A Special Case of Plagiarism

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Earlier today Chris blogged about a guy who’s translating Moby-Dick into emoji. Which reminded me of something.

Recently one of our favorite writers, Damion Searls, was pondering a 2007 abridgment of Moby-Dick called Moby-Dick in Half the Time. The New Yorker’s Adam Gopnik had written of the abridgment that it improved the classic, by contemporary standards: it cuts out all “the self-indulgent stuff and present[s] a clean story, inhabited by plausible characters… You think, Nice job—what were the missing bits again? And when you go back to find them you remember why the book isn’t just a thrilling adventure with unforgettable characters but a great book. The subtraction does not turn good work into hackwork; it turns a hysterical, half-mad masterpiece into a sound, sane book. It still has its phallic reach and point, but lacks its flaccid, anxious self-consciousness: it is all Dick and no Moby.”

In the September ’09 Believer, Searls writes of the above passage: “This begs the next question, though: For those of us leading lives too busy to read a 1,000- (or, let’s be fair, 650-) page book, would we rather spend our time on a taut, spare, driving narrative or on all-mad, flaccid hysteria? Does today’s harried reader want Moby or Dick?”

He found out the hard way.

That’s right: Searls compiled a text containing nothing more or less than everything the abridgment cut out. Every punctuation mark, every sentence fragment, every half-mad hysterical rant, in precisely the order it appears in the source.

The resulting text — part fiction, part found poetry, part conceptual art — is entitled ; or The Whale (the semicolon is silent when read aloud), and it has been published as a special issue of the Review of Contemporary Fiction. Eight bucks a copy.

The Quarterly Conversation’s Scott Esposito interviewed Searls last week, and in the course of the interview he asked whether the anonymous editor(s) who created the abridgment were the true author(s) of ; or The Whale. Searls responded:

DS: You know, I’ve wondered about that. Is ; or The Whale plagiarized? Even though it would be a special case of plagiarism, since literally, rigorously, not one word or punctuation mark is that other person’s work. (Of course none of it is either the other person’s or mine, it’s all Melville’s.) If not plagiarized, is it an infringement of intellectual property or something? Maybe that’s why I’ve never gotten in touch with the people at Orion Books—I don’t know how they might feel.

SE: That’s kind of ironic since [the abridger] is anonymous and may very well be a team of editors. How do you feel about it?

DS: I feel fine about not being the true author. That’s how collage or found poetry always works, and it’s not like I’m passing off ; or The Whale under my own name or anything. Even “Edited by” is a bit strong, since I didn’t exactly make any editorial decisions — I’d say “Produced by,” like a record producer.

For me, these reflections bring up another notion: that an abridgment of any text inevitably produces a shadow work, an anti-abridgment, which is equally the work of that same editor’s hand, and all it takes to bring it into the light is a copy of the source text for comparison.

The moment I read Searls’ Believer piece, I went straight to the Dalkey Archive and purchased a copy; when I received it two weeks ago, I began reading from the beginning and have found it weird, atmospheric, and compelling, like watching, in one run, all the deleted scenes included as DVD extras without reference to the actual film. For example, take the opening of Chapter 29:

Enter Ahab; to him, Stubb

and the band on deck sentinelled the slumbers of the band below; and when if a rope was to be hauled upon the forecastle, the sailors flung it not rudely down, as by day, but with some cautiousness dropt it to its place for fear of disturbing their slumbering shipmates; when this sort of steady quietude would begin to prevail, habitually,     to help his crippled way     at times like these,     with heavy, lumber-like pace

“–”

of the so suddenly scornful old man

“How he flashed at me!–his eyes like powder-pans!     Anyway there’s something on his mind, as sure as there must be something on a deck when it cracks.     either,     He’s full of riddles;

Once you begin reading this, it’s bizarrely difficult to stop.


Jeremy Hatch is a writer, musician, and professional bookseller leading a cheerful, aimless life in San Francisco. He is the Junior Literary Editor of the Rumpus and has a blog which he updates once in a while. More from this author →