Jonathan Lethem’s Promiscuous Materials Project

By David Corbett

Note: In one of those timing anomolies we encounter from time to time, my current rendezvous with Wildcard Tuesday falls one day before my usually scheduled blog posting.

So I’ll be up here tomorrow as well. (Don’t say I didn’t warn you.)

I had the good fortune to attend a City Arts & Lectures interview with Jonathan Lethem last Thursday, with author Robert Mailer Anderson providing the Q’s for Lethem’s A’s.

It’s evenings like this that remind you just how little you’re accomplishing.

On the plus side, I was dazzled.

Lethem has such a fundamentally curious, protean, sprawling mind that he managed to discuss everything from his passion for music—the one art form to which he can truly surrender as a pure fan, since he has no talent in that realm—to life with his painter father, the death of his mother when he was thirteen, and the enduring influence of Raymond Chandler and Don DeLillo on his writing.

But what really intrigued me was his Promiscuous Materials Project. This is where he offers certain of his stories to screenwriters and dramatists at a nominal ($1) fee to adapt as they wish. (He does the same for certain song lyrics he’s written over the years, offering them basically gratis to songwriters.)

He admits to being influenced by Open Source Theory, the Free Culture Movement, and Lewis Hyde’s book, The Gift: Imagination and the Erotic Life of Property.

But the real impetus for this particular promiscuity came when both a filmmaker and a dramatist simultaneously sought the rights to adapt his novel Fortress of Solitude.

Normally, multiple adaptations are impractical, especially in film, given the need to secure all rights to attract investors. But Lethem did everything he could to make sure both artists had a chance to proceed. Whether that happens or not remains to be seen.

But he’d been similarly approached by multiple parties for some of his shorter work, and the idea of multiple versions of his stories, like different cover versions of a song, intrigued him so much he decided to put some of his stories out there to see what happened.

Due to contractual obligations with his publishers, he doesn’t allow the stories to be used as the basis for other written projects, i.e., as the source for other stories or novels.

But by making the stories available in this way, for films or stage performances, he hopes not only that more people will read the actual stories, but that those stories will acquire innumerable new lives in whatever artistic form their new creators see fit.

This is part of a larger movement, much of it currently restricted to digital or web-based art. But with Facebook entering the publishing world—with text available for open social comment and in some cases even revision—the world of the story as we know it is changing rapidly. The individual storyteller is leaving his solitary garret to become part of a virtual tribe, with the word on the page never fixed, but open to constant reworking, not just by the artist but the reader.

This is no doubt perplexing to many, terrifying to some, and appalling to not a few. Some may think it’s nothing but a vanity project. It smacks of piracy, and I’m sure some people fear it’s one more step toward the total impoverishment of working artists. It challenges our notions of individual responsibility, talent, and imagination. It’s also, apparently, inevitable in one form or another in arts across the board.

So, dear readers—what say you on promiscuous literature? An intriguing creative frontier, or the edge of the pit of doom?

* * * * *

Time for a little promotion. I’m teaching another online class through LitReactor, starting Thursday. We still have a few seats available so sign up now.

Here’s the skinny:


The Spine of Crime: Setting, Suspense, and Structure

in Detective, Crime, and Thriller Stories

Online at Litreactor

Building on my preceding course, The Character of Crime, I move from the Who of crime writing to the Where, What and How. (The prior class is not a prerequisite for this course. The subject matter to be covered here stands alone.)

In this 4-week course and workshop, you’ll learn the crucial role of setting in crime stories—perhaps the most setting-dependent genre in literature. You’ll learn how to let suspense emerge not from coincidence but as a natural extension of character, context, and conflict. Last, you’ll learn how to construct the “spine” of your story through structure, finishing up with an examination of the unique plot elements that characterize stories in the detective, crime, and thriller sub-genres.


The Classes:

Week 1 — Setting: How to Ground your Theme, Characters, and Structure in Place

Whether your story takes place in a pastoral village or a skyscraper jungle, how people live in a specific place and time will define the nature and limits of what’s deemed a crime, who gets called a criminal, and what stands for justice.

Week 2 — Techniques of Suspense: Character, Conflict, and Context—not Coincidence

The trick is always to make the reader keep turning pages. Creating suspense always requires a bit of legerdemain, but to do it well, you need to look deep inside your story, not rely on chance.

Week 3 — Structure: Letting the Conflict Shape Your Story

Three-Act structure too often strands the writer in a meandering second act. By understanding structure as an outgrowth of character, plot points become meaningful events in your story’s growing conflict, not just turnstiles in the plot.

Week 4 — Structural Beats for Specific Sub-genre Types: Detective, Crime, Thriller

Each sub-genre has its own unique thematic emphasis, and that’s reflected in the nature of the adversaries and the conflict they generate. Those variations result in unique structural emphases and expectations.


* * * * *

Jukebox Hero of the Week: On the subject of the inevitability of change, here’s They Might Be Giants, with their anthem to impermanence, “Istanbul (Not Constantinople)”:


8 thoughts on “Jonathan Lethem’s Promiscuous Materials Project

  1. Sarah W

    I love the idea of the Promiscuous Materials Project. The way Mr. Lethem has it set up, the results are adaptions, not derivations. The source material is given full credit and it's a way for screenwriters, playwrights, and others to work with contemporary (and well-written) stories without using the rent money for the rights.

    Wonder what Mr. Lethem thinks about fanfiction, if the only thing keeping him from offering permission for adaptive literary works (which would presumably be sold) is his obligation to his publishers?

    (and thanks once again for the earworm — I think you just cured me of that Nirvana tune I contracted three days ago . . . )

  2. Pari Noskin

    I had the same question about fanfic that Sarah did.

    As to the Promiscuous Materials Project, I'm intrigued . . . and hesitant. I scoffed at ebooks/epublishing and am now a fan, so I am much more cautious about forming any opinion about this type of new venture. I look forward to learning more about it and to watching how it works for him.

    Thanks for bringing it here to Murderati, otherwise I might never have heard of it.

  3. David Corbett

    Sarah & Pari:

    I'll confess to being ignorant about fanfiction and leave it at that. Glad you enjoyed the tune, Sarah. It's a catchy little ditty. Instructional, too!

    Glad you guys were able to post your comments. Hurricane Sandy is wreaking havoc on Manhattan, where Squarespace is centered. I guess we'll all stay tuned.

  4. Reine

    Hi David,

    Interesting use of the word tribe in the context of sharing. I say this because students of philosophy and theology are often distressed by the reworking of tribal stories and writings, by multiple authors, in the ancient texts. Young biblical scholars to be, particularly those of a religious bent, often find themselves distressed by the phenomenon of open-source "sharing" among those they'd believed to be THE authors of the truth. For some, their faith dependent on a standard that did not exist in the ancient world of writing, where the value was in the spreading of information, or storytelling, but not ownership. The value was not accuracy it was meaning. This is, for example, why you find many drop-ins from classical literature such as Gilgamesh and stories of the gods in the canon of monotheist religions.

    Before the 17th century plagiarism was not seen to be problematic, and it was not illegal until the 18th century, at least in the western world. Some of the old standards of writing, are now being reworked for new use. While I do believe in certain areas of ownership in writing and other creative arts, I find this new "promiscuous literature" a valuable reinvention of balancing on "the edge of the pit of doom" that will see some fall in, because they jump into the pit or jump back too far from the edge. But we will benefit.

  5. David Corbett


    As always, thanks for checking in. I love the idea of open sourcing religious texts. I have an idea it was the Greeks with their realization of the singularity of mathematical truth that may have made religious minds similarly inclined. I'm really talking through my hat here. But does the rise of monotheism track with the rise of "authoritative texts," or is it messier than that? (I have a feeling I already know the answer, even if I'm short on facts.)

  6. Reine

    Hi David,

    Math is lovely, of course, but it's a lot like bivalves. There's always a mirror image, unless you consider that one side has the meat, and the other side is empty. All you have to do is crack it open to see that this is true. It follows from there that monotheism is not as mono as it might appear to be.

    Appeals to the non-monotheistic "other" always involves acceptable hosts for their gods and their traditions. In that sense there is a rise in authoritative text along with the rise in monotheism, however that does not prove that the spread of monotheism was made possible by the written word.

    The written word was often treasured and hoarded by those who were entrusted to give the message. The best exegesis I read on this topic was written by Henry VIII when he was preparing for the priesthood, before his older brother died and he realized he would have to be king. His correspondence with Martin Luther as a teenager, appears to have paid off for the people when he ordered the Catholic Bible to be translated to English. Don't talk to me about his later horror and craziness, though. It gets in the way of understanding his genius.

  7. David Corbett


    Bivalves, the other, and Henry VIII. I sniff a title in there someplace.

    Thanks again. I'll have to ponder that one for a while. My statement about the singularity of math truth largely rests on its being tautological. It's easy to have the sole truth when you're not saying anything. But the proofs are pretty. And impressive. I know from Heraclitus on, and especially after Plato, that kind of "hard" reasoning was seen as more likely to bear the "truth" than experience, which was seen as corrupt next to the pristine beauty of form. That's all I meant. Like thinking of Euclid as the model for religious truth.

  8. Reine

    David, hah! The bi-valves… I was being silly, although the mirror part is true. And Henry VIII… the whole reason I went to Christ Church, Oxford for a bit, to research radical religion and its spread from England to America. I don't know much about anything else. I hold up the family tradition in my inability to learn Greek, thereby cutting myself of from classical studies in earnest. (YAY!)

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