Thursday, December 9, 2010

The Fiction of Originality

[This started out as a comment to Tim's post, but I hate the comment box's confines -- in a very literal sense, I couldn't see my argument past the third line.]

"Originality" is, I think, a disingenuous concept, particularly in regards to the creation of art (which is, by its very nature, not "original" at all, but simulacrum). I would argue that many, many, many of our contemporary American short story writers, most of whom would likely turn up their noses at explicit appropriation and/or retelling a la Seth Grahame-Smith take not just "part of [their stories'] soul[s]" from Chekhov and (Dubliners era) Joyce (not to mention Freud), but lift sentiment and aesthetic wholly from those writers and their works without giving it a second thought. Whether or not they concede the point, they are retelling Chekhov and Joyce (and Freud, always Freud) and all of the writers who themselves were retelling Chekhov and Joyce and Freud. Why do we need that retelling? What exactly is the point, when we have Chekhov and Joyce and Freud?

We writers are all dealing with the very small set of emotions that can be conveyed by the written word. We are all retelling the small set of experiences that comprise human existence. There is a lifetime of stuff out there to do and think for each and every one of us, but, in the aggregate (and over the course of human history), it doesn't amount to much. There is nothing new under the sun. Plot points, characters and all fundamental elements have all already been used, somewhere, in some form, by someone. We make our small adjustments and call it "original," and I have no problem with that so long as it is understood as a provisional originality, an asterisk as it were, but to then delineate that from a "retelling" is, I feel, to fail to see that, at the very least, we are always retelling our experiences in the world, our thoughts and our attitudes towards these thoughts, all also fictions that we tell ourselves in order to navigate our everyday existences. Fictions, I might add, that we navigate in part through our engagement with other fictions: our education, upbringing, folklore, even the advice and opinion that we give and receive on the most mundane things, like which tires to buy and how to change them. Remember, Christians and Jews, that God made you in his image, a retelling from the start, and that our present understanding of what makes us human rests in large part on a science (AI) that is back-engineering this original retelling through what is itself a retelling by scientists and philosophers.

My point, in case it was buried in the various strands of argument, is that, whether we realize it or not, when we sit down to write, our tools, the sentences and characters and images we put down on the page are appropriations from somewhere else, retellings of something or other. Write what you know, right? Writers know books. Visual artists know visual art. Musicians know music. To ask them to disregard their particular field of expertise, the part of their lives they have presumably lived to the fullest, when it is time to create is to tie their hands behind their back. Joyce's Ulysses did not spring Athena-like from his brain (or Dionysus-like from his thigh); it came from Homer, at least in part. Homer (if he existed and wasn't just himself an aggregate) got the good word from somebody else. Isn't it at least a little suspicious that, the further back we go in the history of literature (Homer, for instance, or Pound's beloved troubadours, or Shakespeare), the more questions of authorship are raised? I don't mean "who wrote this?" in a Barthes sense (or maybe I do, also), but rather the doubt that any one person wrote it at all, much the person or persons we mean when we speak or write those names. Literature becomes collective the further back in history we go, appropriation less an aesthetic consideration than simply a fact.

Appropriation, it seems to me, is taking an existing thing and putting it into a new context. Retelling is clothing a preexisting story in new details. In terms of originality, it doesn't make any difference if these borrowed elements are characters taken from history or fiction, structure, form, language, fabula, sujet, etc. This is, on a very simple level, what we do when we write. Some writers acknowledge their debts, others don't. I don't really view one as more honorable or more valuable than another. (To come back to my earlier question) Why do we need that retelling, if literature is, as Ezra Pound (an appropriator himself) said, "news that stays news?" Because the elements that we appropriate and reappropriate are important. The fact that they are reused is the artist's way of assigning importance to them. There is nothing ignoble or cynical in this. It is in our nature. It is very necessary.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. Let me bring up a question from the consumer's end, using the (admittedly ridiculous) Rare Exports example: is a retold story enhanced by our experience with its original or previous telling, and should it matter? If there were no Santa mythology, and this story was entirely new, would I be more or less likely to entertain it as serious fiction? Would I come at it like I come at The Thing (a great film about finding stuff buried in ice) or like Killer Clowns from Outer Space?

  3. Edit: I accidentally addressed this comment to Mike instead of Gabriel: Thanks for the considered response. But you forgot to answer the implied question: will you be in the theater for Rare Exports?

    You're right that we all appropriate, and fairly obviously, if we're honest with ourselves. I was thinking as I wrote my post about how pervasively some of my favorite novels and movies have influenced my work, even if in ways that would be undetectable to another reader.

    There's an anthology out soon--I tried to find its name earlier this morning--that is made of authors expressly retelling classic lit stories, I think. Anyone know the title?

  4. I agree with this generally Gabriel, pretty strongly actually. But one thing stuck out to me: "We writers are all dealing with the very small set of emotions that can be conveyed by the written word."

    You go on to say stuff that makes it sound as if this set of emotions is small because the set of human emotions generally is small, which is something I more or less agree with, but this initial sentence makes it sound as if the number of emotions accessible to text is unusually small when compared to the reach of other media. And I'm not sure that's wrong, either, but I'd like to see you expand on the idea.

  5. Tim: Will I be in the theater? Sadly, no, but less out of aesthetic concerns than financial ones. We rarely go to the cinema. But then, we rarely go anywhere. I hardly see how "Rare Exports" could be half as bad as "Home Alone 2," the ultimate Christmas movie appropriation (a hollowed out shell of a hollowed out shell, as cynical as they come and just unwatchable). John Carpenter's "The Thing," (1982) was, of course, brilliantly "adapted" (Hollywood has its own, evolutionary terminology) from the original Howard Hawks "Thing from Another World," but also from H.P. Lovecraft's "The Mountains of Madness" and Lovecraft's work more generally. And Hawks was, in turn, working from John W. Campbell Jr.'s short story, "Who Goes There?"

  6. Mike: Text has a unique relationship to our brains, requiring a step in processing that the other plastic arts don't. There is/can be no visceral reaction to it, in other words. Which I don't think limits the depth of emotional response on the part of the reader (or the writer for that matter). It does, however, limit the variety of those responses. Music, for instance, undoubtedly has access to emotions no other art form shares; truly ecstatic feelings that would seem manipulative in any other medium. The divide, I think, is between those art forms which have a truly visceral component, and those that only have a virtually visceral (which is to say, not visceral at all) component, though I think that even the truly visceral arts lay claim to distinct areas of the psyche.

  7. Okay, I found the book of retellings whose title I couldn't remember, and learned it will be released at AWP: