A Brief History of Citational Fiction and the Literary Supercut

Tom Comitta on the Stigmas and Innovations of Reappropriation

We also, I say, ought to copy the bees, and sift whatever we have gathered from a varied course of reading, for such things are better preserved if they are kept separate; then, by applying the supervising care with which our nature has endowed us . . . we could so blend those several flavors into one delicious compound that, even though it betrays its origin, yet it nevertheless is clearly a different thing from whence it came.

–Seneca the Younger, Epistulae morales, 65 AD

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Melville stole parts of Moby-Dick. Throughout the novel he wove quotations from Nathaniel Hawthorne, William Prynne, and numerous books on whales and whaling. Sometimes he copied full sentences, sometimes entire paragraphs. Melville’s most extensive use of quotations appears before the story even begins: in two sections, “Etymology” and “Extracts.” These sections span 13 pages and include a total of 82 descriptions of whales gathered from a variety of sources, from dictionaries to The Bible to Paradise Lost to the works of Charles Darwin.

In 1892, four decades after Moby-Dick was first published, Mark Twain did something similar when he included found weather descriptions at the end of his novel, The American Claimant. Twain declared that because “nothing breaks up an author’s progress like having to stop every few pages to fuss-up the weather,” he would not include any weather in his book; if a reader prefers some weather, they can flip back to the Appendix from time to time. There they will find a found poem, full paragraphs from other novels, and one sentence from The Bible: “It rained for forty days and forty nights.”

Is there a term for what Melville and Twain were doing? They were employing found language, or words taken from one source and placed in a new context, to buttress original, fictional texts. They were accompanying their novels with thematic archives: in the case of Moby-Dick, Melville traces a 2,000-year history of how Western authors have written about whales; in The American Claimant’s Appendix, Twain gathers a small sampling of the hyperbole common to weather descriptions.

By creating these hybrid archive-narratives, both authors were moving the novel forward and anticipating a writing practice that is still used today.

In the poetry world, there is studied history of citational writing, or writing that incorporates found language. This history begins in the West with the millennia-old cento—a poem comprised entirely of found language—and in China during the Sung era (960-1279 AD) with the Four-Six style of fu poetry, or prose poems that often incorporated quotations; it continues to this day, with recent works of conceptual poetry.

After looking for a similar lineage in the fiction world, I found the history was there but that there was an insufficient critical apparatus and no cohesive way to talk about it. Some writers and scholars called these works “cut-ups,” “collage novels,” or “pseudo-centos.” Most scholars used no umbrella term at all, focusing on a text’s uses of “found language,” “quotations,” or “extracts.”

This scattered vocabulary is likely one of the reasons that this history has been obscured. Even though these forms have existed for over a millennium, few connections have been made between the many novels and short stories that either contain a significant amount of quotations or are made up entirely of them.

Considering the wide reach of literary criticism, which probes even the most niche forms like “The New Weird” and “Splatterpunk,” it’s particularly surprising that we don’t have a detailed and complex understanding of this kind of fiction. In order to start building one, I’d like to detail some of the important works and trends and to offer a possible vocabulary with which to understand them.

An introductory history and a clear vocabulary would begin to transform these works from disparate stars scattered in the immense, cluttered sky of literary history and into a constellation that we can all recognize, study, and know. Without this, our understanding of fiction is fragmentary at best.

These works and this lineage are uniquely capable of intervening in the ideologies and the literal material—the words, the pages, the bound commodities—of literature, the publishing world, and the culture at large. Citational fictions have the ability to crack such systems open, reveal them for what they are, and form wholly new stories and ideas in the process.

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While literary borrowing can take many forms, the kind of borrowing that is most relevant to works like Melville’s and Twain’s is “direct quotation,” or the precise copying of language from one text to another. This method is quite old, but not as old as its sibling, “approximate quotation,” which is usually the result of oral retelling or a kind of whisper-down-the-lane of time; the original language is lost and re-written or there was never an original text to begin with.

Approximate quotations show up in folk tales and religious texts. They also appear in some of the greatest works of classic literature such as The Odyssey and One Thousand and One Nights.

Probably the first large-scale work of citational fiction appeared in 1610: The Plum in the Golden Vase, published under the pseudonym Lanling Xiaoxiao Sheng.

Direct quotation dates back at least as far as “commonplace books,” which organize quotations into thematic categories such as “Love,” “Death,” “Nature,” etc., and the Han shu, written between 82 and 111 AD by Ban Biao and his children, Ban Gu and Ban Zhao, which is a history of the Han dynasty made up almost entirely of quotations, some running many thousands of characters.

In fiction, direct quotation appears as early as the 9th century AD, with the Arabic genre of adab literature. In contemporary Arabic, the term adab means “literature” in general, but the Medieval adab was a work of inventive prose that sought to both educate readers in etiquette and to entertain them. These adab were some of the earliest works of fiction in the Arabic-speaking world; many of them also contained approximate and direct quotations scattered throughout. al-Jāhiz of Basra, the most celebrated practitioner of adab, was known to quote so excessively that some of his contemporaries publicly criticized him for it.

Probably the first large-scale work of citational fiction appeared in 1610: The Plum in the Golden Vase, published under the pseudonym Lanling Xiaoxiao Sheng, or “The Scoffing Scholar of Lanling.” This satirical-meets-erotic-meets-realist novel borrows heavily from other texts, from theater, historical texts, popular songs, contracts, and menus.

Plum borrows so heavily that quoted material can be found on nearly every page of this five-volume novel, which spans 3,696 pages in the David Tod Roy translation. This scale of quotation and the author’s often ironic use of found language place this work as an early precursor to postmodern fiction.

Another surprisingly postmodern-esque and early use of extensive quotation arrived in the 1850s but did not appear in print until 2002: Hannah Crafts’s The Bondwoman’s Narrative. After discovering the manuscript in an estate auction, Henry Louis Gates, Jr. realized Craft’s novel is likely “the first novel written by an African American woman and the only known novel written by a fugitive slave.”

Gates also discovered Crafts’s extensive use of quotations, with full passages copied and lightly edited from Dickens’s Bleak House and 14 other works from classic writers. As Hollis Robbins suggests in “Blackening Bleak House,” Craft’s use of found language has material implications, as a fugitive slave (supposed property) stealing and repurposing the language (intellectual property) of the masters. This relation is also literal: Crafts took language directly from books in her master’s library.

Unaware of the above works, many have understood the 20th century as the dawn of found-language literature, with T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, Walter Benjamin’s The Arcades Project, and the work of the Dadaists. There were a number of novels from the first half of the century that incorporated quotations—John Dos Passos’s USA Trilogy (1930-36), with its “Newsreel” sections made up of found newspaper copy, advertisements, and popular song lyrics, and Flann O’Brien’s At Swim-Two-Birds (1939) being two examples—but clearly these “collage novels,” or fiction made from a mishmash of sources and rhetorical modes, as they have been called, were not as new as 20th-century writers and critics might have wanted to think.

One truly new development did take place, however, halfway through the century: short stories and books made entirely out of quotations and with no original language from the authors. Prior to this time, novels and short stories that incorporated found language often did so at smaller scales; Melville’s and Twain’s quotation-archives were surely groundbreaking, but they were also brief moments appended to works comprised mostly of original writing.

In the late 1950s almost simultaneouslyin London, Paris, and Vienna, four authors arrived at similar conclusions, extending these methods into full works of fiction. In London, J. G. Ballard created his “Project for a New Novel,” a collage literally cut and glued together from headlines and articles in Chemical & Engineering News. In Vienna, Konrad Bayer combined found writing on the life of Danish explorer Vitus Bering with, according to poet Gerhard Rühm, “ethnographic, shamanistic, historical, and technical texts” into Der Kopf des Vitus Bering (The Head of Vitus Bering).

In Paris, Brion Gysin and William S. Burroughs cut up articles in The Paris Herald Tribune, The London Observer, The London Daily Mail, and Life Magazine, transforming them into new narratives and imagery that attempted to subvert their mass-media ideologies in a neo-Dadaist manner.

Gysin and Burroughs, who would become most well known for incorporating found language in their texts, called their writing “cut-ups.” In their early experiments, they cutup not only periodicals, but also science fiction and works by Shakespeare, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Jack Kerouac; later Burroughs would blend his own original language with that of others.

Gysin and Burroughs popularized their particular form of writing—literally taking a page, cutting it into four, and rearranging the words—by tirelessly theorizing and promoting their method. Their manifestos were so thorough that they often read like recipes for others to replicate.

A decade after the first cut-ups, Kathy Acker basically took these recipes and rewrote the whole cookbook, becoming a widely celebrated writer of found-language fiction. Almost all of her books contain some element of collage orparaphrasis. Her novel Don Quixote, which was a dream (1986) was particularly groundbreaking in its musical use of quotations.

At one point, Acker repeats multiple paragraphs from de Sade’s Juliette two-to-four times over the course of six pages. The effect is a kind of hypnotic, erotic musicality that both emphasizes the artifice of the language and, as Chris Kraus points out in After Kathy Acker, channels the minimalist methods of Terry Riley and Steve Reich.

Even though Gysin, Burroughs, and Acker are now the poster children for the found-language fiction of their times, plenty of other fiction writers produced citational texts in the latter part of the 20th century. Indeed there was a proliferation of these works. Some took the form of “autobiographies,” with texts like George Perec’s Un homme qui dort (A Man Asleep, 1967), which repurposes the writings of “great authors” such as Melville, Kafka, Dante, Barthes, and Sartre.

While “centos,” “commonplaces,” and “cut-ups” have been with us for many years, the term most used by the fiction world today is “the collage novel.”

Other writers of the time used quotations to counter the master narratives of Western history, with works like Ishmael Reed’s Mumbo Jumbo (1972) and Eduardo Galeano’s “Memoria del fuego” trilogy (Los nacamientos, 1982; Las caras y mascaras, 1984; El siglo del viento, 1986).

The 1990s saw the creation of the first publishing house committed to citational fiction. Founded in 1993 by Chicago-based artist and writer Sally Alatalo, Sara Ranchouse Books’s pulp series exclusively published books that repurpose language and expose patterns, from the humorous to the troubling, in genre fiction—particularly romance, noir, and dime-store westerns. One of Alatalo’s own novels in the series, The Continental Caper, exposes a sexist trope in detective novels in which female characters are described almost exclusively by their hair.

The digital age has been fertile ground for creating works like these. With increased access to personal computers and the Internet, writers have been able to easily download or copy and paste large amounts of textual material and even full databases.

The Best American Book of the 20th Century (2014) by the Paris-based collaborative Société Réaliste’s is exemplary in this practice. It draws from the findings of “The 20th-Century American Bestsellers Database,” which catalogues the 10 bestselling books of each year of the 20th century.

Société Réaliste meticulously gathered and chronologized one sentence from each of the 1,000 books in this database and created a single novel from the fragments. This strict formal arrangement makes The Best American Book a true hybrid narrative-archive and a highly fragmentary reading experience.

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It’s now 2020, and there are more found-language fictions than there is room to discuss here. In spite of this, we still don’t have a clear vocabulary for these works. While “centos,” “commonplaces,” and “cut-ups” have been with us for many years, the term most used by the fiction world today is “the collage novel.”

I have relied mostly on another term, “citational fiction,” because of the confusion around “collage novel” in the publishing world. For example two of the leading critical texts on “collage novels,” Jonathan Lethem’s “The Ecstasy of Influence” (Harpers, 2007) and David Shields’s Reality Hunger (Random House, 2010), use the term in diametrically different ways.

Lethem takes a literal approach to “collage novel,” using it to describe Eduardo Paolozzi’s Kex (1966), a novel comprised entirely of found language. Paolozzi took language from crime novels and newspapers, cut it up, and arranged it into a new context and a new narrative; he used no words of his own. In Reality Hunger, Shields uses the term in a more metaphorical way to talk about works which have less to do with found language and more to do with disjunctive, non-linear writing.

For Shields, the collage novel is exemplified by Renata Adler’s Speedboat (1976), which “captivates by its jagged and frenetic changes of pitch and tone and voice.” Adler “confides, reflects, tells a story, aphorizes, undercuts the aphorism, then undercuts that . . . She changes subjects like a brilliant schizophrenic, making irrational sense.” To Shields, Adler’s Speedboat is a “collage novel,” and yet it is an entirely original text; it does not use any kind of found language. The confusion over “collage novel” doesn’t end here; it’s ubiquitous.

This confusion leaves nearly all of the works discussed in this essay without a real term to call their own. It’s not surprising then that this kind of writing has remained in obscurity. Without vocabulary, there can be no sustained dialogue; without dialogue there can be no community or tradition. In light of this lack, I want to suggest two alternative terms: citational fiction and literary supercuts.

“Citational fiction” encompasses all works of fiction that incorporate a significant amount of found language. This would include “cut-up” texts and essentially everything but the poetry and nonfiction mentioned above. A work of citational fiction might be made entirely of found language, or it might scatter quotations throughout an otherwise original-language text.

Unlike “collage novels” citational fiction is agnostic as to whether the text itself is fragmentary or linear—if the work incorporates more quotations than your common novel, then it’s likely a citational fiction. A citational fiction could read as fractured as a work of modernism or as smooth as mass-market literary fiction.

Citational fictions also include a subcategory: “the literary supercut.” Literary supercuts are texts made entirely or almost entirely of found language. They are distinct from most citational fiction in the percentage of quotations that are used in a given work; while a work of citational fiction might include ten to seventy percent found material, a literary supercut would contain ninety-five to one-hundred percent.

A literary supercut might take the form of an entire novel or a short story; it might be a short text thrown into the middle of a “traditional” novel; it might come at the beginning or the end as in Moby-Dick and The American Claimant. Whatever form it takes, every literary supercut is made of an unbroken string of quotations, unless an author chooses to add conjunctions or other brief interventions to smooth out awkward transitions between fragments.

Literary supercuts stand out in the genre of citational fiction because of their radical rejection of originality. A text that relies entirely on found material inherently contains no original language; it instead examines the original language of others and even rethinks one of fiction’s most fundamental principles: invention.

In this way, literary supercuts turn writing into a kind of editorial or archival labor. Examples of particularly archival supercuts mentioned above include Konrad Bayer’s Der Kopf des Vitus Bering, Eduardo Galeano’s “Memoria del fuego” series, and Société Réaliste’s The Best American Book of the 20th Century. 

As a writer of literary supercuts, I’ve been met with everything from rejections peppered with legalese to striking repudiations of the United States’s Fair Use law.

I am not the originator of the term, “literary supercut.” To my knowledge, it was first coined by Vulture magazine in 2012 to describe a collection of the 87 times that someone says the full name “Christian Grey” in Fifty Shades of Grey. The term is itself borrowed from another genre—the YouTube “supercut,” in which a video collects patterns from movies and television, and arranges them into a repetitive montage.

The effect is often funny: Every moment Nicholas Cage freaks out in his movies or the many times Bill Gates says “uh” in interviews. Programs like Last Week Tonight andThe Daily Show have used this method to criticize the hypocritical behavior and the mechanical talking points of politicians and the news media. Like video supercuts, literary supercuts often map patterns—the accumulation of similarities across source materials or within a single source can reveal biases, leanings, and cliches how we write, think, and exist in the world.

George Saunders does this in chapter five of Lincoln in the Bardo (2017), when he collects conflicting descriptions of the moon on the night Lincoln’s son died. Some say there was “no moon,” others describe it as full and “golden,” others “blue,” and some wax exceedingly poetic: “A fat green crescent hung above the mad scene like a stolid jungle, inured to all human folly.”

Saunders’ supercut comments simultaneously on the fragility of memory and the absurd ways authors distort nature to heighten human drama.

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Vocabulary presents just one of the challenges to this kind of writing. It might even be the easiest to solve. When I asked Jonathan Lethem why a decade after the publications of his “The Ecstasy of Influence” and Shields’s Reality Hunger there weren’t more citational fictions being published, he answered with one word: “Capitalism.”

This makes sense given the publishing world’s fixation on producing “original” intellectual property to sell for translation, film, and other adaptation rights; this is where the real money is, and few authors, agents, and publishers would want to move against the grain of this system that, if they are incredibly lucky, might reward them handsomely.

As a writer of literary supercuts, I’ve been met with everything from rejections peppered with legalese to striking repudiations of the United States’s Fair Use law, which protects citational works that transform and critique their source material. Many agents and editors won’t touch a citational work.

And yet these works exist. They have been published by the smallest of small presses and the biggest of the Big Five. They go back as far as the 9th century and have appeared as recently as Kathryn Scanlan’s Aug-9 Fog (2019). They are an important part of literary history and our contemporary moment. They offer readers access to a wider range of reading experiences and ways of seeing the world. They directly repurpose, invert, contort, critique and intervene into problematic and even dangerous language.

Citational fictions and literary supercuts are with us. They are devices as complex and significant as any in the writer’s toolkit. And they will stay with us as long as there are readers to read, writers to write, and books to pull down from the shelf to start copying.

Tom Comitta
Tom Comitta
Tom Comitta is a writer living in Los Angeles. His fiction has appeared in WIRED, Electric Literature, The Los Angeles Review of Books, BOMB, and Best American Experimental Writing 2020. His supercut novel, The Nature Book, is forthcoming from Coffee House Press. @TomComitta





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