I thought it was about time I gave this place a dust. Got rid of some of those cobwebs – some of them are practically cities.. And before I get lost in that image let me introduce my second word I think it might be fun to re-examine.
According to a few dictionaries around the web – it’s always interesting I think how they vary
n. the ability to think independently and creatively
n. freshness of aspect, design, or style
Although it should be noted their first somewhat circular definition is – the state of being original. They define original in myriad ways, the first few of which all speak in various ways to being the ‘first’, ex. a Van Gogh original, I’ll make copies and give you the original, the source from which something sprung.
Dictionary.com backs this up
the quality or state of being original.
ability to think or express oneself in an independent and individual manner; creative ability.
The Free Dictionary is more specific in where it places its emphasis.
The capacity to act or think independently
So how is it regarded in writing circles?
Well usually it begins with a cliché, fittingly. Because we are creative writers after all.
There is nothing new under the sun.
And in saying we prove ourselves true.
Good writers borrow, great writers steal (which I believe is a paraphrasing but don’t ask me to go find out who said it first..)
We stand on the shoulders of giants.
Look, they’re not clichés, they’re idioms and we like them. Okay?..
But that’s just what we say when questioned directly about the concept. It almost inevitably leads to a lack of originality and oddly literal translations, more specifically it doesn’t actually reveal what our true attitude to originality is or how our behaviour tallies. And that is a big fat complicated contradictory mess. What seems quickly apparent is that we both equate originality with creativity yet refuse to allow our creativity to be judged by its originality. We almost seem to believe that because we are writers that is creative enough and anything we produce must therefore be good enough in this particular dimension. Perhaps why writing sites are so dominated by ‘rules’ and so rarely involve crits of actual stories.
What was the last thing you can think of that truly broke ground, within the realm of fiction? We seem almost universally to be embracing our lack of originality, from fanfiction to Hollywood reboots and even in that realm that some still, perhaps naively, regard as a haven of the different, the literary fringes.
Two articles – Contemporary Art isn’t Original, in the Guardian, and Good Writers Borrow, Great Writers Remix, in the Literary Hub, both defend this growing trend, several years apart. One claiming that art is ‘a subtle game of variations and transformations, out of which, once in a while, comes the shudder of true artistic surprise’ while the other states it is all ‘a conversation between artists.’
And there is always historical weight to lend to the argument: Shakespeare a famous copyist, everyone knows he borrowed shamelessly from stuff that was around before, legends and histories and folk tales of old; Joyce drew directly on the structure of the Odyssey for Ulysees; and Wide Saragasso Sea is practically Bronte fanfiction. If it seems that what we remember is the unique its because we exist in a time when the mediocre masses who also mimicked and espoused the same styles, themes and plots, have been swept away. If only the first, the arbiters of the new movement, are remembered, the Hemingway standing above the James, the Dickens obliterating the Bulwer Lyttons, Shakespeare leaving poor Ben Jonson in the dust – and those are ones who did at least make some mark (a nobel prize should mean something..) – what are we really celebrating? Is it those who did it well, or were popular enough to be cited as influence? King, Leonard and McCarthy, three titans of contemporary literature have all cited Hemingway’s influence, only Hemingway cited James.
Lets go further. I challenge you to name one book, story, where we could not cite influence, draw parallels with another work, deconstruct the tropes used or structure followed. Even the unreadable Finnegans Wake is strongly influenced by nonsense literature and other linguistic experimentations, such as Stream of Consciousness, taken, as is his style, to an extreme most would find almost impossible. It did take him 17 years.
When Lincoln Michel states that, ‘the idea that finding your voice means existing in a vacuum, never touching or being touched by other literature is both absurd and stifling’ he’s right, so right in fact that the very presumption that those who object to something as unoriginal are thinking like this, is absurd.
Publishers are frequently attacked as hypocritical, citing a desire to hear a fresh new voice, all the while publishing those who write books which are as Jonathon Jones would hold it, ‘subtle variations’ on a theme. The Maze Runner, Breathe, the Uglies, Divergent, all 50 Shades of Hunger Games. Harry Potter is derided as nothing more original than a blending of Tolkien lore and urban legends.
We’re arguing degrees but as usual both sides retreat to poles accusing the other of extremes of thought that neither are guilty of. Isn’t it entirely possible that one man’s remix is another’s cheap coat of paint?
Perhaps one interpretation of Picasso’s quote – yes, he’s generally the man folk attribute the quote to – is that when we borrow we must return intact, but when we steal it we can do anything we wish with it. A beautiful diamond is usually fenced in pieces. A car thief takes only the bits he wishes with no regard to maintaining the original form.
We are a far more sophisticated audience than three hundred years ago, we’ve read, and heard, and digested far more than our predecessors, stories are background noise, internet memes summing up tombs of worthy prose and playing while we watch 10 Things I hate About you and listening to Bowie talking about spiders on Mars. It’s always a possible answer that when we say plagiarism, we’re just that more adept at recognising the patterns beneath..
But given how happily we consume fan fiction of fan fiction, reboot upon remake, is it truly likely? In the cloistered halls of the I-generation our pool of influence seems to be ever-decreasing. You’d think that would make it easier to step outside the lines, but I wonder.
What is the opposite of originality? Conformity? Homogeneity? Belonging? Certainty?
To quote my mentor, Paul Arden..
Some risks have a future, and some people call them wrong. But being right may be like walking backwards proving where you’ve been.
Being wrong isn’t in the future, or in the past.
Being wrong isn’t anywhere but being here.
Original doesn’t equal good, it won’t guarantee success, may even inhibit it, there are countless studies constantly examining both the influence our environment plays and how much our thinking is inhibited by our social instincts, from Jungs Collective Unconscious to the Milgram Experiment. This study on perceptual tests shows how even something as seemingly innocuous as whether you grew up near mountains or flat plains can alter the way you measure a line. It certainly isn’t easy to step out into the abyss to even, sometimes, know if you are, but I do believe it is necessary. Originality is the only way we grow. It’s a line worth debating.
I see authors act like homage, pastiche and remixing is some kind of lesser form of creation. An artform is a conversation between artists. Literature is massive ballroom stretching through time in which authors debate, rebut, woo, and chat with each other. – Good writers borrow, great writers remix.
They are not necessarily lesser acts of skill. They do not necessarily require less intelligence, or even potentially work (although..) but creation brings something new. When attempting to justify what they do in both articles the sum of the argument appears to be ‘everybody else does it, so why can’t I?’ And they show little ability to discern any qualitative difference between anything which shows its parts may have been ‘borrowed’ or ‘stolen’.
How do you have a conversation between artists? Kafka is unlikely to reply. Even if he were alive what sort of conversation is he to have with someone who simply parrots his own words back at him?
Wicked makes no allusions about the origins or names of its characters, its Wizard of Oz influences, but it doesn’t parrot, or even really pay homage, rather it directly asks us to address our own prejudices, to show the folly in our thinking, the hideous presumptions that someone who’s been in a new land all of a few days can truly intimately know who to believe or who to kill. It uses the world and the established truths of that world, so well known to all, for a very specific reason.
Wide Saragasso Sea could be called a rebuttal. But if so it was one not to the author but to her fans, the masses of readers who happily condemned a woman they didn’t know in pursuit of swoon worthy feels..
‘A conversation between artists’ is a lovely phrase as long as we don’t examine it too deeply. As long as we don’t question and just let the words carry us along. Once we stop and take stock of the ground we’re trucking along, it starts to smack of emptiness. Of exclusivity, of futility, at best a competition like school boys trying to outdo one another with ever increasingly obscure quotes. A Pointless for the literary astute.
And I do like Pointless, but no quiz ever asked you to think outside the box. They just want you to know the box inside out. Knowledge and insight is the province of critics and professors, ours must surely resolve itself into creation.
As a writer when do we stop and ask, is it a crutch? We deride fan fiction as the playground of the literary unable, yet excuse ourselves. The author at the centre of this stated that her intent was to “rethink/adapt Gallant’s classic story for the present day with Pakistani characters and situations from my own context and community into Gallant’s structure, and in so doing to provide some commentary on our current political climate and the lives of American Muslims.”
Yet one of the most interesting comments – one which didn’t get your sense of compassion and outrage competing with one another – was that from a second generation Pakistani immigrant, who seemed bewildered at the ‘stiff, repressed’ portrayal of a culture that seemed to simply echo that so common theme of American isolation and priority of wealth and status over community and bear no resemblance to his own experiences. She stated her desire to portray current issues but did the author miss her mark by constraining herself under the struts of another’s vision, painted in another time and another culture?
Independent thinking seems a little like the Universe. We know it has a beginning and an end, but we can’t really conceive what lies beyond it.
Maybe we can’t see the unseen, know the unknown, but we can know more, we can see the lines that hold us in place. The more influences we can balance, the more informed the pattern and the more able to fill in the spaces between, to conjecture the unfinished possibilities.