Another ‘I’ that is quite admirable is that in Damon Runyon’s short stories – an ‘I’ always at pains to keep out of the action narrated, but still ‘getting reports’ and frequently stumbling upon people ‘he wishes to have no track with’.
Reference to Runyon came from one of the ‘Killing time’ books – the one that started it all, the Paul Feyerabend autobiography. “‘Who is this guy?’ I was hooked.” (quoted from memory). If I read someone is hooked, I am close to being hooked, too.
I’ll read the books that people in these books read, and the books read in the former, if any. No one ever reads books in Runyon stories, it seems – just newspapers and occasionally, letters. Quote: “When I ask him why he does not write to his uncle, the high sheriff down there in Georgia, John Wangle says there are two reasons, one being that he cannot write, and the other that his uncle cannot read.” (More than Somewhat: The Bloodhounds of Broadway)
None of the books received so far seems as ill suited for inclusion in my ‘Killing time’ project as Dave Lindorff‘s investigation onto the death row case of Mumia Abu-Jamal. As I read it to grapple with the problem and determine a solution, I lose the cursory distance which generally makes lifting and re-contextualising individual sentences easier.
Not only is it a third person account and therefore more difficult to integrate into a first-person narrative – the same is true for Conley‘s, Berger‘s, and Brady‘s (i.e., Harvey‘s) books. It also has quite long sentences most of which are studded with the legal terminology in which the case is so competently analysed. Sentences from quotations of court room reports, witness accounts etc may be somewhat easier to use. But the question remains whether the book should better be left alone, or whether the apparent difficulty might actually add something important to the overall result.
Other sources with a similar topic, such as Hollway‘s and Gauthier‘s report about John Thompson’s 18-year death row odyssee, are far easier to integrate due to extensive narrative reconstruction of the shooting event, including the relevant moments in the lives of important witnesses. In Lindorff’s book, much of the reconstruction is embedded in analysis. I also wonder how I will deal with the long relative clauses that are often embedded in the main clause. I am not ready just to remove them – this seems a bit too much tampering with the source.
I guess I must solve the problem by trial, and decide later.
Assembling a text from other texts is a lot of work. I have gone through this process before: it took me about five years to put together ‘Secret ballet‘, and I had precious little feedback when the book was finally finished and published. Was all that a waste of time? Possibly. Will it be any different with ‘Killing time’?
What is different now is that I reach out to the ‘Killing time’ authors and their publishers. A multi-thread conversation has begun that makes me more acutely aware of the implications of my approach. The copyright question is not the main issue. Work resulting from appropriation, cut-up, collage, mash-up or aggregation usually tends to pay little attention to the relation of the result to the sources and their originators (many of whom will never even become aware that their work has been re-contextualised). The sources are used as mere raw material, as a pile of disused text to be re-fashioned. It is perhaps fair to say that some texts deserve no better. It can be argued that the new context produces new, often unintentional meaning, and that de-familiarisation can turn a cliché into something more interesting. It can also be argued that the immateriality of text means that any recycling leaves the source intact. But it is the gesture that counts.
I understand the gleeful, forthright attitude of appropriation, but I don’t like it anymore, at least not in my own work. I (intend to) have a lot of respect and appreciation for the sources, even the self-published, maybe awkward mysteries, and I don’t like the idea that by re-contextualising sentences I implicitly devalue the original context. It is this tension between appreciation and appropriation, and the apprehension it causes, that at the moment is the real topic of work as I embark on this project.