Having spent some time in art museums lately, the subject of originality has been on my mind.
In literature, as in the visual arts, one can probably make a good case that no matter what an author sets out to do, it’s all been done before. Plots, themes, devices, styles, character types- they all get recycled and repackaged- all the time. Now, this doesn’t mean that a work of literature can’t still reach us on some level if it happens to repurpose the age-old hero’s journey, or retell an old Greek myth, or follow every trope in a given genre. After all, we still listen to music and go see movies even though there are no new chord progressions and no new ideas in Hollywood.
But what if a writer wants to be an innovator and a visionary and a literary trailblazer? What is that author to do? Well, a few authors I’ve read this year spring to mind as examples.
I was bowled over, for instance, after plowing through 75 straight pages of powerpoint slides in Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From the Goon Squad and realizing at the end of it that she had managed to form a pretty cohesive narrative that both moved the plot forward and revealed the innermost thoughts of one of the characters. Then in May of this year Egan serialized a short story on Twitter and it was… just okay. More than anything it struck me as a “gimmicky” publicity ploy.
Dana Spiotta’s novel Stone Arabia is another book I read this year that aspires to innovate and break new ground. She employs a “collage” style that incorporates interviews, transcripts of YouTube videos, emails and other things into her regular narrative. I’ll admit that it worked for me, and it’s not something you see every day. But for all the praise these techniques inspire as 'experimental next steps in storytelling,' the problem with efforts like these is that- you guessed it, it’s all been done before.
Jump back 80 years and John Dos Passos was basically doing the same thing in the early ‘30s. His U.S.A trilogy is peppered with newspaper clippings, song lyrics and biographies, intermingled with passages of his own stream of consciousness writings.
Jump back another 80 years and you’ve got Herman Melville spicing up his first-person narrative in Moby Dick with historical treatises, zoology primers and all sorts of Shakespearean literary devices: soliloquies, asides and even stage directions.
I imagine that if you jump back another 80 years or more, you’ll find someone else doing something “new and innovative” in their day, as well.