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.