July 16, 2012

Like Jonah Lehrer in leather pants


As reported in Billboard, Rolling Stone, BoingBoing and elsewhere, venerable rock group Def Leppard are returning to the studio to re-record many of their earlier classics note for note. The band has been in dispute with Universal Music Group over royalties for digital sales of the band’s original music, leading them to order Universal to halt sales. Def Leppard has already begun to offer their own new recordings which they are calling “forgeries” for sale instead, with much success. Band frontman Joe Elliott is quoted in an interview with Gary Graff for Billboard, saying,

“When you’re at loggerheads with an ex-record label who…is not prepared to pay you a fair amount of money and we have the right to say, ‘Well, you’re not doing it,’ that’s the way it’s going to be. Our contract is such that they can’t do anything with our music without our permission, not a thing. So we just sent them a letter saying, ‘No matter what you want, you are going to get “no” as an answer, so don’t ask.’ That’s the way we’ve left it. We’ll just replace our back catalog with brand new, exact same versions of what we did.”

All of which leads me to the question: what would be the literary equivalent? Of course the recent scandal involving Jonah Lehrer’s plagiarism of his own earlier published work comes to mind, but he was not so much rewriting as repurposing work (and some of Malcolm Gladwell’s while he was at it).

The commercial aspect of the project is reminiscent of some of the pulp writers from the early twentieth century rehashing much of their work to continue, in some cases, earning meager sums. The same might also be said of Philip K. Dick, or of Dickens for that matter, or of Jack Kirby, who went on to populate a new universe of superheroes with sometimes strikingly similar powers after an acrimonious split with Stan Lee and Marvel. But thematic unoriginality is a far cry from forgery, or even “forgery.”

This idea of self forgery feels grandiose, playful and laborious enough that it might have a precedent in the OuLiPo. I asked Scott Esposito, co-author of the forthcoming The End of Oulipo? and Daniel Levin Becker, author of the engaging Many Subtle Channels: In Praise of Potential Literature and himself an Oulipian, if they knew of any analogs. Scott suggested that Jacques Roubaud’s incredible The Great Fire of London, a novel about, among other things, the failure to write a book by the same title, may be based on an incidence of a loss of the book’s earlier draft. Roubaud, in interviews, speaks of the novel as an attempt to destroy his memories by overwriting them with his texts, not so much a forgery as a palimpsest.

Daniel suggests there might be a similarity, if only slight, in George Perec’s novella A Gallery Portrait, in which, to quote the publisher,

“the sensation of the 1913 exhibition in Pittsburgh depicts the artists’ patron, beer baron Hermann Raffke, sitting in front of his huge art collection, which includes (of course) “A Gallery Portrait” of the baron sitting before “A Gallery Portrait,” etc.”

and of course in one of Borges’ most memorable creations, Pierre Menard, who lives the life of Cervantes in order to re-write Don Quixote.

The difference is that Def Leppard haven’t lost their earlier work. They are setting out to make a near-perfect copy, not working from memory. What then, would be the literary equivalent? Would it be anything more than meticulous monastic rewriting of manuscripts before the time of St. Gutenberg? I ask our readers for suggestions.


Dustin Kurtz is the marketing manager of Melville House, and a former bookseller.