I've often wondered why writers don't cover literature the way musicians cover songs. A band, a singer-songwriter gets up on stage and covers a song by a well-known artist or an obscure one, sometimes slavishly respectfully, sometimes making it their own. Bands and musicians release entire albums devoted to covering other artists' material — there's a cottage industry of cover albums. We think nothing of a singer turning another's song inside-out, paying respect to influence and history. Some cover songs are jokes, some are overly-earnest. (Forget tribute bands for now.)
I'll ask myself: can I go in front of a crowd (or a mic) and cover a David Lazar or Ander Monson essay? Or, more interestingly, a James Baldwin or Joan Didion or Virginia Woolf essay? I can read the piece — but where would my interpretation come in? How would I filter the essay's style and content and place in history through my own? I can mimic it, cop a certain voice or tic of style, but could I really deconstruct, rebuild, and newly (and wholly) inhabit the piece the way, say, Tommy Keene does with Lou Reed's "Kill Your Sons," the way the Beatles do with Little Richard, the way the Ramones do with Chris Montez? Etc. (Insert your own favorite cover versions here.) Or for that matter, the way Roy Lichenstein and Andy Warhol co opted popular mass imagery and made it their own? Perhaps if I collaged three or more essays by different writers a la Richard Hamilton? An interesting mess, maybe.
There's a wall between artist and artist that seems unbridgeable — or at least more difficult to circumvent, or cross — in a work of literature, than in a song. Is literature more personal — and, so, less easy to inhabit — than popular music? That seems unlikely. Of course, there are musicians whose work is so self-identified that it feels pointless to cover, but in the scheme of things those songs are probably the exceptions.
I'm asking too many questions now. Help me out here.
"Books In a Stack (A Stack of Books)" courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons.