Uncreative Writing — The Copy-and-Paste Literature of The Stealing Writer

It all started several years ago with an unexpected trip to London and an equally unexpected visit to the Whitechapel Gallery. At the end of my tour, in the bookshop, I spot a white small book with letters in blue and green — Uncreative Writing; that title attracts me. Already after reading the first pages, I feel that in some way my thoughts will no longer be the same, that those weird ideas whirling through my head will find a theoretical structure — A home.

One of the shocking things in Uncreative Writing, the book of Kenneth Goldsmith, American poet and fantastic weirdo, is that today’s writer is more like a programmer than a gentle soul worn out by words spending her nights in the dark at home.

Say goodbye to your gin, Ernest!

The world is full of texts, more or less interesting; I do not wish to add any more.

Kenneth Goldsmith

An aphorism, if you will, that well represents the provocative thesis of Kenneth Goldsmith: with so much textual information, there is no need for new stuff; we need instead to learn to manage the large number of existing texts.

This leads to Kenneth Goldsmith’s mantra:

Uncreative Writing’s Context is the new content

Does he mean copy & paste and get away with it?

Yes. Precisely.

With the spread of computers and the Internet, the entire works of previous authors have become easily accessible. As a consequence, the contemporary writer can explore new ways that were once believed to be beyond the scope of literature or even taboo — Massive use of databases, programming, recycling, and intentional plagiarism.

Told ya! — Copy, paste, and get away with it.

The writer is now the one who appropriates existing works, makes aggressive use of copy & paste, chews and digests words, and proposes them in a new form and in a new context.

I mean, nothing I’m doing in literature is new

Kenneth Goldsmith

Kenneth Goldsmith goes so far as to say that the best authors will be those who can write the best programs with which to manipulate, analyze, and distribute language-based practices.

Everything is text

Before the digital explosion, a picture was a set of chemicals on a film; music was an impression of electromagnetic signals on a tape. Today everything is text: sound, graphics, and videos are nothing but a thin digital layer under which pure text is hiding.

One of the examples described in Uncreative Writing and which I find very illustrative is that of Shakespeare’s image.

To demonstrate this, Kenneth proposes a little game.

It works like this: take a .jpg image. Convert it to a .txt file. Open it. You see that weird, apparently meaningless text? Now randomly copy and paste stuff in it — Any word, your shopping list, your crappiest poem. Blah blah blah also works. Save the file and convert it back to .jpg. Open it.

This little experiment confirms the absolute dominance of the word, its centrality in the digital age, and the privileged position of the writer. This is an unprecedented situation — Full of opportunities for the stealing writer: Digital is for the writer what photography was once for the painter.

The Copy & Paste Revolution

In recent years, more and more writers and artists have massively employed the copy & paste approach, exploiting the immense amount of texts available online.

This is the pivot around which a true literary revolution is turning.

Writers at its center are non-original geniuses, language predators, and their works are epic because they reflect the quasi-infinity of online information.

Here some examples:

  • Simon Morris, a British conceptual artist and writer, republished every day on his blog a page of Jack Kerouac’s On The Road between 2008 and 2009;
  • Poet and sound artist Caroline Bergvall in her Via rewrites the first verse of Dante’s Inferno taken from 48 different translations. The artist then recorded her own voice reading the resulting text;
  • Flarf is a writing group that seeks, copies, and re-publishes the worst, most obscene, and funniest Google search results.

My Uncreative Writing

Everybody can copy and paste!? This sh*t is not literature, dude!

Yeah, well, you know, that’s just like, uh, your opinion, man.

But it is true, after reading Uncreative Writing, you will be left with more questions than answers: Are we really facing the copy & paste revolution? Is programming the future of writing? What about those poor real writers and poets?

We shall see.

Meanwhile, the story of my personal experience with Uncreative Writing continued. A few weeks after buying the book at the Whitechapel Gallery, Kenneth Goldsmith was invited here in Berlin by the Transmediale. At the end of the lecture, holding a copy of his book in my hands, I introduced myself. When Kenneth saw that I had deleted the letters UN from the title, transforming it in Creative Writing, he looked at me and said: — What a beautifully disfigured copy you have! —

Some days after that encounter, I came up with a brilliant idea in the spirit of Uncreative Writingto apply bioinformatics to literature in search of the genetic code of William Shakespeare.

That’s a story for another rainy day.