Friday, April 3, 2015

Is Any Literature Ever Truly "Original"?

My recent review of Chris Cander’s Whisper Hollow included this phrase: “Boring, derivative, or needy novels are an active imposition.” This made no particular waves on my blog. However, when I cross-posted the review to, I received the following, frankly bizarre response:
It bothers me when a work is labeled "derivative". Does it mean that no other writer can ever have a situation that is similar to what was previously written? Good heavens, the sheer volume of fiction out there would seem to prohibit that.
This particular commentator also took exception to me characterizing a particularly predictable scene as “wheezy,” giving me a lecture on the risks of Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease. So perhaps I shouldn’t take that critic’s comments too seriously. If she thinks I meant anything to do with the viewpoint characters’ lung health, she’s already reading from a set of preconceived notions I probably cannot communicate with.

However, I’ll try.

Creative writing textbooks love to hammer home the importance of originality in writing. Having gone through several texts in both undergraduate and post-graduate writing classes, besides my own spare-time reading, I’ve seen several variations on the idea that, to be worth reading, new writing should be innovative, pathbreaking, or “original.” Textbook authors love to assert, to greater or lesser degrees, that only the truly new is worth an author’s, or an audience’s, time.

These same authors persistently mock genre fiction as a mechanical recitation of the same clichés time and again. Another rocket-ship story, ho hum. For these naysayers, only self-consciously “literary” fiction is truly worth reading, and we can know a work is truly literary if it says something nobody has ever said before.

I can only assume these authors have never read any of the truly daunting mass of books emerging from today’s conglomerate-owned publishing houses. To suggest any, among that massive tsunami, truly says anything we haven’t read before, is naive at best. “Literary” and “mainstream” fiction are extremely fad-driven. That’s why we had so many incest narratives in the 1990s, mental hospital confessionals in the 2000s, and historical epics right now.

Meanwhile, sure, if you browse the genre sections at your local bookstore, there’s plenty of knockoff fiction which readers can wear like a Snuggie, never confronted by anything revolutionary, difficult, or dangerous. But authors from Dashiell Hammett to Neal Stephenson have used various genres’ accepted conventions to push risky fiction. It’s easy to miss them for the steampunk potboilers and Sherlock Holmes pastiches, but these works exist.

So. If even authors who write risk-taking, edgy fiction do so within the confines of existing genres, how can we say that any work is truly original?

We can’t. All new literature exists on a continuum with whatever has come before. My naysayer is right to ask: “how could Pygmalian, My Fair Lady, and Pretty Woman coexist in the same time warp?” They couldn’t, unless whatever comes now converses with whatever came before. No book, no work, exists without tacitly acknowledging something prior.

Still, I insist that Whisper Hollow is a derivative work. I insist this, not because it has roots in something somebody else wrote somewhere before, but because I can see what influences the author plundered to write her own. I got bored with the pages before me, not because they had visible antecedents—what doesn’t?—but because those antecedents were so well-known, I knew where scenes were headed from the very beginning.

I cannot speak for critics and literature teachers everywhere. However, I believe a work counts as “literary,” not because it’s new, but because it engages our imagination. It keeps us guessing. We may see, reading novels like Kathryn Stockett’s The Help, where Stockett drew influences from Toni Morrison, William Faulkner, and Harper Lee. But Stockett isn’t beholden to these influences. She took their authority, and made it her own.

Stockett’s writing is ambiguous. Though it’s superficially familiar, it keeps us guessing where she’s headed. Cander, by contrast, mimics her influences so thoroughly that we know her destination, and the path she’ll take to get there, pages in advance. When I’m tempted to catcall lines from Monty Python’s Flying Circus at an author, something’s gone deeply, seriously wrong.

So no, truly original work doesn’t exist. It can’t. If it arrived, we wouldn’t know how to process it; we’d probably mistake it for gibberish. But that doesn’t mean that derivative writing doesn’t exist. When writers slavishly ape their heroes, foreclose all ambiguity, and tell somebody else’s story, yes, Virginia, that’s “derivative.”

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