There's a minor hullabaloo a'brewing over at the Harvard Crimson, following the publication of an op-ed piece ("In Someone Else's Words") by student Isabel Kaplan. In it, Kaplan dismisses "unoriginal poetry" and "uncreative writing" -- as practiced by Kenneth Goldsmith and others of the conceptual ilk -- as mere plagiarism. Further, she argues that this kind of academically-sanctioned theft is On The March! And that books like critic Marjorie Perloff's recently published "Unoriginal Genius: Poetry by Other Means in the New Century," only legitimate the dangerous nonsense.

After chronicling the assignments Goldsmith gives to students in his Uncreative Writing class (re-typing documents, transcribing audio recordings, buying essays from online paper mills), Kaplan writes:

Based on Goldsmith’s description of his class, I would argue that his students thrive not because “uncreative writing” is a revolutionary approach to literature that is particularly well suited to contemporary society but rather because the assignments sound, well, easy. Copying a document word for word? That’s typing, not writing.

A commenter in the thread following the article reminds Kaplan that her phrase "That's typing, not writing" echoes one of literature's best disses ever, and so gently points out the fact that we all inherit (and use and reinterpret) the words and ideas of people who've come before. "Life itself is a quotation," said Borges. Unless it was someone else.

So did Kaplan miss some of the conceptual subtleties and also just the sheer playfulness of Goldsmith-style creative appropriation? Well, sure. But did that warrant Marjorie Perloff's undergraduate-skewering response to Kaplan in a letter to the editor? We'll let you decide, dear readers. Here's a taste:

But Kaplan gets Goldsmith all wrong as well. Had she read his book, rather than the extract printed in The Chronicle Review, she might have understood that he is talking about a form of appropriative writing in which context is central, and that his defense of “plagiarism” is of course tongue-in-cheek: his own literary texts exhibit just how subtle “copying” can be.  In its resort to sound-bytes, recycled and distorted, and its seeming ignorance of the role appropriation has played in the visual arts for at least the past century, it is Kaplan’s article, not Goldsmith’s book, that is “offensive.”

... I am dismayed at the sheer laziness of this vituperative essay.  Which is worse: typing a copy of someone else’s words or writing “originally” about books one hasn’t read?  I thought The Crimson had a much higher standard.

Read the whole thing here.

Originally Published: October 14th, 2011