You Say Cannibalism, I Say Fair Use

Tasteless? Inept? Perhaps. But, with language like this, don’t be surprised when Sen. Hatch decides to extend copyright terms based on the critique given here: Critic’s Notebook: Stop! Thief! An Author’s Mind Is Being Stolen!

You don’t have to be personally involved or angry to notice how often dead writers’ words are lifted and put in the mouths of their novelized selves today. Their lives and ideas have been borrowed, even more insidiously than they are on screen, in three novels about Henry James, one about his brother William and two about Plath. Reach back a few more years and there’s Michael Cunningham’s Virginia Woolf-inspired fiction, “The Hours.” These contemporary novelists go inside other writers’ minds, pilfering their language — a phrase here, a whole diary passage there — feeding off their bodies of work in acts of literary cannibalism.

Colm Toibin’s beautiful, subtle illumination of Henry James’s inner life in “The Master” is surprising. But it’s the book’s artistic success that is startling, not its attempt to invade a dead writer’s thoughts. The extravagant attention to “The Master,” in fact, highlights how prevalent the concept is, how cheap and easy it is to botch things up.