Shall We Assume They’ll Google?

An interesting piece published in the New Yorker recently inspired these thoughts on writing and reference. The article caught my eye because of the title, “Bob Dylan, Fanboy.” In sum, it is a look at a new book by David Kinney called “The Dylanologists.” Besides learning that one obsessed fan owns Dylan’s childhood high chair, I didn’t come across much that was new. But it is a good summary of the so-called controversy regarding Dylan’s songwriting. I’d read before how Dylan was accused of plagiarism for borrowing from various sources without citation. Here is Ian Crouch’s fine summary of the hullabaloo:

In the summer of 2003, a schoolteacher from Minnesota was travelling in Japan and happened to pick up a book about the world of Japanese organized crime called “Confessions of a Yakuza.” On the book’s first page, he read a line, about a man sitting like a “feudal lord,” that stood out. He realized that it echoed a line from one of Dylan’s songs from the album “Love and Theft,” which was released in 2001. He brought the book home and found a handful of other, unmistakably reused phrases. Dylan had not credited his strange source, which seemed to have been selected almost at random. In the years since, with the help of Google Books, Scott Warmuth, a fan from New Mexico, has been delving deeper into Dylan’s recent writing and finding all kinds of odd, uncredited borrowings.

Hoping to get some specifics on that story (which is inherently interesting for me since I’m a Dylan fan and I used to live in Japan), I turned to, what else? but Google. Try it yourself. Search for “confession of a yakuza dylan” and near the top of the list you’ll find this website, titled “Textual Sources to the ‘Love & Theft’ Songs.”

Given the verbatim similarity of the source and song, one must assume these were conscious borrowings. Off the top of my head, I can think of three scenarios as Dylan writes these songs: 1. He borrows without thinking that anyone will ever notice the sources (secret, ill-intent); 2. He borrows because in the tradition of songwriting such lifting is normative (doesn’t care either way); 3. He borrows knowing that alert, inquisitive “readers” will eventually get his reference and follow his mind.

Since I am not writing this blog to either defend or condemn the songwriter, I would just like to remind the reader of the title of that album before we move on the main point. Dylan chose to call it “Love and Theft,” so decide for yourself what he was up to.

The main point, or rather, the main question: Should a fiction writer assume that her readers will google freely while reading and attempting to make sense of her work? As time goes on, I think that’s a safe bet, especially if details in the story seem to call for it. And no doubt such an assumption will affect the way some stories are written. In a shameless display of self-promotion, I will turn to a story I wrote for a Drugstore Books event, “By Prescription Only,” a showcase for writing that was based upon the theme of Space.

It might work like this. As the first paragraph announces, the protagonist’s name is Halford P. Goodreads. The surname is common enough for most readers to recognize nowadays, and it connects with the motif of literary quality and appreciation. That motif is also repeated in the role of the character as short story judge, shaking his head at the incoming “shitty stories.” How about the given name? Halford, or Hal, the familiar shortened form seen later on. Some acute readers might easily pick up on Hal as it relates to the theme of Space, as in HAL 9000, the cold, calculating supercomputer from Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece 2001: A Space Odyssey. The first image, however, in the Google search is the stock valuation of Halliburton, one of the largest multinational profit seekers connected to the latest war in Iraq. Those coordinates of “space,” “Hal”, “2001” will provide twin rewards of meaning and amusement if the reader connects the dots as she reads and perhaps rereads the story. A good story might have a lot of dots and Google can prove very helpful in connecting them.

Of course, there is risk in writing this way. The author could become too fixated on obscure references and points of detail so that the 1st round of reading is too boring, too laborious, too UNSTORYLIKE for most readers to even want to bother with it. In that case, everyone’s time is wasted and the work must be judged a failure. The jury is still out on “No Contest”, but that’s in the hands and fingertips of others, not me.

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  1. Paul j Rogers
    Posted May 23, 2014 at 11:49 pm | Permalink

    There is a fourth scenario for Dylan’s magpie antics: subconscious plagiarism. This was George Harrison’s defence when it was discovered that “My Sweet Lord” was pretty much a note for note copy of “He’s So Fine” by the Chiffons. Harrison, quite rightly, lost that case. It does, however, pose the question: what if someone else’s lines, which a writer had read years previously, appeared, verbatim, entirely innocently from the writer’s subconscious? Likewise a conversation with a friend or literary agent, over wine perhaps, and then suddenly the whole thing ends up in court.

    I discount this for the Dylan story, though. Like you, I think Dylan’s title is a signpost erected for his audience.

  2. Nick Cody
    Posted May 24, 2014 at 11:07 am | Permalink

    I considered the “subconscious” possibility but looking at that table showing source and song lyrics it seems like there is too much lifted for it to be from memory. Of course, there’s the possibility that he has a 1-in-a-billion freakish memory and read this obscure novel months and years before and then subconsciously transcribed from it while songwriting. But I don’t think that’s the case here.

  3. Andrew Oberg
    Posted May 24, 2014 at 3:03 pm | Permalink

    Great post, Nick. This was informative, insightful, and fun. Plus as a Dylan fan living in Japan and a Minnesotan to boot it hit all my buttons. I went to see him a few years back in Osaka. The ticket cost about $190, plus I needed round trip bus fare and a hotel for the night. It certainly wasn’t worth it. The venue oversold tickets and a good few dozen people got stuck watching the concert on a big screen outside in the rain, if you can believe that. I was lucky to get inside, but a great show it was not. Dylan went through the motions and appeared to either be saving himself for his upcoming shows on the tour or was simply apathetic.

    Anyway, both of you would probably enjoy Seven Psychopaths, the latest from the writer/director of In Bruges. It touches on these issues as well and is a thoroughly great flick, as my father would say.

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