Great Moments in Literary Theft: Nathan Englander

The Talented Thief: Nathan Englander
Great Example of Literary Theft: The short story “What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank.”  The story was originally published in The New Yorker and was included in The Best American Short Stories 2012, edited by Tom Perrotta.
The Talented Victim and the Pilfered Work: Raymond Carver and his short story “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love”

Discussion:
Nathan Englander’s short story “What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank” describes an evening shared by two couples.  Debbie and the first-person narrator are secular Jews living in Florida.  Mark and Lauren (aka Yarucham and Shoshanna) are Hasidim, visiting from Israel.  At first, the narrator doesn’t particularly care for the guests—so his wife was Shoshanna’s schoolmate twenty years earlier…big deal—but likes them much more after a few drinks and a little marijuana.  The story ends as the couple plays the “Anne Frank Game” in which the Jews discuss who would  or would not hide and protect them in the face of another Holocaust.

Englander is, like all great writers, an admitted thief.  In his note regarding the conception of the story, he admits that he was thinking about the classic Raymond Carver story “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.”   The title is an homage, and one that most literary folks would recognize.  Carver’s story is an alcohol-soaked discussion between two couples, just like Englander’s.  Both stories end with a discordant tone, as though all of the characters have understood something dark and sad about the world and themselves.  What does Englander get by borrowing the title?  The connection to an all-time great story brings forth great expectation from the reader, but also inspires (at least in readers like me) great admiration. After all, it takes a lot of guts to willingly put yourself in conversation with a writer like Raymond Carver.

Englander also admits that he stole the idea for the “Anne Frank Game” from his own life.  He and his sister have been playing it “forever.”  As the author points out, the game is both sad and comforting…what must it be like to doubt that a friend would try to save your life.  We all have these kinds of personal details and we must have the courage to plumb our psychological depths for these gifts.  Nonfiction writers steal from their own lives in explicit ways; we all know the things that Tim O’Brien carried while he was in Vietnam.  Fiction writers steal ideas and cloak them in a shield of make-believe.

What Can We Steal?

  • Appropriate titles and situations from other great works.  Yes, yes; you have to make your work your own.  But when you steal a title or a famous line, you’re inviting the reader to compare your piece to the classic in question.  The reader will bring his or her knowledge of the original piece…and this can be a positive or a negative for you.  (I don’t know about you, but I’m intimidated by being compared to the greatest writers ever.)
  • Borrow from the toolboxes owned by writers in other genres.  When writing fiction, feel free to use techniques commonly used by poets.  When you’re writing a screenplay, think about the way a nonfiction writer condensed his or her story in a fortuitous manner.  At the moment, I’m thinking of the film made from Tom Perrotta’s novel Little Children.  It’s not odd for a film to have a narrator, but the narration in the film goes much further than most narrators, becoming a character in the same way that the narrator is a character in a novel.

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