you’ve just read is not a bug but a feature.

A major focus of Reality Hunger is appropriation and plagiarism and what these terms mean. I can hardly treat the topic deeply without engaging in it. That would be like writing a book about lying and not being permitted to lie in it. Or writing a book about destroying capitalism but being told it can’t be published because it might harm thee publishing industry.

However, Random House lawyers determined that it was necessary for me to provide a complete list of citations; the list follows (except, of course, for any sources I couldn’t find or forgot along the way).

If you would like to restore this book to the form in which I intended it to be read, simply grab a sharp pair of scissors or a razor blade or box cutter and remove pages xxx-xxx by cutting along the dotted line.

Who owns the words? Who owns the music and the rest of our culture? We do – all of us – though not all of us know it yet. Reality cannot be copyrighted.

Stop; don’t read any farther.

Lovely – lots of us agree in principle with all of that. But if reality cannot be copyrighted, Reality Hunger still can be… and is. Right at the front of the book, there it is: Copyright © David Shields, 2010. In this day and age when all sorts of alternative models like creative commons and copyleft are in practice along with alternative means of distribution, it does seem like Shields’s offering is skewed from the start by this rather glaring performative contradiction. Technically, even in copying the above into my post, I am breaking the injunction at the front of the review copy not to “reproduce before publication of the finished book” any of its contents. I’m slightly tempted to start a blog where I post the book as a whole, one of its numbered entries a day. Hmmm…. I’m going to wait by the phone for those Random House lawyers to call.

Written by adswithoutproducts

December 20, 2009 at 1:27 pm

4 Responses

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  1. If something is copyrighted 2010, does that by any chance mean the copyright hasn’t started yet?


    December 20, 2009 at 4:14 pm

  2. Copyright notices are basically beyond the author’s control at this stage. You’ll find quite a number of published books whose stated positions are at odds with what the publisher inserts on the copyright page—I believe, thankfully, the words inside the book will have a longer life than the language on all those copyright pages. I know David and this book and know that if David could have published without the notice, he would have. But it would have cost him probably 95% of his advance to find a publisher who would have agreed…

    Richard Nash

    December 21, 2009 at 9:58 pm

  3. …So the money was more important, you’re saying?

    John Self

    December 22, 2009 at 10:27 am

  4. Ha! No, not at all. I ran an indie publisher in the US for eight years, and was one of the most aggressive advocates for expansive fair use, a rolling back of the copyright term to 28 years etc. but I’m not a single issue voter. There are a lot of factors going into who to pick as a publisher and picking one solely on whether they’ll bracket the copyright notice would be a foolhardy act. The critique here should be that copyright law is lagging the reality of creativity, and corporate copyright holders are the worst offenders, followed by, frankly, a lot of authors who think they’re individual geniuses unburdened by a debt to their peers and forebears. David’s gone way beyond most of his peers in relinquishing a claim on originality, so it makes no sense to argue he’s at fault here…

    Richard Nash

    December 22, 2009 at 5:53 pm

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