Cape £20

The Ecstasy of Influence: nonfictions, etc, By Jonathan Lethem

Cultural artifacts should live to be quoted and re-appropriated, this richly allusive book argues. But perhaps its author just wants to be loved

In 2007, the novelist and essayist Jonathan Lethem wrote a piece for the US magazine Harper's called"The Ecstasy of Influence". It came shortly after the release of Bob Dylan's Modern Times, an album that sounded off-the-cuff but, upon dissection, was found to be loaded with borrowings from Ovid, the Bible, civil-war poetry, Delta blues and Dylan's own earlier work. The essay used the album as one of many examples of creative acts that borrow from earlier creative acts.

Do these examples tread the fine line of plagiarism, Lethem asked – a question that had been thundering through the news, as the entertainment industries set about tightening copyright laws again – or is the collage of different influences a long tradition in art and literature, and is its re-imagining a reinvigoration of past forms? Consider, suggested Lethem, T S Eliot's The Wasteland and Leonard Bernstein's West Side Story, each works that revel in cultural plunder. Then consider Disney, which has cartoonised the fairy tale Cinderella and J M Barrie's Peter Pan but guards its own intellectual property fiercely.

The son of Brooklyn hippies, with a stint in San Francisco at the start of the tech boom, Lethem has moved through the US counterculture where sharing – be it old-fashioned book sharing or open-source software – has kudos. He does not object to the artist drawing financial reward for his work, but argues that when the work's fame has reached far, being quoted and enriching others for the common good becomes the reward. In a final pirouette, Lethem appended to the article a list of the people from whom he had stolen lines to include in his text: whole sentences, even borrowed memories, from Mary Shelley to Lawrence Lessig, that he used to push his idea forwards. It is an art-essay, bricolage in print, and so brilliant that it deserved passing on, regardless of copyright.

That article is the centrepiece of Lethem's new book, The Ecstasy of Influence: non-fictions, etc. To call it a collection of essays would give it a formality that it doesn't have. There is collected journalism and criticism, from Rolling Stone to the London Review of Books, but this is interleaved with autobiography and the odd flash of fiction, and a narrator occasionally apologising for the quality of juvenilia.

It is a vast survey of modern culture, and he rifles through the rejects as well as the canon – he prefers Barbara Pym to Thomas Pynchon – in order to re-examine the cultural fabric. The arguments are intense, the writing heavy with reference and influence, and there are some incisive takes on the modern world. "In polymorphic cyberville," he notes in one essay, people "gather in epistolatory mobs, gossip about books or about theatre they've attended, or watch brief movies, like those in Edison's cinematographic viewing boxes, while petting their obstinately prehistoric genitals".

But despite the breadth and heft, you still come away with an impression that this volume is about Lethem's anxiety about his own standing in the intellectual pantheon.

Lethem attended Bennington, then the US's most expensive liberal arts college, at the same time as Bret Easton Ellis and Donna Tartt. In an autobiographical piece early on, he recalls how he and Tartt, thick as thieves to begin with, fell away from each other. On reading Tartt's novel The Secret History, written while at the college, Lethem found that "every person from our time at Bennington seemed reworked in her pages, except for me". Then there is his hollow friendship with Ellis, its nadir coming after a late-night drinking session on the night before 9/11. When speaking about it later, a "peeved" Lethem notes, Ellis said that he never even counted Lethem as a friend.

Self-deprecation is charming, but if over-indulged it becomes less so. "Further Reports on a Dead Language" is an agonising experimental piece about 9/11, which Lethem begins in various styles only to end each paragraph realising the impossibility of writing about the events. Another author may have discarded such a piece but, as with his friendships, Lethem includes his failures.

Even Spider-man – the real meat of the book is Lethem's writing on "pop culture", or what he would prefer to be called "culture" – gives him cause to doubt his adequacy. Watching Tobey Maguire in the 2002 film, he aches that he was born a decade too late for the 1960s high points in the Marvel comic's storylines; for being off the beat.

Lethem, a successful novelist in his own right, elbows himself into the proximity of great people, ideas and events, then angles himself away. This discomfort infiltrates a volume that otherwise would stand proud alongside his hero Norman Mailer's collected non-fiction, Advertisement for Myself. And in trying so hard to convince the reader of his subjects' importance – and of his own by implication – he creates an effect similar to meeting your hero and realising he may be more insecure than you.

Arts and Entertainment
Chocolat author Joanne Harris has spoken about the financial struggles most authors face

books
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from How To Train Your Dragon 2

Review: Imaginative storytelling returns with vigour

film
Arts and Entertainment
Josh Hutcherson, Donald Sutherland and Jena Malone in Mockinjay: Part 1

film
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Characters in the new series are based on real people, say its creators, unlike Arya and Clegane the Dog in ‘Game of Thrones’
tv
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Unless films such as Guardians of the Galaxy, pictured, can buck the trend, this summer could be the first in 13 years that not a single Hollywood blockbuster takes $300m

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Miley Cyrus has her magic LSD brain stolen in this crazy video produced with The Flaming Lips

music
Arts and Entertainment
Gay icons: Sesame Street's Bert (right) and Ernie

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Singer Robin Thicke and actress Paula Patton

music
Arts and Entertainment
The new film will be shot in the same studios as the Harry Potter films

books
Arts and Entertainment
Duncan Bannatyne left school at 15 and was still penniless at 29

Bannatyne leaves Dragon's Den

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The French economist Thomas Piketty wrote that global inequality has worsened

books
Arts and Entertainment
David Tennant and Benedict Cumberbatch

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Affleck plays a despondent Nick Dunne in David Fincher's 'Gone Girl'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty (L) and Carl Barât look at the scene as people begin to be crushed

music
Arts and Entertainment

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty and Caral Barat of The Libertines performs on stage at British Summer Time Festival at Hyde Park

music
Arts and Entertainment
Ariana Grande and Iggy Azalea perform on stage at the Billboard Music Awards 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Zina Saro-Wiwa

art
Arts and Entertainment
All-new couples 'Come Dine With Me'

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Black Sabbath's Ozzy Osbourne
musicReview: BST Hyde Park, London
Arts and Entertainment
Ed Gamble and Amy Hoggart star in Almost Royal burning bright productions
tvTV comedy following British ‘aristos’ is accused of mocking the trusting nature of Americans
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

    Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting
    Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

    Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

    In the final part of our series, Chris Green arrives in Glasgow - a host city struggling to keep the politics out of its celebration of sport
    Out in the cold: A writer spends a night on the streets and hears the stories of the homeless

    A writer spends a night on the streets

    Rough sleepers - the homeless, the destitute and the drunk - exist in every city. Will Nicoll meets those whose luck has run out
    Striking new stations, high-speed links and (whisper it) better services - the UK's railways are entering a new golden age

    UK's railways are entering a new golden age

    New stations are opening across the country and our railways appear to be entering an era not seen in Britain since the early 1950s
    Conchita Wurst becomes a 'bride' on the Paris catwalk - and proves there is life after Eurovision

    Conchita becomes a 'bride' on Paris catwalk

    Alexander Fury salutes the Eurovision Song Contest winner's latest triumph
    Pétanque World Championship in Marseilles hit by

    Pétanque 'world cup' hit by death threats

    This year's most acrimonious sporting event took place in France, not Brazil. How did pétanque get so passionate?
    Whelks are healthy, versatile and sustainable - so why did we stop eating them in the UK?

    Why did we stop eating whelks?

    Whelks were the Victorian equivalent of the donor kebab and our stocks are abundant. So why do we now export them all to the Far East?
    10 best women's sunglasses

    In the shade: 10 best women's sunglasses

    From luxury bespoke eyewear to fun festival sunnies, we round up the shades to be seen in this summer
    Germany vs Argentina World Cup 2014: Lionel Messi? Javier Mascherano is key for Argentina...

    World Cup final: Messi? Mascherano is key for Argentina...

    No 10 is always centre of attention but Barça team-mate is just as crucial to finalists’ hopes
    Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer knows she needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

    Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

    18-year-old says this month’s Commonwealth Games are a key staging post in her career before time slips away
    The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

    The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

    A future Palestine state will have no borders and be an enclave within Israel, surrounded on all sides by Israeli-held territory, says Robert Fisk
    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: The German people demand an end to the fighting

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

    The German people demand an end to the fighting
    New play by Oscar Wilde's grandson reveals what the Irish wit said at his trials

    New play reveals what Oscar Wilde said at trials

    For a century, what Wilde actually said at his trials was a mystery. But the recent discovery of shorthand notes changed that. Now his grandson Merlin Holland has turned them into a play
    Can scientists save the world's sea life from

    Can scientists save our sea life?

    By the end of the century, the only living things left in our oceans could be plankton and jellyfish. Alex Renton meets the scientists who are trying to turn the tide
    Richard III, Trafalgar Studios, review: Martin Freeman gives highly intelligent performance

    Richard III review

    Martin Freeman’s psychotic monarch is big on mockery but wanting in malice