I was going to extend my writing for middle grades series with this, but the point is a general one. The prompt did come from my recent MG novel though, and took the form of a snarky review which suggested the story was unoriginal because it was about a boy at school, his two friends, some bullies and a parallel world.
Have these ideas been used in children’s fiction before? Sure. Have they been used the way I’m using them in Darwen? No.
I’m not going to go through the ways my book is different from Harry Potter or the Narnia books or whatever because we’d be here all day and such a defense would rather miss the point.
So let’s think about originality for a moment.
As we have said before at MW, there’s something slightly disingenuous about all those agents and editors and movie producers who are always saying that what they’re looking for is something entirely fresh and new. What they usually mean, once you strip away the understandable but self-edifying mysticism, is that they’re looking for something that feels like a new take or spin on something that has a proven track record. Now, we can all come up with plenty of examples of overtly derivative work which is obviously piggybacking on the success of some other book, but those aren’t really my focus here. I’m talking not about those obvious band-wagon jumpers, but about those which tap into elements of stories we’ve heard before, character struggles, thematic concerns or plot devices which ring bells we heard elsewhere.
In other words, I’m talking about books. All of them.
Because while I’m a big fan of originality in execution, there is surprisingly little which is genuinely new under the sun, and all literature—yes, ALL literature—is part of what we might call a tradition.
Sometimes that tradition might be simply a genre seen historically as it swells and changes, evolving as the discourse around it, the culture which shapes it in the minds of its authors and readers, shifts and grows. This is good. It is necessary. It is a basic condition of literature and helps to make it comprehensible, speaking to us of things we know as well as things we don’t.
Lately I’ve been re-reading The Lord of the Rings, and since that’s a touchstone for our genre, let me use it as an example, on the understanding that I’m in no way denigrating Tolkien’s achievement as a writer when I say that even this seminal piece of modern fantasy, a novel which in many ways defined the genre for decades (still does, to an extent) owes a great deal to writers past. Some of this debt is overt, like the numerous borrowings from Beowulf of which Tolkien was the foremost scholar of his day: a character like Unferth, who is lifted bodily from Hrothgar’s hall and renamed Grima Wormtongue, for instance, the ents whose name Tolkien also takes from the poem as he does the “ubi sunt” motif—a nostalgic mourning for times past—which defines his elves. (Beowulf’s dragon, of course, makes a fairly significant contribution to The Hobbit!) LOTR uses ideas from Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, from Chaucer and from the chivalric tradition reinvented by Edmund Spenser, by Mallory, and later and more romantically by Walter Scott. Like his friend, C.S. Lewis, Tolkien also borrows heavily from the Bible and from core elements of the Gospels in particular (the “resurrection” of Gandalf and his friends’ initial failure to recognize him is one obvious instance). The specifics are less important than the general point, that the most original of works has its roots elsewhere just as other aspects of culture (think music, for instance) grow and develop from what was seeded before them.
Tolkien—like Shakespeare (about whom I could go on at length on this subject, but won’t) and any other great writer who pushes the frontier of his or her genre—is connected to other authors and their work, however much they redirect, tweak or modify their tradition. Sometimes books are an homage—an imitative complement—to the original. Sometimes they are a response to—even a rejection of—things the author has read before (Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea books seem to me a specific response to LOTR, for example, a rethinking, even a respectful critique, as are my Will Hawthorne books). All books are in a sense commentary on what went before, part of a larger conversation which builds on the tradition and moves it forward, and it is not a bad thing for that to be made explicit in a work. Indeed, while a certain arrogance might be an essential part of getting a bookw ritten at all, it is simply absurd to believe any book (including yours) is so original that it exists somehow outside literary tradition. They say no man is an island. Books aren’t either.
So today, just for fun and since I rarely do this kind of interactive thing, I wonder if we might come up with books which in some respect remind us of other, earlier works. Let me be clear that I’m not looking to bash authors for being unoriginal, but rather trying to position them within a tradition which informs them. Let’s talk in specific terms about tone, plot points, character traits, ideas… whatever, particularly where the subsequent author has somehow tweaked whatever they have gotten from the original, refining it, complicating it and making it their own. And if you think you can think of a book which is entirely original, offer it up, and see if others can’t come up with some analogues elsewhere.
[And yes, for you clever-clogs English majors I’m lifting (and modifying) my title from T.S. Eliot, which is sort of my point… 😉 ]
Have at it.