Illegal Literature: Toward a Disruptive Creativity


From The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, William Blake, 1790-93

by Dani Spinosa

Illegal Literature,
by David S. Roh,
University of Minnesota Press, 200 pp.

It was by happy coincidence that my review copy of David S. Roh’s Illegal Literature arrived in my mailbox the day I started sending out permission requests for reuse of material for a forthcoming manuscript. As a contingently-employed early-career academic, the fees for reuse of some of the more popular poetry I quote hit especially hard, and I thought about those permission fees as I read through Roh’s astute observations about literary copyright, fair use, and disruptive literacies. Of course, the only fees I paid were to major publishers regarding established (and most frequently deceased) poets; the lesser known or fringe authors I quote at length offered nonexclusive rights without a fee, knowing that quotation and reference can only help their sales. This is not quite the utopian gift economy of literary arts that Roh envisions in Illegal Literature, but it is a good way to start thinking about how literary publications have long-engaged in a disruption of authorship in the print medium.

Roh’s book is a literary and legal study of authorship and copyright. While the book is not an explicitly activist work, its overall argument is a clear call for institutional and structural change in the way that we read, teach, write, and think about owning literary works (23). In Chapter One, Roh uses the examples of Alice Randall’s The Wind Done Gone and Pia Pera’s Lo’s Diary to demonstrate the practical issues of authorship and copyright in their legal battles against the copyright holders of Gone with the Wind and Lolita respectively. By looking to the legal battles of works that “disrupt” the economies of their hyper-canonical counterparts, Roh is able to keep his (at times utopian) views from floundering in the postmodernist conceptions of authorship that have permeated scholarship since Roland Barthes and Michel Foucault published their respective diatribes against the Author-God.

Rather than pseudo-philosophical pontificating, Illegal Literature presents practical, critical, and thoughtful studies of the moments when law and economy come in to support the power of authorship. Noting that derivative use most frequently ends up encouraging the popularity—and often the sale—of the work being parodied, Roh plainly points out that these legal battles, more often than not, are born out of a desire for creative control or out of moral indignation. “The only conceivable reason an author or copyright holder might have for pursuing litigation,” he writes, “would be moral outrage; they might feel that their right to control their creative property has been violated and seek redress” (61). This is, Roh notes, especially the case regarding well-established authors or the estates of deceased authors.

In Chapter Two, Roh turns from the litigious canon to the world of Japanese dōjinshi, or fan-produced comics that reuse the characters, storylines, worlds, and even styles of more popular manga. The community of readers and producers of dōjinshi promote open borrowing of the content of other popular or established manga series with an awareness that the circulation of fan-produced disruptive comics support a community of readers who are active, thoughtful, and creative in their reading practices. Such an approach to reading not only promotes active (rather than passive) consumption of the literary artefact—supposedly the desire of critics and authors for a long time—but it also encourages a non-hierarchical community of readers who support each other as fans as well as producers. Rather than a clandestine, underground community producing work in fear of litigious repercussions, dōjinshi producers and fans have huge gatherings where they all support each other, appearing in cosplay and buying and selling “unsanctioned” remixes, revisions, and fan-fiction extensions in surprising numbers. Of course, as is the case with most fan fiction and cosplay work, Roh concedes that most dōjinshi is pretty bad. But, his study of dōjinshi culture is cautiously optimistic; for Roh, dōjinshi reminds us that “a generous attitude and looser interpretation of copyright law benefits popular culture at large with the possibility of small but significant contribution” (87). This, we might say, is true of all cultural production, and Roh concedes, too, that the parody books discussed in Chapter One aren’t all that good, either. But, literary excellence is not the purpose of this discussion.

Instead, Illegal Literature argues that what is important in the disruption of “authorial genius” and other closed, singular views of authorship is that this disruption serves the good of the common. Unlike the typical form of scholarly books that present a theory-laden introduction and then apply this theory in the chapters that follow, Roh uses the two different conversations—Randall and Pera, and dōjinshi—to bring himself to a third chapter in which his theory of authorship and the work’s major contribution to the field is laid bare. Each of these first chapters “implicitly operates on network logic” (96). Ultimately, this book demonstrates that while the radical potentials of “unsanctioned” authorship are evident in print culture, disruptive potentials are expanded in the digital realm. Roh is at turns careful (17) and characteristically utopian (19) about the potentials of networked computing to reveal the potentials of a disruptive literature. This is occasionally dangerous; for example, we cannot praise the polyvocality and “gift economy” potentials of networked computing (21) without also conceding that not everyone has access to this common. This is probably my biggest issue with the book, which is another way of saying that my contentions with the work were minimal.

My other criticism of Illegal Literature is unfair; I cannot help but include in this review that this work would have benefitted greatly from a discussion of Vanessa Place’s infamous Twitter debacle when she began a conceptualist poetic project to tweet the entirety of Gone with the Wind. This is not oversight on Roh’s part; the fiasco was unfolding just as this book went into print. Its absence reveals, strikingly, the power of disruptive, networked literature better than Roh could; as a print book, there is no room to consider this pertinent development, but if Illegal Literature existed only as digital scholarship, there would be plenty of opportunity to add Place’s “parody” to the discussion. If Roh had considered Place’s work in Illegal Literature, it would have served to show the “bad” side of a disruptive poetics.

That is, Roh differentiates, very early on in this book, the “disruptive” from unhelpfully “plagiarist” work that is designed to be deceptive or to take advantage unfairly of other publications (4). This is the kind of literary experimentation that markets itself so clearly as fringe or anti-canonical that it ends up reifying and supporting canon formation (10). Illegal Literature, then, is a clear defense of plagiarists, parodists, and disruptive literature in general (126). This kind of disruption is what thoughtful, interesting poets have always been doing in and out of print; poets from T. S. Eliot to Robert Duncan have made illustrious careers from thoughtful, disruptive stealing. Illegal Literature reveals how thoughtful disruption benefits the creative economy generally, implicitly critiquing bad disruption (like Place and other conceptualists) and writers who do not credit, expand, or extend, but merely disrupt for disruption’s sake, producing a canonical experimentalism that only ever supports a status quo.

Piece originally published at Electronic Book ReviewCreative Commons License
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