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Kaye Cain-Nielsen: Best Manifesto on Stealing Other Writers’ Work

December 2, 2011

This year, ask yourself: why create when you can steal?

By **Kaye Cain-Nielsen**

Luddite.jpgPhotograph via Wikimedia Commons.

It is almost 2012, and writers are stuck, heads up proverbial arses, in the 1950s or worse. In this year’s Uncreative Writing, Kenneth Goldsmith convincingly portrays those of us engaged in the written arts as creative-leaning Luddites whose grand notions of originality are beyond obsolete in the internet age. Goldsmith: artist, writer, founder of UbuWeb, transcriber of an entire copy of The New York Times into a 900-page volume (Day, 2003), and wearer of paisley suits, urges us to get the hell into the 21st century. By gorgeously illustrating how the visual arts world has embraced and thrived through that whole Postmodernism thing, Goldsmith convinced me that writers ought to get beyond tender egos and bitter copyright battles and embrace our wildest, kinkiest desires: straight transcription, open borrowing, plagiarism. Maybe it’s the bleeding heart, Midwestern, Lutheran-tinged liberal in me, but I actually like people telling me I am somehow wrong and need to get with it.

“With an unprecedented amount of available text,” Goldsmith argues in the introduction to the book, “our problem is not needing to write more of it; instead, we must learn to negotiate the vast quantity that exists. How I make my way through this thicket of information—how I manage it, parse it, organize and distribute it—is what distinguishes my writing from yours.”

Uncreative Writing, which came out of the eponymous course Goldsmith teaches at the University of Pennsylvania, is part educational text complete with an impressive survey of visual artists and writers who have successfully copied, borrowed, and stolen the materials for their works. One of my favorite examples is the poem collection Your Country Is Great by Ara Shirinyan, entirely composed of Google searches for “Afghanistan is Great” or “Burkina Faso is great,” etc. There’s also a reprint of a poem created from repeating store names on a mall’s directory.

The book is also part manifesto, directed at all of us. Goldsmith’s students, who fail his course if they turn in anything “original” and whose final papers must be purchased from an online mill and defended as their own, are apparently converts to the belief that there’s deep freedom in letting go of the bounds of supposed creativity. I am converting as well. By far my favorite collection of printed words from this year, Uncreative Writing is required reading for anyone who reads or writes at all. It’s unlike anything I’ve read, and something I would venture to call very important. Seriously. I haven’t even finished it yet, because I keep jumping up to try out the author’s text and image “exercises,” or to Gchat friends and urge them to pick up a copy (no one wants to buy it, but I’ve accumulated a waiting list of about ten future borrowers). If I were really on it, I wouldn’t have written this at all but would have plucked and rearranged words from other reviews of the book. Who knows, maybe I did.

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Kaye Cain-Nielsen is an editorial assistant at Guernica.

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