Monday, August 31, 2009

Nothing New

King Solomon noted that "of the making of many books there is no end," and it only takes a trip to your local Barnes & Noble to confirm his supposition. You see them before you even get in the door, stuffed in dubiously named bargain bins, all the unloved cooking books and minor histories and cut-rate romances. Then once you make it inside, that huge display table greets you, piled high with all the Big Names -- Picoult and Meyer, Connelly and Koontz, Conroy and King. You take the escalator to the second floor, pointedly ignoring self-proclaimed gurus who promise you your best life now or a million bucks through short sales, and make your way to the fiction stacks. As you stroll through the rows, you realize it's all there, every permutation of every genre you can think of, from cyberpunk urban fantasy and paranormal romance to post-apocalyptic sword-and-sorcery and Lovecraftian spaghetti western. And it makes you want to burn your notepads and flush all of your pens down the toilet.

Ever been there? I have. Our culture cherishes novelty, and it can be disheartening to see just how far the edges of imagination's map have been pushed back. More than once I've spent weeks shedding ink like blood, smoothing over rough transitions, rounding out flat characters and tightening loose turns of phrase, only to realize near the end of the fourth draft that a well-known author has done it before. Someone else has already broken ground with that particular plot pattern or thematic concern, and there I am bumping along in his rut. It's enough to make your wonder if you'll ever write anything original, anything you could completely call your own.

I know the answer to that, of course. We all do. If we accept the old high-school supposition that literature is about universal human experience, then we have to acknowledge that we'll never write with utter autonomy. It's as impossible as birthing yourself. We write out of commonality. Creativity comes through immersion rather than independence, through solidarity rather than solitude. Writers take things so familiar as to be forgotten, and say, "Look here and see. Read and remember. Life is dire and wonderful, beautiful and terrible." Solomon knew there was nothing new under the sun and still he wrote, reminding us our days are vanity and
how we should live within that knowledge.

(Picture: CC 2009 by


B. Nagel said...

Favorite writerly inspiration type quote. From Mere Christianity: Even in literature and art, no man who bothers about originality will ever be original: whereas if you simply try to tell the truth (without caring twopence how often it has been told before) you will, nine times out of ten, become original without ever having noticed it.


Chestertonian Rambler said...

I think that, sometimes, the most meaningful contemporary genre stories are the ones that are shockingly traditional. Though of course you can always serve up multiple traditions together (something TV shows have known at least since Buffy the Vampire Slayer.)

After all, Lewis's Narnia is mostly reheated Ovid, Vergil, Spenser, Shakespeare, and of course Scriptures. But it works because it resonated with him; he wasn't just going through the motions.

Loren Eaton said...


Lewis is eminently quotable, isn't he? I wish his critical stuff got more attention. He has so much to say on good writing, but most everyone stays stuck in Narnia. (Although if you must be stuck, it's a nice place to be.)

Loren Eaton said...


Agreed. That's part of the reason why I was (quasi) complaining about rip-roaring intros last week. The desire to be "relevant" or "marketable" trips up so many people. Personal passion doesn't guarantee you'll write a good story, but it may carry you through the umpteenth revision that will make it good.