Those Darn Sentences (Updated)

Re: the whole wrong-headed Gladwell post on The Viswanathan Incident.

Ted Chiang drops a nice point over in Gladwell’s comments:

"Surely an idea is more consequential than a sentence."

In the context of copyright law, this is not true. Copyright is intended to protect the expression of ideas, not the ideas themselves. One can decry the extremism of recent intellectual-property legislation and rulings and still support this basic premise.

Almost all fiction deals with the same basic ideas: love and death. What distinguishes Shakespeare from Joe Blow are the sentences.

See also, Ms. Link’s comment (which you should really go read all of):

Point number two: Genre fiction (young adult, science fiction, mysteries) is not necessarily more formulaic than any other kind of art. Formulaic fiction is formulaic. That’s about as far as I think you can push this argument, and even then, the most original works of art depends — just as formulaic fiction does — on the writer and the reader being aware of (or emotionally attuned to) certain patterns or formulas. Writers set up and then elaborate on, or break, or distort certain patterns. Or else they present the same formula, but so elegantly (or at least so capably) that the reader is charmed into seeing it in a new light.

UDPATED: Gladwell concedes defeat.

3 thoughts on “Those Darn Sentences (Updated)”

  1. I meant to comment below because I share the disappointment that Gladwell, of all people, could be so sloppy. (Levitt & Dubner wouldn’t have made generalizations like that)
    But this is a really good point about copyright. It quite rightly protects sentences rather than ideas because two writers can take the same idea, one will produce a silk purse, the other a sow’s ear.
    I also find it insulting in another way. I’m currently writing my first book aimed specifically at younger readers (12+) and to suggest that I’m taking it any less seriously than I do my adult novels is to completely undersetimate the integrity that most of us bring to our work.
    Finally, fwiw, I think she was busted well and good, but that’s what you get for publishing people who are still in their cups.

  2. . . . and yet still manages not to get it:
    My point was simply that genre fiction is by definition derivative.
    Ted smacked him down on that, but other folks are agreeing with the point. Grr.

  3. Thank you, Dave, for pointing that out. Assuming he sees it as the opposite to genre, is “literary” fiction any less derivative? The upper-middle class academic families dealing with angst and ennui? The comfortable lives torn apart by tragedy or foolishness? “On Beauty” is both derivative (by the author’s admission) and cliche-ridden (but is still, incidentally, an original work, a distinction Gladwell seems to be having problems with).
    One more point that Gladwell seems to miss. The “teen novel” is not a genre, it’s a broad sector of the market which covers all genres and does so without any of the snobbery of the adult market.

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