As a reader and writer of fantasy, I spend a lot of time thinking about the interplay between the two activities. I’ve blogged before on tropes, trends, habits, and outliers. My latest project has been a survey of free indie ebooks, trying to map the landscape a bit. I pay particular attention to what others say on the matter, too, and there are certainly lots of opinions out there. The latest, and one of the prompts for this, being:
I’ve always argued that originality is actually quite far down the list of what makes a good thought… https://t.co/zq6V3jbUr3
— Joe Abercrombie (@LordGrimdark) February 15, 2016
He never did tell me what was top.
Combined with a few blogs recently which have admitted or revealed a very narrow reading of genre – and then drawn conclusions from it – and from my continuing love-hate relationship with communities like Fantasy Faction or r/Fantasy, this got me thinking about the relationship between originality and conformity, and what I see as the related continuum between ignorance and knowledge. (I know ignorance is a bit loaded, but it’ll have to do, so try to unload it.)
For kicks, I shall arrange them thus:
As you can see, I’ve laid them out orthogonally, as I’m not yet sure what influence they have on each other, and there doesn’t seem to be a consensus. You often see advice to writers that they should read as much and as widely as possible, but there are plenty of (successful) writers who don’t seem to. I am continually stunned to find writers who aren’t as knowledgeable about the genre as I automatically expect. There’s no entrance exam, of course, but I’ve always assumed you had to be familiar with a certain cannon to have a chance at writing anything significant. (Especially books nearly identical to the one you are writing!)
But of course, the concept of a cannon is problematic, and impractical. The fantasy genre is so huge, broad and varied – with ill-defined edges to boot – that everybody will experience the essential differently. It’s not like it was fifty years ago, when Lord of the Rings defined the whole genre (well, Epic Fantasy, at least). A lot of fantasy fans these days won’t start with, or even ever read, Tolkien, and after that point the possibilities are endless.
My own experience is coloured by my appreciation of older books, which I admit I did read out of an adolescent desire to root out the core texts. I like to have an opinion, at least, on the most popular stand-outs, but I’ve realised as time goes on that my favourites tend to be the more obscure works. Still, I believe as a writer that it is important to know about these other giants, not least so that you can have a stake in the conversations, however small. I also thought that reading all these would give me a better perspective as a writer, and this is where the confusion sets in.
But first, what about the other axis? I always figured that, as a writer or artist of any sort, originality would be one of the primary criteria. You have to be creative, at least somewhat unique, and come up with something new and interesting – right? Surely, the last thing you want is to get caught imitating that which has come before, “ripping off” ideas or perpetuating tropes.
Then again, thinking about what the astute Mr Abercrombie says above, maybe being entirely fresh, new and 100% original is not the be-all and end-all of successful art (be it writing, music, sculpture, painting, etc.). After all, how many great songs do we know that are just a the same three chords in a slightly different order? How many great films are simply homages to the director’s influences? Clearly, to be a successful artist you don’t have to go off in a direction nobody has gone before (though many people manage this as well), but just find a way to rearrange the bits you like best – artistically – into a something that is new as a whole, if not in its constituent parts. After all, there’s nothing new under the sun.
Going back to the axis above, you can see that there is no one answer. You could produce something wildly original by studying every that has come before and consciously excluding, inverting or subverting it; or by keeping your mind free of any contamination. Equally, you could might end up reproducing the past either because you are so widely read that you are unable to escape the influence of everything you have absorbed; or, through blissful ignorance, not realising that what you think you’ve just invented had actually been done many, many times before.
I know which path I’m more comfortable with, and I have come across quite a few writers and readers who I feel could have used a bit more education -but that’s just my opinion. Above a certain threshold, they way you go about it certainly doesn’t seem to have much impact on anyone’s potential success as a writer. There are readers out there looking for the next ripping yarn with all the old familiar tropes, and readers looking for the never-before-seen. Sometimes they are even the same person.
So go on, reinvent the wheel or invent the hoverboard – just, whatever you do, do it well.