December 12, 2018

In Literature, Who Decides When Homage Becomes Theft?

“IN JANUARY, the critic and novelist Francine Prose took to Facebook to express her outrage at a short story in the latest issue of The New Yorker by a relatively unknown writer named Sadia Shepard. Second-guessing The New Yorker’s fiction department is something of a parlor game among members of the literati, but Prose wasn’t interested in quibbling over aesthetics. To her, the story, titled “Foreign-Returned,” about Pakistani expatriates adrift in Stamford, Conn., was a flagrant rip-off of Mavis Gallant’s “The Ice Wagon Going Down the Street,” about Canadian expatriates adrift in Geneva, Switzerland, and also published in The New Yorker, in 1963. “It’s just wrong,” Prose declared, setting off a skirmish on social media that rallied other acclaimed writers, including Alexander Chee, Jess Row, Gina Apostol and Salman Rushdie, to Shepard’s defense.

Six years earlier, a similar scenario of influence and homage had unfolded, also involving two stories published more than half a century apart, also both in The New Yorker, because the literary world is that small. (Full disclosure: I was once on the magazine’s editorial staff, but not when any of these stories appeared.) “Referential,” by the short-story master Lorrie Moore, opens with two people fretting over what birthday present to give a deranged and hospitalized young man and ends with the hollow ring of a telephone — the same trajectory traced by Vladimir Nabokov’s 1948 “Symbols and Signs” (later retitled “Signs and Symbols”). Like Shepard, Moore diverges from her source in details but cleaves to its structure so closely that the likeness is undeniable. Yet Moore received no public censure, no scolding from a critic of Prose’s stature and power. For the same act, one writer was called out, the other given a pass.

Neither was trespassing. There’s long, honorable precedent for revisiting and recasting the work of fellow writers, communing and wrestling with predecessors and contemporaries alike; it’s essential to art as a sustained exploration of the human condition over time. So why the imbalance in response? Perhaps, paradoxically, Moore’s take on Nabokov seems more “acceptable” precisely because she doesn’t stray too far from the original, doesn’t subvert it, but simply and deftly applies a light, modern gloss with her incisive observations of domesticity and her trademark mordant wit. Her characters — white, educated, middle-class — are readily identifiable as part of Western literature, possessing their leading roles as if born to them. Shepard’s are not: They’re drawn from her background as the American-born daughter of a white father and a mother who was both Pakistani, with roots in a country once colonized by and subordinate to the West, and Muslim, part of a group increasingly demonized in today’s political rhetoric. Shepard’s approach to Gallant, and the Western literary tradition, is thus more radical. As an outsider, she is refusing to “know her place” on the margins and is instead writing herself into the canon, making — taking — a space where none might otherwise be granted.”

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