Good Writers Borrow, Great Writers Remix
Why It’s Ok to Reuse, Repurpose, and Recycle Fiction
January 12, 2018
I loved it! I loved both the playfulness of the work—something I found so lacking in most of the literary fiction I was assigned in college—and in the possibilities of pouring new ideas into an existing story’s form. (I once even attempted a story called “9/11 Considered as a Super Bowl Game,” though luckily abandoned it. Trust me, it did not work.) It isn’t the best story I’ve ever read, yet it gave me a key to opening an entire way of writing. In the years since, I’ve found that many of my favorite books do some form of “remixing”: Angela Carter’s brilliant subversions of classic fairy tales in The Bloody Chamber, for example. Or Victor LaValle’s recent rebuttal and homage to Lovecraft, The Ballad of Black Tom. You can insert your own examples: Jean Rhys remixing of Jane Eyre in Wide Sargasso Sea. Nathan Englander’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank.
Reworking an existing text is not proof of a lack of originality, it is a tool to create new works. It is an essential part of how art moves forward, while at the same time connecting us to the art created in the past. It is akin to writing in a form, how infinite poems can be created out of the structure of a haiku or a sonnet. Jonathan Lethem laid this out in his famous, and excellent, essay “The Ecstasy of Influence,” where he gave examples of the generative power of appropriation across artforms and throughout history.
Lincoln Michel is the author of Upright Beasts and the co-editor of the crime anthology Tiny Crimes. His fiction and criticism appear in Granta, The New York Times, GQ, Rolling Stone, The Guardian, and elsewhere. You can find him online at lincolnmichel.com and @thelincoln.LIT HUB