The Truth About Originality in Literature

Recently, I read a book where it claimed Shakespeare thought reality was false, so decided to create art because he thought he could create a better lie. Personally I find this is a rather peculiar (and very 21st century) conclusion to draw from “All the world’s a stage”. Shakespeare was holding a mirror up to the world, not calling it artifice and smashing up the whole damn universe to be more in his image. But nonsensical interpretation aside, it got me thinking about the value of truth in literature.

You see, this is not the first time I’ve seen writers portrayed as liars in art. It seems that rather than cleaving to the author’s AUTHORity, the modern writer wants to stand out as ANTI-AUTHORity. All for a desire to be original that’s truthfully becoming a bit passé.

From unexplored texts to creative claims that actually do ring true, there is certainly scope for original thinking in literature. AND YET, I would also suggest that there is a power in knowing you cannot come up with anything especially unique. It is a humbling experience to know that great thinkers have gone before us; it is freeing to worry less about being the GOAT! 😉 And, as fun as it is to view ourselves through the lens of the “Death of the Author”, we need to be wary of viewing ourselves with too much importance and making spurious claims. It does not improve our scholarship or artistic endeavours. In my experience, it transparently shows we’re more interested in our own self-aggrandisement. Much like reading between the lines or just plain making things up, these claims may gain notoriety, but they are fundamentally flawed. And, as with so many fictional writers being liars, in a “unique” subversion on authorship, uniqueness may actually be more common than we realise. There is, after all, nothing new under the sun- it is only how we shine a light on things from a different angle that gives it a fresh perspective. That is why, rather than trying to be original, we should be trying to be truthful.

And yes, our society values achievement in a very Roman sense. We want to see our names up in *BIG SPARKLY LIGHTS*- because that’s what we’ve been taught is meaningful. That’s why we fight so hard to be original. The problem is, we don’t realise the way to that goal is not as straightforward as it seems. In typical quest fashion, we must really go east in order to go west. We must take a round-about route to our goals. And it’s not just fools who fail to recognise the true path- (sorry to get all fantasy nerd on you) it’s also villains! Villains are the ones who take shortcuts. But there are no real shortcuts in life or art. And a hero must be prepared to forfeit their dreams, because, somewhat paradoxically, that’s how you win. Likewise, the path to true wisdom is not by wildly believing in yourself, but by letting go and believing in the people that came before.

Originality is often accidental consequence of good craftsmanship. While I believe everyone has the potential to craft some aspects of their art with originality, that is not what makes a piece powerful: success comes from how much a piece rings out with truth and beauty. Perhaps it is naïve, yet I think if you focus on those aspects, you may well come up with something honestly original. If you focus on originality, the result is frequently nonsensical and meaningless. Grinding misplaced innovation into a work won’t do any good. One must have a command of the tools that already exist.

Just something I’ve been mulling over. But what do you think? Should there be a line between truth and fiction? How important is it to be original? Let me know what you think about this topic in the comments!

14 thoughts on “The Truth About Originality in Literature

  1. Interesting post. I do like reading something i haven’t read before; but I agree that this drive for originality usually ends up with something not only unoriginal and redundant but also often falsely aggrandized and advertised as something unique. I think it’s more important to find one’s own voice – and originality will come anyway. Though I also think this is much harder to sell, especially to publishers 😉

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  2. Psychic Grandma told me to tell you that nothing under the sun is new, except her.

    I, on the other hand, tend to agree with you. If writers would concentrate on trying to tell a good story and let the chips fall where they may, things will be ok. I’m thinking of the indie authors Nick Cole and Jason Anspach in this regards. They’re pretty much re-creating the Star Wars universe in all but name and they are telling some completely awesome stories. It is everything that a die-hard Star Wars could want. I think they’re success comes down to them just telling a Star Wars story that they would want to read. And the rest of us are reaping the benefits of that.

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  3. I believe there is always a difference between original and fictional, unless a work of fiction is based on reality. Otherwise, what are high fantasy and some of the out-of-the-world romances really? But yeah, every work of fiction does have a hint of reality in them. So, I don’t really know? Hee hee…

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  4. Really interesting topic! Brings me back to my own review for The Sense of an Ending by Julien Barnes – he shows the story from one perspective, and then it completely changes when the other protagonist shows her version. It’s really fascinating how the truth is never objective.
    To comment on the other topic, I do believe that the author should disappear from a story, even if it’s autobiographical: a good story just sucks you in so deep you don’t think about the context of where it came fom – until it is finished. I strongly dislike older stories where it is customary that the author “steps in” and breaks that wall. That’s why I cannot enjoy Rushdie, for example.

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  5. Calling fiction, literature or myths “lies” is such a basic misunderstanding that I’m honestly thrown when people put it forth. I just don’t even know where to start to answer something like that. There are more things in this world, Horatio, than just fact and fiction!

    “Originality is often the accidental consequence of good craftsmanship.” Truer words were never spoken! And when I think about the great classics, the writers were NOT trying to be original. They were trying to explore fundamental, universal truths, to bring people back to what they already know. Example: Pilgrim’s Progress was written by a working-class man about the ordinary Christian life. How Green Was My Valley was written about what it’s like to grow up in a Welsh mining town. A Christmas Carol was written about what basic human decency looks like in Dickens’ context.

    I think the best works are produced by people who love what they are writing about so much that they think it a rather obvious thing to write, and wonder why more people don’t write about it. Furthermore, really great literature often gives us a sense of the familiar … of coming home.

    It reminds me of Wallace Shawn, who played Vizzini in The Princes Bride. He has said, “I don’t know why I’m funny. I don’t try to be funny. I make simple observations, and people think they are funny.”

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