Superversive Blog: When Originality Is a Bad Thing

Today we have a guest post from author Suzannah Rowntree. She speaks on a subject near and dear to my heart. I am a big believer in creativity in our writing…but I find that a lot of calls for originality in form and writing are like telling an artist that they cannot use perspective in their work…and then wondering why the final painting looks weird.

Pendragon

When Originality Is a Bad Thing

by Suzannah Rowntree

Originality. It’s one of the sacred cows of contemporary art and storytelling. As it appears, a successful attempt at originality is one of our most important measuring-sticks of artistic worth, while nothing kills an author’s confidence or an audience’s enthusiasm faster than being told your work is unoriginal.

Instead, we’re led to believe, the only art worth its salt is art that adds something to the world, art that does something new and unexpected. So we live for the genre-busting novel, the shocking plot twist, the authors who demonstrate their artistic independence and fearless vision by desecrating temples and killing heroes.

The central demand is one for novelty. We expect to be surprised. We expect something we’ve never seen before.

And I’ve come to believe that this hankering for originality is a bad thing.

Now I don’t mean to argue for artistic laziness. I happen to believe there’s a huge scope for surprise, plot twists, diversity, and high artistic quality in unoriginality. But we have come to the place where our desire for innovation has morphed into a destructive monster. This is apparent in all the arts. A few years ago I read a really quite hilarious article from no less honoured a pulpit than the Huffington Post, bewailing the decline in Beethoven’s popularity over the last one or two centuries. When Beethoven’s music first made its appearance, performances were packed. Everyone raved about how transgressive the music was, its daring use of discord overturning what had gone before. Today, Beethoven concerts are snoozefests. What, the Huffington Post asked with apparently sincere puzzlement, had happened?

But isn’t the answer obvious? Someone came along who was more transgressive than Beethoven. By easy steps, we came to twelve-tone music on one hand, and Freddie Mercury on the other, and the currency of shock value was debased to the point where it took three minutes of John Cage listening to the audience’s shuffling to really sell out a concert.

Contrast that with one of the few remaining bastions of unoriginality in modern-day storytelling: the romance novel. The genre recipe is quite simple: there must be a hero and a heroine, and they must fall in love and live happily ever after. No one picks up a romance novel because they want to be surprised by a twist ending. In fact, the guaranteed destination is the whole point. There may certainly be twists and turns during the journey, we may certainly wonder how the mess of misunderstandings, grudges, and stubbornnesses keeping the hero and heroine apart will ever be resolved, but we are never really in doubt that at the end of it all, evil will be punished, good will be rewarded, and the prince and princess will ride off to live happily ever after.

Now a foregone conclusion is not something our culture generally rewards with high artistic accolades. Who is the most highly-acclaimed popular fantasy author of our age? George RR Martin, whose reputation is largely built upon his allergies to traditional heroism. A dedicated subversive writer, Martin kills off his most overtly heroic characters when his audience least expects it, sours his most idealistic characters, and enjoys the challenge of making his downright villainous characters sympathetic.

Martin is no doubt good at what he does, but for the superversive author, a different paradigm is necessary. A superversive story may be dark and even disturbing (CS Lewis’s That Hideous Strength comes to mind) but the evil is always evil, not misunderstood, and the good is always heroic, not tragically naïve. A superversive story may be in some sense original; it may surprise, delight, and astound its audience, but its currency is not ultimately shock value or novelty. Rather, its currency might better be described, in Lewis’s words, as Stock Responses.

If you’ve read CS Lewis’s essay The Abolition of Man, you know what I mean. If you’ve never read that essay, do get yourself a copy. In that work Lewis slams modern education as a sham and a farce that produces well-trained but morally incompetent men, “men without chests.” His novel That Hideous Strength dramatises this essay in the character of Mark Studdock, of whom it is said that “in Mark’s mind hardly one rag of noble thought, either Christian or Pagan, had a secure lodging. His education had been neither scientific nor classical—merely ‘Modern’… and the first hint of a real threat to his bodily life knocked him sprawling.”

The solution, in Lewis’s view, was the right kind of training, especially the right kind of storytelling. Fed on the right kind of stories, Lewis insisted, men and women might eventually be trained in the “noble thought” which alone is able to firmly ground them in virtue. To one trained in stock responses, beauty is seen in the clearly beautiful, nobility in the clearly noble, truth in the clearly truthful: Lewis saw himself, in his own words, as:

One whose doom
Keeps him forever in the list of dunces,
Compelled to live on stock responses,
Making the poor best that I can
Of dull things . . . peacocks, honey, the Great Wall, Aldebaran,
Silver weirs, new-cut grass, wave on the beach, hard gem,
The shapes of horse and woman, Athens, Troy, Jerusalem.

The temptation is to view these as “dull things”—trite, cliched, and shallow. We feel that it is so easy to see beauty in an obviously beautiful thing that in order to be truly original we must see ugliness there instead, and beauty in ugliness. But for the superversive writer, the challenge is quite different. We now live in a society which can no longer see the beauty in peacocks, the humility in faith, or (dare I say it) the peace and justice of traditional Christian patriarchy. The challenge is to reawaken our audiences to these things which they have forgotten how to see.

But to do this, first we must reawaken ourselves. It is not easy, once we have accepted the rule of originality and novelty, to reconcile ourselves with the need—the desperate need—for fiction firmly grounded in stock responses. Theme, characters, setting, and plot—none of these need to be new, just so long as they’re good. Personally, I’ve often felt slightly ashamed of my own novel, Pendragon’s Heir, a retelling of Arthurian legend. Wasn’t I just writing fan-fiction? But unoriginality has a long tradition in Western Civilisation, and if I was unoriginal, I was in noble company: Thomas Malory, Chretien de Troyes, even William Shakespeare and John Milton wrote their most famous works on an old and familiar theme. And because they wrote on eternal themes, they will be eternally relevant.

Since he is the one who codified my thoughts on the subject, I’ll finish with one last CS Lewis quote.

No man who bothers about originality will ever be original: whereas if you simply try to tell the truth, without caring twopence how often it has been told before, you will, nine times out of ten, become original without ever having noticed it.  

Tell the truth without caring how often it has been told before: for me, that is the one overriding purpose and aim of storytelling, one of the major battle-lines between the subversive and what I’ve come to call the superversive. For Pendragon’s Heir, my challenge was all the more exciting for its lack of originality: to take an old story with familiar characters, and tell it anew for a new generation. Did I succeed? You’ll have to read it and tell me.

Read Suzannah’s new book: Pendragon’s Heir

Ebook version: http://www.smashwords.com/books/view/530467

Author bio:

When Suzannah Rowntree isn’t travelling the world to help out friends in need, she lives in a big house in rural Australia with her awesome parents and siblings, trying to beat her previous number-of-books-read-in-a-year record. She blogs the results at www.vintagenovels.com and is the author of both fiction and non-fiction. Pendragon’s Heir, her debut novel, released March 26 on Kindle and in paperback.

Pendragon’s Heir synopsis:

Blanche Pendragon enjoys her undemanding life as the ward of an eccentric nobleman in 1900 England. It’s been years since she wondered what happened to her long lost parents, but then a gift on the night of her eighteenth birthday reveals a heritage more dangerous and awe-inspiring than she ever dreamed of—or wanted. Soon Blanche is flung into a world of wayfaring immortals, daring knights, and deadly combats, with a murderous witch-queen on her trail and the future of a kingdom at stake. As the legendary King Arthur Pendragon and his warriors face enemies without and treachery within, Blanche discovers a secret that could destroy the whole realm of Logres. Even if the kingdom could be saved, is she the one to do it? Or is someone else the Pendragon’s Heir?