The art of Intertextuality vs Innovation – Differences in Style #2

Hello! I’m back with my second post on differences in style– hopefully highlighting different techniques in writing.

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To create a clear picture, I want to set up a dichotomy. Imagine on one side something like like The Road (which does plenty of unusual things, like dropping quotation marks and blending an extreme version of the pared down style with archaic vocabulary) and on the other something Death Comes to Pemberley (which, while different in subject matter, painstakingly recreates Austen’s voice). Now the latter is a pretty extreme example of intertextuality, or in this case straight up borrowing a style, but it’s an interesting opposition to draw.

Those are some pretty extreme examples of how books can veer from intertextuality to innovation. HOWEVER, I want to state for the record that the difference between innovation and intertextuality can be by degrees- so a book can easily employ both. There’s plenty of room in between. Actually one thing that makes this the perfect topic is it’s an excuse for me to talk about how these things are on a spectrum. Now I understand that I may have given the impression last time I did one of these posts that there is a binary choice involved (ah well, it’s a learning experience for me too 😉 ) but I want to make it clear, especially in this case, books can use multiple and even opposing styles. In fact, a book can innovatively borrow, like the Waste Land. So yeah, if you take away nothing else, styles do not have to be one extreme or the other and you can like both. Maybe it’ll be more obvious this time, since I don’t have a preference 😉

Innovation vs Intertextuality

Art is far from linear in quality, and yet the cycle of intertextuality vs innovation has played out over and over in history. I’m going to explain this in the way I think about it and the best example for me is the differentiated really nicely in three phases of Greek art:

Archaic vs Classical vs Hellenistic

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(for the sake of clarity I’m ignoring earlier forms and massively oversimplifying this)

In brief: archaic borrowed heavily from Egyptian styles, Classical was the height of realistic forms and finally Hellenistic became a time of innovation. The idea of doing something “new” was very popular with Hellenistic poets for instance- and incidentally shows us that “being original” was cool back in the day too and there is nothing new under the sun 😉 (but I’ve talked about that a little before).

Naturally, we are always in the midst of these cyclical issues. Intertextuality is a technique best associated with the medieval writing. Authorship was seen as strengthened by its interdependence with other texts (partly to avoid criticism from the Church for writing fiction and to give an author more weight in its claims of “truth” telling). More recently, the focus on telling stories differently would indicate (to me at least) that we are very much in the Hellenistic phase in terms of valuing originality and the use of intertextual allusions is less common. Still, this is by no means a cut and dry issue, as is apparent from the recent popularity of retellings.

Ways a book can use innovation

Innovation in writing is such a broad idea, because it can really be anything from trend setters, to the first in a genre, or individual experimentation. There are infinite ways a book can feel new or different and a lot of the time it can cover content as well (though I’m resisting the urge to stray too far off topic 😉 ). Honestly the sky is the limit here!

A few examples I’d give of an innovative style is stream of consciousness, such as One Hundred Years of Solitude, or spare and poetic, like We Were Liars. There’s also the use of Brechtian techniques/breaking the forth wall and speaking out to the audience. I’ve even seen modern books, like Stolen, be entirely written in second person. Obviously, the benefits of such a practice are that it can make a book stand out from the crowd, though, as I’ve already mentioned, it’s pretty darn difficult to come up with something even somewhat unique.

Ways a book can use intertextuality

Picasso once said, “Good artists copy, great artists steal”- which heavily implies taking the art and making it your own. As such, Picasso didn’t merely copy African art- he opened a vein in his own work and imbued it with the lifeblood of a different culture (and hence intertextuality led to innovation…). Now I have mentioned before that the lines are incredibly blurry when it comes to plagiarism, yet making nods to other art is a form of enriching writing. I want to be clear: hinting/quoting/referencing other literature *is not* plagiarism. It is by design, has value and is a tradition going back millennia. Perhaps it is the medievalist in me, but I think there is a value in literary allusions. While I am trying to avoid using subject matter as examples, it is interesting to note the clear line of progression from Norse mythology to Germanic stories to Tolkien to modern fantasy in terms of borrowed ideas and creatures. That is an inheritance that is passed down from book to book.

One of the best examples of intertextuality, to my mind, is T S Eliot, whose poem The Waste Land is a patchwork of references, particularly to classics. In fact, knowing the Medieval preponderance for referencing other authors, it’s incredibly appropriate that the first line of the Eliot’s poem, “April is the cruellest month”, recalls and inverts the opening of Chaucer’s Prologue:

“Whan that Aprille with his shoures soote

The droghte of March hath perced to the roote

And bathed every veyne in swich licóur”

In this way, the poem creates a puzzle for the reader to solve and gives the work boundless scope and depth.

There are of course retellings that deliberately reference other work and, insofar as it is a retelling (it’s a bit more complicated than that), Hazel Wood did make a fair amount of references which I appreciated.

And naturally, there is the use of epigraphs (quotes at the start of chapters) which come in innumerable books from Middlemarch, to Infernal Devices, to my good friend Daley’s use of song lyrics in the opening of her chapters- it’s a great literary tradition to set a mood or create a sense of epicness.

Difference in taste

I don’t know that people have a specific preference for either one- so it’ll be interesting to see what people say in the comments. I have seen some people making an argument that it’s “not something that’s done anymore”- again this is an issue with fashion, so I don’t hold much stock in it. I have also heard people making the argument that “we are not classic authors” or some such poppycock. Now of course, not everyone is going to be the author of a classic, but I can already see books with promise that might one day be considered as such, and I don’t see any reason to discourage people who want to try writing something *great*. I mean, if they succeed, we all get to read it. So if people that want to give their ideas a go, I say DREAM BIG- I’ll be cheering you on from the side lines 😉

Pared down vs Purple prose – Differences in Style #1

So I did this post a little differently to last time, hope you liked it! Do you think there is a tremendous difference in taste here? Let me know in the comments!