Have been in Chitown for the summer, fearing for my life. Watched closely by the mob, so I couldn’t blog.
No seriously, I couldn’t think of any better excuses. I prefer apology, so I proffer apology. On with life.
I have a deep unsettling fear as a writer. Particularly, when thinking of writing many types of fiction and non-fiction. So darn much has been written. So much ground has been covered, so much research laid on exhibit for the layman, so many stories told. Is there really anything left? Not that there’s nothing left to write, but how can I possibly write something new, something fresh? I suspect that anytime someone manages to, they’ll be a hit because people will sense that they haven’t read anything like it before. I suspect that is no small part of the success of the Harry Potter series. Yes, magic had been done many times over, but never quite like that. And certainly not with a bunch of teenagers at a school, and certainly not in that type of contemporary world. It was rather more unique than many books on the market and thus quickly became well loved. (Surely there are other reasons for its success — sheer originality wouldn’t be quite sufficient, I think, but so many books suffer from a deflated originality that is at best a sort of stolen creativity.) (Also, c.f. Lord of the Rings for originality in genre.)
(Which reminds me — go read “Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell” by Susanna Clarke. I’ve written a review that could give you a much fairer evaluation, but for now let’s call it a savoury stylistic cross between Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings. Maybe with a touch of Jane Austen thrown in.)
So where are the new stories? I do feel that some succesful authors simply pick and choose from different pre-existent elements in a genre and combine them in a fluent enough manner that the resultant work is at least enjoyable and worthwhile. In one sense I think the joy that both writers/readers of these books get from their creation/reading (consumption?) is something akin to the joy of numbers some people get in running numbers through an equation or playing with variables in a spreadsheet. It’s all the same stuff, just plug in a few numbers and see how it all shifts. Change a character or two, move this theme from here to there, try an old gimmick on for size, and see what comes out! I’m more critical of this formula in paperback authors who make a career by pumping out essentially one book over and over. The essence of the book is quite literally (and literarily [too much fun with words]) the same, with character names changed, etc. It’s the same book dozens of times over but with different clothing. It’s an unfortunate truth of the popular market that we simply *DO* judge a book by it’s cover, though, so until we read it we think it must surely be something different. And something must be said too for the writer’s skill in duping enough readers into enjoying the same story over and over enough times to make a career out of it. Got to give them credit for that. They’re convincing.
But. With such clear wariness of factory-production in the arts, I worry about this issue of originality. What if I write someone else’s book, and all that has changed is the name of the author? This is deeply unsettling. I wonder how many fledgling architects have been told to build beside the monuments of history. But there are few things older in human history and closer to the heart of the human spirit than the telling of stories. This is not the difficulty of writing new equations, discovering new axioms, developing new theories. In such things there is much yet unknown and waiting to be discovered. This is not rocket science; this is much less clear. In this, it is not the unknown waiting to be discovered but that which is within every man, woman, and child, waiting to be drawn out. And thus in a sense every old, tired story is re-inventing the wheel, re-discovering gravity, re-building the arch.
I recently read an article in a writing magazine (the citation escapes me, please forgive) that sums it all up quite nicely. It describes the four levels of plagiarism a writer may inhabit:
LEVEL 1: This plagiarist is essentially a literary purse-snatcher. There’s not an ounce of finesse or remorse in the way he steals someone’s work. He’s the guy who photocopies an entire novel, writes his name over the author’s with a marker, and resubmits it to the publisher because it’s just the kind of book they like to put out.
LEVEL 2: Like the Level 1 plagiarist, this idea thief greedily helps himself to the work of others. He’s not fully committed, though. While he can’t develop an idea of his own, he’s confident he can improve upon existing text. He may even see his plagiarism as a service.
LEVEL 3: Most of the scandals we hear about involve this group. The plagiarist may indeed be writing a story of his own, but he doesn’t hesitate to borrow an element from an existing work – a plot twist, a distinctive line of dialogue, a white whale named Moby, and so on.
LEVEL 4: Purity. The Level 4 “plagiarist” can’t accurately be labeled as such. The writer first memorizes every creative work published so he knows what to avoid. He then writes his novel in an entirely invented language and rents an orangutan to rearrange the pages. There are no characters and there’s no story. If you could read it aloud, which is impossible, it would sound like 372 pages of a ceiling fan operating. Finally, when the manuscript is incorruptibly ready, when it has no resemblance to anything written by anyone, anywhere, the author burns it just to be safe.
In the end I suppose I could enjoy a little more peace of mind if I simply addopted the Piccasan proverb: “Good artists copy; great artists steal.”