Report from the Bedell NonfictioNow Conference, Day 1

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

S. L. Wisenberg, codirector of the MA/MFA in creative writing programs, attended the Bedell NonfictioNow conference at the University of Iowa last week.

Day 1: Who owns words?

Who owns words? How can anything be original if we’re all using the same raw materials? And why are we all so desperately invested in originality, so that we have a country of patent attorneys and copyright lawyers and rules about plagiarism and fair use? And what is it that we're saying? Are we hard-wired to be storytelling people, or is the narrative arc an imposed structure that has outlived its usefulness?

These were some of the questions buzzing around the first day of the conference, stemming from a panel that featured David Shields and others discussing what moderator Dinty Moore called “this maddening little book.” That would be Shields’ tenth volume, “Reality Hunger: A Manifesto,” which is made up of more than 600 bits and pieces, mostly quotations, which were mostly written and spoken by other people. Shields famously wanted his publisher *not* to attribute the quotes in the book, though more than half of the segments contain the words of others.

We venerate Shakespeare, he pointed out, though he built his plays on earlier works by others. “Most ambitious poetry and most ambitious fiction,” Shields argued, “are chock-a-block with references that aren’t cited. Think of Finnegan’s Wake. That’s nothing but a tissue of remixed quotations.” In response to a question, Shields said he felt that he was the curator of the quotations, and as such deserved his name on the book. Reviewing the book in the New York Times New York Times, author Luc Sante agreed: “And for all that so much of its verbiage is the work of others, it positively throbs with personality.”