The Relaxed Posture of Influence, Composing, 12/06/2015

I was thinking about another aspect of my engagement with Iain Banks’ writing. It’s the question of influence, and how a writer articulates their influences into their own work. Wednesday's post discussed how I’m looking to Banks’ works for ideas and techniques that I think would suit my own fiction projects. 

One of those techniques I’d like to adapt is how he describes and depicts the thought processes of intelligences that are radically different and superior to human ones. I see a little of this in Player of Games, but that book was more of a multi-levelled meditation on the ethics of realpolitik. I may play with his reflections if some of passages of Utopias end up discussing that concept.

The political narrative of Star Wars doesn't just reflect
or parallel the Skywalker family drama narratively or
thematically. The geopolitical events of the entire
galaxy in their fictional world are all materially driven
by the Skywalker family drama.
I’m also thinking of touching on a similar theme as Consider Phlebas, his critique of the epic mode of sci-fi storytelling. It’s Banks’ alternative to the epic like Star Wars, where the drama of the central characters, the Skywalker family, are the central drivers of the wars of an entire galaxy.*

* I suspect that this was a reason why Lucas’ prequel films were so thematically incoherent, among their many, many, many, many problems. He wrote a story that depicted the Republic’s politics as geopolitical and impersonal, but where the narrative shaped the entire world according to the Skywalker family’s drama.

Consider Phlebas is the story of one ordinary, if well-connected character, an action-picaresque with a decades-long, galaxy-spanning war as the backdrop generating the forces that beat him around. I’m interested in telling a story with a similar backdrop, but with the remarkable main cast on the model of Star Trek. 

A cast of characters, voyaging around the galaxy on a starship, embody inspirational ideals of personal, social, and political growth and everyday revolution. They negotiate a world whose politics are defined by galactic-level realpolitik and the violence of a political order threaded with injustices. This is the story I was thinking of doing with my Star Trek fanfic idea, changed so that I could publish it as an income-generating work.

I was also thinking about the nature of influence, and how influence can be seen to shade into theft. Here’s something I discovered through the good Dr. Sandifer, an article at Lovecraft Zine about Nic Pizzolato’s influences in making the first season of True Detective. It attempts to build a case that Pizzolato plagiarized the works of Thomas Ligotti for the philosophical insights and monologues of Rust Cohle. 

If you read the interview – and you don’t have to, because it’s long, rambly, and angry – you’ll find one key problem. Jon Padgett and Mike Davis don’t actually know what plagiarism is. They know the basic definition, presenting someone else’s words as your own, but they don’t know the contexts in which it makes sense. Plagiarism is the outright copying of the entire text.

Ligotti's voice comes out of Cohle's mouth. Like Coltrane's
saxophone in his great-nephew's song.
Padgett and Davis point to several points in Rust’s scenes where the character speaks lines directly from the narration of Thomas Ligotti stories. They’re chopped up sometimes, but are also sometimes several sentences in a row of exactly what Ligotti wrote. Padgett says he never found any instances of Pizzolato discussing any influence or adaptation of Ligotti stories. 

But when True Detective played on television last year, a lot of the online talk about it referenced the influence of Thomas Ligotti. My friend B got into Ligotti through his love for True Detective. My own memory of having been there in the community watching the show and talking about it online stands against Padgett and Davis. I don’t know how much or how little Pizzolato talked about it, but it was an open secret that Ligotti was a thematic foundation for the show.

Yet, the idea is flawed at a much more fundamental level than a simple factual error. 

When I said plagiarism was the outright copying of the entire text, I meant the entire text, in the sense modern media criticism uses: both the content (words and characters) and the form (television drama, written fiction) are the same. Padgett and Davis cite sentences and passages that go from Ligotti’s writings to Rust’s lips. But something much different is going on with the text of True Detective than simple copying.

True Detective’s scripts sampled Ligotti’s writing. They took passages, chopped them up, and sprinkled them throughout the entire season of episodes. Those passages were an essential element of the voice of the character of Rust, and the narrative of the whole season is structured to make Rust the central thematic voice. So Ligotti’s words become the expression of the same themes in a new work.

Every character arc on the show expresses the existential struggles that drive Ligotti’s fiction, but Rust expresses it most openly. The samples remix Ligotti’s work into True Detective as one element among many new ones, creating a whole new artistic work. But it’s an artistic work built around a sample.

It’s a technique I may use in my own writing, though I have to be very deft about using it. After all, no matter what you may think bad or mediocre artists do, we all agree that great artists steal.

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