Jim Fleming: Could you imagine taking a class in uncreative writing? A class in which you're penalized for showing any originality and creativity? Instead you're rewarded for plagiarism, plundering, and stealing? Well, if this sounds appealing to you then Kenneth Goldsmith is your man. He teaches an uncreative writing course at the University of Pennsylvania. Goldsmith is also a poet, writer, and author of the book, "Uncreative Writing: Managing Language in the Digital Age." He tells Steve Paulson that literature is in a rut and has a way to go to catch up with other art forms.
Kenneth Goldsmith: Much of the most popular music is made entirely from cutting and pasting. Nobody would dare play drums on a track today. You sample drums. This is happening in art. One hundred years ago Marcel Duchamp took a urinal and recontextualized it; didn't do a thing to it, just put it into a different context and that's already 100 years old and that's old hat. Somehow writing has never engaged with these ideas that are rampant all over the rest of culture.
Steve Paulson: So you're saying the digital media has challenged writers to do something different, maybe to be more experimental in the process to give up some of our old ideas about what creative writing is all about, what originality is all about.
Goldsmith: Well, I actually don't think that this is really that unoriginal. As a matter of fact you can cut and paste in very original and very unique and very expressive ways. You can create an entire novel that you haven't written that nobody else could write by the way that you've cut, pasted, and sewn it together. I mean this again of course goes right to hip hop tracks and things that nobody would even think twice about in other parts of culture.
Paulson: Well, I have to ask you about an even that you were part of actually at the White House. President and Mrs. Obama's celebration of American Poetry and I know you read some of your work there including a piece called traffic. Can you tell me about this work, traffic?
Goldsmith: Well, it's a transcription on New York Radio. We have wonderful traffic here in New York. New York News Radio, a wonderful station that's very old called 1010 WINS is around the clock news. Every ten minutes they give the traffic report. So this was a book that was 24 hours worth of traffic reports every ten minutes on the ones as they say.
Paulson: Could you give us a sample of this?
Goldsmith: Are you ready?
Goldsmith: Okay. (READING) Four thirty-one...Remember how bad it was yesterday? It's starting again. The east side delays begin at the tri-borrough. It's pretty much one long line now all the way to the Battery. The west side delays to the Battery begin back at the boat basin. At 79th Street we've got a ton of interior traffic in midtown. Seventh Avenue in Times Square, that's the delay, that's where it all gets going. It comes out of Central Park. Broadway and Eighth Avenue is going to be impacted by that as well. On the east side, side streets are packed through the 40s and 50s and that's why 1st, 2nd, 3rd, Park Avenue right now an absolute mess. So trying to get around Manhattan just like yesterday is not going to be easy at all. Across the East River already a ton of traffic each way on the Brooklyn Bridge. Now the Manhattan Bridge is bumper to bumper coming into Manhattan. Jam packed on the upper roadway to Brooklyn. The lower roadway is also a mess. 59th Street bridge is getting real bad. The belt is jammed east off the Verrazano. Some types of problems on the way west towards Coney Island and right now heavy transit delays. Be sure to budget extra travel time taking the LIRR out of Penn Station. (END OF READING) And there you have it.
Paulson: So that's what you read to President Obama?
Goldsmith: I read traffic reports to the President of the United States.
Paulson: And how did that go over at the White House?
Goldsmith: They loved it. They absolutely loved it. It was very funny because I chose to put together a little set about an American icon, the Brooklyn Bridge. And so I read three short pieces, an excerpt from Walt Whitman's "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry." written in 1840 before there was a bridge there and then I went through Hart Crane's poem about the Brooklyn Bridge which is kind of a disjunctive modernist thing, and then finally ended up with traffic, what I just read for you. Now the audience, it was really senators and mayors and democratic party donators, sat there very politely and quietly through the Whitman and Crane, the real poetry, but when they heard the traffic reports/
Paulson: They were laughing I bet.
Goldsmith: They were howling. There's a shot of Obama leaning back in his chair with a giant smile across his face listening to the traffic report. Maybe it's vernacular. I mean maybe this is just language that people can understand, right. I mean who understands Hart Crane? Who cares about Hart Crane? Nobody. Nobody cares about real poetry. What people care about is the language that's around them and of course these are Washington bureaucrats so they had ideas about gridlock and congestion and delay. There really is narrative in there as well in a way that Whitman gives you impression or Crane gives you disjunction, I'm actually giving you narrative. But I didn't write any of these. So this is the weird thing. The most avant-garde, the most unoriginal, the most uncreative work was the work that went over the very best in the White House.
Paulson: You are not only a writer, you're also a professor at the University of Pennsylvania and you teach a class called Uncreative Writing. Can you tell me about this class?
Goldsmith: Sure. In this class students are penalized for any shred of originality or creativity that they show. They must be uncreative for entire semester.
Paulson: Meaning what they write can only be taken from other sources, copied?
Goldsmith: Absolutely. Absolutely. They can only appropriate, transcribe, copy. you know, the kind of stuff that I do.
Paulson: And why is this the requirement of the class?
Goldsmith: Well, the idea is to move away from what you know. As a college professor I can get them better at writing but quite frankly at the University of Pennsylvania they all know how to write pretty well, particularly at upper levels. So what are we going to do? Are we going to keep honing that short story so you can market it? That's fine. That's somebody else's job. My job is really to challenge them and to get them to think differently about what writing is and what the creative process is. We do exercises and one of the best exercises we do is I just tell them simply with no further instruction say retype five pages. And they shrug their shoulders and they leave the class. But the next week they come in with the assignment, five pages, and that's where it gets very interesting. What did you chose to type? How did you choose to type it? Why did you choose to type it? Suddenly all these autobiographical ideas and ideas of choices and tastes all come into this seemingly innocuous idea of retyping five pages. Suddenly they go ah-ha. I wasn't thinking about that but of course I was making choices and making choices is an uncreative/creative act.
Paulson: But you're also it sounds like asking your students to plagiarize what someone else has already written, right?
Paulson: Which is the kind of thing that usually gets students kicked out of school.
Goldsmith: Well, I encourage plagiarism. You must plagiarize in my class. These kids are so good at plagiarism but they always have to do it surreptitiously and in my class I say you may not do it surreptitiously. You've got to put it all out on the table. Now tell me why you did it. Let's get responsible about your plagiarism. What choices did you make? When kids plagiarize they're not really thinking about the sort of formal choices that they're making so it becomes an enlightening thing. Now, of course, academically this is really the worst thing you can do. As a matter of fact, at the end of each class I make them buy a term paper from a paper mill and put their name to it and turn it in as their final project. But then they've got to get up and they've got to defend it as if it's theirs.
Paulson: But you're supporting a corrupt industry of the people who write those term papers for someone else and for someone else's name.
Goldsmith: Absolutely. We are. And the best time is when we can get University funds to actually purchase these papers.
Paulson: I can't imagine how this goes over with other professors, with other writers. Some people must be furious at you?
Goldsmith: No, nobody is furious. You know, listen, no animals were harmed during the making of this movie. This is safe. This is consensual. It's like an S&M club. You go in and you role play and everybody is cool with it and those are the rules. This is the thing about a classroom. I mean it's controlled and it's safe and really nobody is really getting hurt here.
Paulson: So what do you think students learn by taking your uncreative writing class?
Goldsmith: Well, I mean they learn to make decision and they learn to become accountable. I mean everything must be articulated. It's more like what I would assume law school is like. You have to learn to take somebody else's point of view even if you don't believe it. I mean this is happening sort of in the legal profession all the time. So you're getting outside of yourself. You're adopting things that aren't yours. You're judging language in a very different way than you've ever seen it and the best thing that can come out of this I think is one of the great things is that they reject this way of working. I say look, suspend your disbelief for a semester and then if you don't like this way of working you can actually say. Again, it's defensible. I've tried it and I don't like it. This is crap. But often what happens is this becomes another tool in a writer's toolbox and I think this is actually a very contemporary tool for writers to be using.
Paulson: It sounds like you're saying that even though you call your class uncreative writing this is an exercise in creativity.
Goldsmith: Creativity is sort of so formulaic and so bankrupt at this point that it's really I think the thing to flee from.
Paulson: Why is it bankrupt though?
Goldsmith: Creativity is not creative. It's the 100,000th coming-of-age novel. Actually. I want to talk about the short list for the 2011 Man Booker prize. Four of the six short listed novels advertise themselves as featuring immigrants negotiating the difficulties of a strange land. Five of the six hinge on the dramatic turn of a murder. Four of the six reveal secrets from the past that come unexpectedly to light. I mean this is from the website of the Man Booker. Okay? Half of those through the surprise arrival of a letter. Four of the six reveal the unreliability of narration and so on. They're all kind of formulaic. And this is what's passing really for what we're calling the best literature. That's not creative to me.
Paulson: You're saying there's nothing new to be said anymore? It's all just rehashing what someone else has already written?
Goldsmith: Well, you know, I think there are new things to be said. Who hasn't been moved by a beautiful memoir or by a beautiful novel? I don't want to be so prescriptive in that way but again I feel that we've limited ourself to these sort of same variations on narratives and it's kind of time to open up the field a little bit more to other ways of being. Those way perhaps being uncreative or unoriginal.
Paulson: But I think the response you get from a lot of novelists is it's not just the themes that matter. It's the way you put together the sentences. It's the use of language to create imaginative spaces. Are you saying that's not important or we've just misrepresented that?
Goldsmith: No, no, I'm saying that is important but I'd actually say that the way that those texts are constructed are fairly conventional and fairly similar. Again, there's a whole century of experimentation with language which is completely ignored. There's many, many ways to construct novels. We actually just tend to construct novels quite similarly. Just a call to open things up. Let's a get a little more contemporary.
Fleming: Kenneth Goldsmith is the author of "Uncreative Writing: Managing Language in the Digital Age." He spoke with Steve Paulson.