Originality is Overrated

there is nothing new under the sun

Like anything else, literature is subject to fads. Descriptive versus minimalist styles go in and out of fashion, genres pick up popularity only to fall from favour in a matter of months, and what we view as “good” changes with the wind. Ever since the dawn of modernism there has, however, been a fad that just refuses to die. And that is the desire to create something “new” or “different”.

For me, this focus has always been flawed. Because “there is nothing new under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 1.9). In fact, according Christopher Booker’s opinion there are only 7 stories in the world. Ironically, even the idea of being “original” and breaking the boundaries of literature was tried and tested by the Alexandrian poets in the Hellenistic Era.

Originality does not have to be the pinnacle of what is great in this world. On the other end of the spectrum, medieval writers believed that “newness” had no credibility or weight. Similar was the mentality in the Renaissance period. A brilliant example is Shakespeare. I mean, everyone knows he didn’t write original stories, but pinched them from wherever he could find them (*shock, horror*). But does that make his work any less good? Does that somehow make him less of a genius? (if you answered yes to either of those question then I am disowning you as a banana lover). No- they are great stories because of the way he told them- the originality of the content is irrelevant.

What gives a story weight is its connection to the human experience and its place in the great tradition of literature. It is not its uniqueness that makes it special- but the age old truths that it reaffirms. That is why when I read a book series like Red Rising (did you really think I’d make it through a post without mentioning this series?) I do not see it as ripping off the Hunger Games or Homer, but rather paying homage to them and adding to the stories they were already telling.

Obviously, I am not talking about just plain stealing someone else’s ideas- because ripping off someone else’s story is not adding to the conversation. If anything straight up copying waters down powerful messages – such as in the dystopia craze, where the drive to create *new* worlds detracted from the usual political purpose of the genre. But that is another issue with the drive towards originality- the vehicle for delivering the message is hijacked and the whole purpose of the journey is lost.

So let’s not get bogged down in an impossible quest for originality- because really, all authors, whether they care to admit it or not, carry over their influences from every story they’ve ever heard and use them in their work. And that is something to be celebrated- not derided.

What do you think? Do you agree that originality is overrated or are you in the “originality is king” camp? I would love to hear your thoughts!

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64 thoughts on “Originality is Overrated

  1. Kourtni @ Kourtni Reads says:

    I agree with a lot of what you’ve said here. I definitely enjoy reading something that’s unlike anything else I’ve ever read before, but I don’t think originality is the only thing worth striving for and I don’t think that just because something isn’t original means that it’s not good. The way you tell the story can be the most important part (you can have a very original story and have it still be crap because you don’t tell it well). There have been plenty of times where I’ve really enjoyed a book despite having read other things that were very similar. So long story short: originality is nice, but not necessary or sufficient for me to feel that a particular book is a “good” one.

    Liked by 1 person

    • theorangutanlibrarian says:

      Thank you very much for your insightful comment! Yes- I completely agree with you. I have definitely enjoyed some original things, but sometimes I’ve read the most awful stories that were too original for their own good, or as you said, just bad stories. Definitely!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. rantandraveaboutbooks says:

    I’m so glad you mentioned Red Rising. Right now, I’m so hooked it’s like a sickness. I never thought anything would surpass my view of The Hunger Games. And I’m only 80 pages into the first book. I can’t even imagine how I’ll feel when I’m done the entire series. I agree with you on originality. When querying agents, they always say they’re looking for something original, but is anything really original? Even Harry Potter was supposedly similar to a book published before it, muggles, magic shool and all. Like you said, Shakespeare is one of the greats and even his work was inspired by other works. I think a book like Red Rising is paying a tribute to books like The Hunger Games and Roman and Greek concepts/mythology. I think when you take the time to analyze things around you, you’ll see how many things are similar to those that came before them- government, architecture, books, movies… I could keep going.

    Liked by 1 person

    • theorangutanlibrarian says:

      ahhh I’m so pleased your hooked- welcome to the dark side mwhahahah :p The series as a whole is sensational- hope you end up feeling the same way!

      That’s true- I think agents are un/necessarily harsh- it’s kind of a bit more complicated from their perspective, cos they’re really just looking for a good business proposition- something that they can sell as unique, but that’s also tried and tested. It’s a bit over complicated and I don’t know what exactly the right technique is to be honest- it’s an odd trapeze act of balancing usps and referring to where it fits in in the market. But in reality, you’re right, nothing’s original.

      Oh yes it was- someone showed me a cartoon once that is pretty much identical. And there are loads of things that came before that are very similar- worst witch series springs to mind for some reason. But Harry Potter isn’t good cos of it’s originality, but because it was done well.

      Yup- he pretty much pinched every story he had. Not one of them is original in any way.

      Yup it definitely is! I love how Red Rising relates so well to Roman culture in particular (in my opinion it’s spot on) Well of course I agree with that. Art- any art- goes in phases. History repeats itself (although never in the way you expect…) Definitely agree

      Like

      • rantandraveaboutbooks says:

        Yeah, I agree. HP was done well and the writing is really solid. Originality is such a hard thing to pin down. I honestly can’t remember the last time I read or watched something I would consider 100% original with the exception of maybe a few of my favorites. Once I started recognizing all of the Roman influence, I really started getting into the book. I was like oh, that’s cool. Someone who wasn’t familiar with the culture probably wouldn’t spot certain things ahead of time, but I really like that if you know about them it’s almost a little bit of foreshadowing.

        Liked by 1 person

        • theorangutanlibrarian says:

          Exactly! It really is impossible to pin down, which is why I find it a bit of a flimsy compliment/criticism. Ahh I’m so pleased- it’s one of the reasons the series really clicked for me- I loved the world building. I studied quite a bit of Roman history, so I get (irrationally) excited when someone gets it right!

          Liked by 1 person

          • rantandraveaboutbooks says:

            I love Roman history, too. Once I got to the part where it was heavily loaded with terms I was familiar with, I didn’t want to put it down. My first novel has a lot of Roman influence, so to see it done well in another book is really cool, though I used concepts that are less familiar in my story. Only the real history buffs will know where I got some of my concepts. I’m only up to chapter twelve right now. I had to finish up my line edits for my editor, but now, I plan to spend my free time finishing this series. I’ll post a review as soon as I’m done the book. I like to write them while it’s still fresh in my mind. This is a tough book to review without giving too much away. I can see that already and I’m not even close to finished.

            Liked by 1 person

            • theorangutanlibrarian says:

              That’s awesome! What kind of concepts? I’m curious if I qualify as a real history buff 😉 (probably not- cos I dabbled in to many areas in my degree) Looking forward to it. I know what you mean- I struggled more and more not to go into plot points as the reviews went on!

              Liked by 1 person

              • rantandraveaboutbooks says:

                The focus of my government structure is imperium, but it’s a bit more complicated because I’ve expanded it to include not just military but also divine snd earthly ideals seen in Christianity, as well as the extension of imperium seen with certain legal systems. I’m a law major so this was very appealing to me and much of American government mimics Roman law. I’m pretty sure I’ve seen Consul, Praetor, and Magistrate in Red Rising, so I’m curious to see how much it mirrors my interpretation of imperium. That was a big reason I liked The Hunger Games so much. I could easily make the comparison to the Roman Games and the way the government treated their people. I’m seeing the same things I liked from that book in Red Rising. I’m reading it so slow, but I really am loving it. I’m wondering how I can review this book without giving any spoilers. It will probably take me a while to come up with something that does it justice.

                Liked by 1 person

                • theorangutanlibrarian says:

                  Ah well that’s well within the bounds of my (admittedly limited) expertise- the politics and basic legal systems I had to know (obvs). And I studied Roman religion in some depth when I did courses in Roman Propaganda (art mostly) and Death and Burial (yes I actually opted for that course- cos I’m morbid that way)- not including the history courses I did as well. My professor was actually somewhat obsessed with the move from Roman beliefs to Christianity- I personally think she had a thing for Constantine. But I digress!- point is it sounds very interesting 🙂
                  Yes the Hunger Games was good- a bit more watered down than Red Rising because it was commenting on so much of modern culture (which is not a bad thing!) Yeah it will be tough!

                  Liked by 1 person

                  • rantandraveaboutbooks says:

                    Oh, thats awesome. Thanks! Then you would definitely get all the references. Anything Roman or Greek sign me up. I devour it. Yeah, The Hunger Games was a more technologically savvy culture, but from what I’ve read of Red Rising, they seem to have some of their own tricks in that society. How about his surgeries? I couldn’t believe that’s what they had planned for him. I never would’ve guessed it. I’m at the part where they’re getting ready to send him to the Institute.

                    Liked by 1 person

                    • theorangutanlibrarian says:

                      Yup- I’m actually super fussy about it- cos I hold it to too high a standard- but when it works it makes me over the moon!
                      Yeah- I meant more that she based it on ideas such as reality tv and modern warfare- rather than the technology (if anything Red Rising is more technologically advanced). I just meant in terms of world building it’s influenced by Roman culture, but has a lot of modern cultural references. But that’s because she did a really good job of following the rules of dystopian universe- they should feel like an exaggerated version of our own world. Red Rising isn’t a dystopia, so Brown could be far more free with his Roman influences and they shine through a lot more

                      Liked by 1 person

                    • rantandraveaboutbooks says:

                      Oh, yeah Collins’ storyline is definitely more modern in terms of it still having the feel of what we’re accustomed to. Perfect dystopian. She did have some cool tech and what seemed like more advanced medical technology later on in the series. And I loved the military aspect of district 13 since I work with Naval aviation and marine fleet readiness. I guess I haven’t read enough of Red Rising to see their tech. The surgeries sounded light years ahead. I’m only one or two chapters beyond that though. I’m assuming I’ll see more of the tech and Roman influence once Darrow gets to the Institute. The Golds sound interesting. I’m curious as to how the Golds are bred like gods and the lower castes have different DNA that makes them sound less than human. Very interesting concept. I like that it’s more science fiction than fantasy or dystopia. Or at least from what I’ve read it seems that way.

                      Liked by 1 person

                    • theorangutanlibrarian says:

                      Yeah definitely! Me too- it was very cleverly thought out. Yeah so much of it sounds very futuristic- as you said “light years ahead” lol. Yes you will definitely see more of the Roman influence- it’s so good. The tech is more evident in the second book (no spoilers, but there are spaceships) It is a really interesting concept! It definitely is more sci fi

                      Liked by 1 person

                    • rantandraveaboutbooks says:

                      I can’t wait! I’m still not at the Institute yet. I keep thinking he’s about to go and then he doesn’t. I read that Brown is writing another series set 10 years after the last novel in the Red Rising series. Yay for spaceships. I’m thinking of this world as being like The Jetson’s with an edge so that’s cool. I feel like I’m reading super slow for some reason. I love a good sci-fi. They’re so rarely done well. I’ll let you know what I think as soon as I finish the book. 😉

                      Liked by 1 person

                    • theorangutanlibrarian says:

                      Ah well it gets really good at the Institute. Yeah- I’m *so excited* for it! YES! I don’t know about Jetsons- is that good? I haven’t read much, but I’m slowly, slowly broadening my horizons 🙂 Ah no worries, take your time 🙂 Awesome!!!

                      Liked by 1 person

                    • rantandraveaboutbooks says:

                      I’m finally at the part where he meets the boys on his way to the Institute. Finally! I think the one was called Sevro. Just call me Turtle over here because I’m reading so slow for some reason. Only one or two chapters at night and then fall asleep with the IPad in my hand. Their dialogue is so funny. The Jetson’s, you know the animated TV show from back in the day. George Jetson? I watched it when I was little.

                      Liked by 1 person

  3. Fatima @ NoteablePad says:

    Completely agree with all the sentiments expressed here. Originality is very hard to come across, but it shouldn’t be what all author’s strive for. Here’s a more personal example. I’ve been writing a book, and I came across another book which has similar themes and characters to my own. As soon as I read the synopsis for that book I thought ‘Well that’s it. I won’t write my book anymore.’

    After thinking long and hard about it, it didn’t actually matter. The plot wasn’t the same. The characters weren’t actually the same. My message, and the other author’s message were completely different. In striving for originality, I was willing to give up writing.

    Liked by 2 people

    • theorangutanlibrarian says:

      Yup- definitely not something to strive for all on its own. I definitely agree with you about that. And you definitely shouldn’t give up writing something because it has similarities to something else. The best thing to be is aware of where your work fits into the bigger picture when you write something- there will always be unconscious influences, but conscious ones can be even more powerful for drumming home a point or making allusions to a theme.
      But yeah- definitely don’t give up for the sake of being original!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. kirstyreadsblog says:

    I 100% agree with this, like so many people bitch about love triangles and like they’re a thing that happens in real life why shouldn’t people write them? As long as it’s realistic and well written there’s nothing wrong with doing something that’s been done before, everyone has a different take on each situation.

    Liked by 1 person

    • theorangutanlibrarian says:

      Completely see your point about love triangles- and I’ve definitely read some great ones actually (Cassandra Clare and Sarah J Maas come to mind)- the reason I tend to dislike them is mostly cos people that get into them in books, where they string two people along, usual get on my wick cos a lot of them tend to be two-timing douches that for some reason we’re still expected to view as angels (like America in the Selection- god I hated her!). But, like you said, there are so many takes on the situation and I will be the first to admit when it is done well in a book. (sorry for the mini rant- so hard for me to keep my cool about love triangles :p )

      Liked by 1 person

  5. mudandstars says:

    Great post! I couldn’t agree more – I love it when books take a theme or idea which has been explored thousands of times and offer a new spin on it, or just tell it really well with different characters. At the end of the day, every book borrows from something that has come before, because all books are a product of the same world – it’s unavoidable. I like what you said about “adding to the conversation” – I also think anybody who does this is bringing some element of originality to the table, even if the starting point isn’t original, because they’re reimagining it in their own way/putting their stamp on it.

    Liked by 1 person

    • theorangutanlibrarian says:

      Definitely!! There are so many books where I’ve thought- this is nothing new, but it’s done so well that I don’t even care! Exactly! They definitely are- I tend to see original thought as building on thought that’s been there before rather than starting from nothing- which in itself is awesome

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Marie @ drizzleandhurricanebooks says:

    I LOVE this post, and I agree about this, completely. I know I’m probably one of these people thinking that dystopian stories lack originality, but with that in mind, I can safely say as well that every book just takes from another, and there’s always some kind of inspiration taken away from other books, movies, everything. When I’m writing, I’m obviously inspired as well by lots of other works before me. I think what really matters, in the end, is how it’s done. Because nothing can really be truly original and different, but it really depends on what the author does with the idea. He can spin it in a completely different way, the world -building can have a different atmosphere, the over-used love triangles can be thought in different ways, and there are just so many things to make a story unique, even if it’s not completely original. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • theorangutanlibrarian says:

      Yes- I do see what you mean about dystopias lacking originality- my issue is that this tends to stem from the fact that a lot of them aren’t saying anything. They’re supposed to be highly charged and political- so if it’s got loads of elements from all different random dystopias, often that are saying completely different things, then the whole thing feels in part ripped off and in part like a cheap non-story. There’s nothing wrong with borrowing ideas- I just feel like the political purpose of the genre gets too easily diluted if the world building is just “well all dystopias have an oppressive government… so my world about an alien takeover has an oppressive human overlord too…” (phew- I got a bit ranty there) So yes- with provisos- even blatantly drawing parallels is absolutely fine- in fact it adds to the richness of the story.
      100% agree with you- it’s how we make a story feel fresh that matters- not whether it’s original or not. Exactly- I can be overly critical of love triangles (and lord knows I will be again!) but I have read ones where it’s been done differently and have enjoyed them- so even I will say that anyone can be as unoriginal as they like and use whatever trope that’s been done to death- it won’t matter if it’s done well. And I am always the first to say if a writer takes a trope I hate and changes it up so I actually like it- I love eating my words almost as much as I love eating bananas 😉

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Donna says:

    You have said everything that needed to be on the subject. I love this post! I think the eternal quest for originality is pointless because everything has been said and done. What makes the difference is how you say it, how you do it, and how you make it relate to people in a way that resonate deep inside their mind. Adding your own touch to a subject that has been written about forever is what makes a story special and original. Moreover, we always get inspired by what is around us, the stories that were written before ours, and no one should deny that. Originality in the common sense is a myth.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Emily | RoseRead says:

    I think storytelling structures are ingrained in us as humans. That’s why you get things like the hero’s journey. “A Hero with a Thousand Faces” by Joseph Campbell totally explains this. It’s just part of our nature to express things through story because story is a reflection of life. I think that’s why we needn’t be concerned about originality. Nothing ever is going to be 100% “original,” but that’s ok! We need to be ok with that.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Read Diverse Books says:

    Truly original ideas and stories are so rare that I do appreciate them when they emerge. But I’m not holding my breath for the next ground breaking story. I would be a miserable reader if I only sought originality. Stories that have been influenced by others are some of my favorites because I can draw on previous experiences and knowledge that help me appreciate them even more.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Bookwraiths says:

    Originality is overrated because it is very rare indeed. If we cast every great story aside because it recycled previously used plots, character archetypes, et cetera, we’d have nothing left. The way an author crafts and tells the tale is what makes it compelling, not necessarily the “originality” of it all.

    Liked by 1 person

    • theorangutanlibrarian says:

      Exactly! It is not the fact of whether it is original or not, but rather how we feel like we’ve never heard the story before, even if we have! There’s this wacky idea that we’ve all been taught everything in the world before we come into the world and that we then are made to forget it- the idea is that it’s easier to learn something you already know- which is what the best literature does- it reminds us of what we already know (if that makes sense)

      Liked by 1 person

  11. Ioana @ booksreenchanted says:

    I am definitely one of those people who truly appreciates originality, but I also try to keep an open mind – my favorite book is actually the simplest story of all – a man sitting down for a chat with an old friend. That’s literally all that happens for the entire book and yet it’s one of my favorites (Embers by Sandor Marai). So I do agree that originality isn’t everything, and that at times it’s so overrated.

    Liked by 1 person

    • theorangutanlibrarian says:

      Ah I know the feeling- sometimes the simplest stories have such a power over us- it’s one of the reasons I love fairy tales so much. There’s something beautiful in simplicity. Thanks very much for your comment! I will have to check out that book!

      Liked by 1 person

  12. Krysta says:

    I think originality is important in the sense you mentioned–you have to add something to the story, not just rip elements from several YA dystopias and call it new. It’s true you can’t really be truly original at this point in history, but you can make it feel as though you are.

    Liked by 1 person

  13. Got My Book says:

    The review I posted yesterday discussed this a bit, since the book, The Iron Trial, has been criticized as a Harry Potter imitation. I think it is fine to be inspired by something else as long as you take it and make it your own rather than just retelling it in a fill in the blanks type of way.

    Liked by 1 person

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  15. Zezee says:

    I agree with you on this. We are influenced by what we see, what we consume. I think it’s damn near impossible to be original these days. Sometimes I see complaints about lack of originality as people just being tired of a certain trend or pattern that has been overused at a certain time.

    Liked by 1 person

    • theorangutanlibrarian says:

      Ah yes, I do agree with that- I think it’s fair enough when people are bored with seeing the same things over and over again, god knows I’ve been there too, but I feel like being unoriginal gets too much stick some times, because like you said, it’s damn near impossible to be original!

      Like

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