Stealing from the best

This is a bit of old news, but I felt it worth discussing for two reasons – one, I just found it, and two, it involves one of my favorite writers.  The gist of the matter is that Aaron Sorkin, in delivering the commencement address to Syracuse University several weeks ago, (horrors!) re-used some familiar material.  Namely, he cribbed from an address he’d given to the same school fifteen years earlier, and threw in a few lines from The West Wing for good measure.  This isn’t the first time he’s been singled out for recycling his best lines; astute fans of his work can recognize singular phrases lifted almost verbatim one from the other, or even a particular rhythm to chunks of dialogue.  (As you know, I’ve had a little fun here mimicking it.)  Occasionally, and unfairly, it’s been used by critics to undermine his arguments, as in the case of his acid-tongued rebuttal to Sarah Palin following an episode of her reality show in which she shot a moose on camera – detractors fixated on the fact that the phrase “bringing the right together with the far right” was a lift from the fourth season West Wing episode “Game On,” and missed Sorkin’s overall point.  In a way, it’s somewhat symbolic of how ideas get lost in a sea of nitpicking over minutiae; in the same way that some feel a person’s past mistakes, no matter how trivial, can utterly disqualify them from ever holding higher office.

No one can dispute that Aaron Sorkin’s is a unique voice.  He has been able to tap into the power of words to create stories and characters that have inspired millions of people.  In an environment where posting a video of yourself throwing up on YouTube can lead to a reality show and a book deal, Sorkin is that rarest of creatures – a man who has achieved fame not for his looks or indeed anything particular about his personality, but for how he strings words together.  The ranks of true celebrity writers are thin (that is, celebrities who weren’t famous for something else before their book), and apart from Stephen King there are few whose celebrity endures.  Most aren’t comfortable with the spotlight, and those out there who are writing solely because they want to end up on magazine covers soon discover they’d have better luck getting there with the aforementioned YouTube projectile vomiting.  Sorkin’s fame comes entirely from the quality of his body of work, and his conscious choice throughout his career to raise the bar instead of lowering it for cheap ratings and quick cash.  People respond to that.

Guilty pleasures aside, there is indeed a substantial element of the population that enjoys being challenged, being asked to think about things differently, to question their assumptions and debate issues without descending into name-calling.  The West Wing ran for seven years in the toxic political climate of the second Bush era, and was a lasting tribute to the virtue of public service in a time when cynicism about government’s ability to do anything was spiking (and sadly, continues to rise long after the show has ended).  People latched on to the words coming out of Sorkin’s characters’ mouths; they wanted to speak with the kind of conviction and intelligence found in idealized creations like Sam Seaborn and Josiah Bartlet, and with the well-informed smartassery of Toby Ziegler and Josh Lyman.  In person, Aaron Sorkin probably isn’t as quick and sharp-witted as he is with the benefit of a keyboard and a delete key.  But what comes out of that keyboard is as much his personality as the walking-and-talking version of the man.  It’s his style.  It’s what people expect of him, and what every single person in that audience at Syracuse who knew who Aaron Sorkin was was expecting to hear.

The expectations in seeing a star like Aaron Sorkin speak – and he is a star, make no mistake – are no different than going to your favorite band’s latest concert tour.  You know they’re going to devote the lion’s share of the setlist to the new album they’re trying to promote, but you’ll be damn well disappointed if you don’t hear a couple of their biggest hits.  Richard Ashcroft continues to close every one of his concerts with “Bitter Sweet Symphony” even though The Verve have been broken up now for several years.  You’d feel cheated if you went to see Paul McCartney and didn’t hear a single Beatles song.  Hell, you’d probably feel cheated if you paid to see Justin Bieber and didn’t hear “Baby.”  Why shouldn’t Aaron Sorkin play to his audience in the same way?  Indeed, a few of the familiar lines in the commencement speech are clearly sentiments he believes in very strongly – decisions are made by those who show up, and never doubt that a small group of committed citizens can change the world.  These are good and important things to remind graduates about to step into a world that claims to value hard work and responsibility but instead lauds instant fame, achievement without effort, the fleeting, the hollow, the apathetic and the utterly vapid.

Sam Seaborn once quipped, “good writers borrow, great writers steal outright.”  I suppose if you do have to steal from someone, that someone might as well be you – you’re less likely to get sued for it.

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