NABOKV-L post 0003437, Fri, 16 Oct 1998 11:50:51 -0700

Re: DN's Legal Challenge (fwd)
>From Mary Bellino (

Jeff Edmund's masterfully-sustained development of the doggie-doo
metaphor (inspired perhaps by John Shade's "grateful mongrel" simile
about Shakespeare's poetry?) brings a new standard of literary
craftsmanship to an already stimulating discussion.

Jeff is absolutely right about the ubiquity and variety of parody. But I
think it's important to distinguish between parodies and continuations
of commercial novels (like Gone with the Wind, the James Bond books, or
a mystery series like Sue Grafton's) and parodies of literary fiction or
-- a more clear-cut example -- poetry. I am no despiser of commercial
fiction, mysteries in particular, but the fact remains that commercial
fiction is produced almost solely for the purpose of making money. Hence
there are sound financial reasons for ensuring that the characters and
setting are not used by anyone other than the author, who has invested
time and effort in creating a sort of invention, one that he now holds
the patent on. As with other kinds of inventions, the patent eventually
runs out -- Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes series, commercial fiction par
excellence, is now fair game for anyone who wants to write a
continuation -- because they are no longer robbing Doyle of income. But
literary fiction and poetry --let us call it, God help me, literature --
has always operated by a different set of rules, and these rules reflect
the intention of the author of literary fiction to add something to the
existing cultural tradition or dialogue. I am on dangerous ground here,
I know, and I certainly don't intend to get caught using the phrase
"belongs to the ages", but the author of a literary novel should not be
surprised if his work is treated as a Stage in the Evolution of the
Novel by someone who hopes to inaugurate the next stage. When Samuel
Richardson wrote Pamela, he proposed to define the English novel, then a
nascent form, in a certain way (of course he wanted to make money too,
and he did). Henry Fielding thought the English novel would be in pretty
poor shape if Richardson became the model, and he decided to propose
another definition by writing two novels-- first Shamela, and then
Joseph Andrews -- that were more or less direct parodies of Richardson.
He used Richardson's characters (or fictional relatives of them) and
general plot outlines precisely in order to demonstrate how one could
produce, out of the same material, a different kind of novel that was at
once more entertaining and more believable (of course he wanted to make
money too, and he did -- most deservedly, in my opinion).
Turning to poetry, where the money issue is much less of a factor, it's
even easier to see how parody has been used as a mode of criticism by
poets who want to move on to the next stage. Henry Reed tackled Eliot,
Shakespeare took on the Petrarchans, Chaucer went after the romancers
-- the tradition goes back to ancient Greece and probably beyond. Nobody
made much money off of it, but nobody complained or went to court

Now Lolita is a rare example of a literary novel that happened to make
(and still makes) a lot of money, which obscures the issues a little
bit. But what the copyright laws were designed to prevent is the
unauthorized reproduction of a text for profit -- illicit or bootleg
editions of existing works, or the issuing of one person's work under
another person's name. The so-called "fair use" provisions have proven
time and again to be impossible to define, in part because (as even I
admit) it's difficult to make a legal distinction between literary
fiction and commercial fiction. But as Jeff points out, parody and
pastiche and take-offs and rip-offs have always been with us. Our
American copyright laws are the newest floor of a rickety building whose
foundations were haphazardly laid in the sixteenth century; the
tradition of "fair use" that includes parody as a means of criticism in
an ongoing literary and cultural dialogue is as old as the Parthenon --
and in much better shape.

Mary Bellino