In other words, how important is originality in fiction?

Should you be trying to write something original?

First:  what makes you think you would recognize originality if you saw it? 

When I was reading slush for several online magazines, I would run across the same idea over and over again, written by people who clearly had no idea that anyone else had written that idea before.  Because I mostly read darker stories, I liked to joke about the “Oh no my ex was murdered by a monster and I could do nothing–nothing–to save them!” stories.

Which I saw a lot.

There’s even a particular type of story that seems to be written by people who think they’re being original.  I call it “the asshole’s downfall,” and it mirrors the hero’s journey described by Joseph Campbell and others:

  • A guy with no life, either a mediocre job or no job at all
  • Dreams of better things
  • Including being abusive to women, usually
  • While slipping back and forth between dreams and reality
  • Until finally he dies, or goes back to his mediocre job, or his bar or whatever
  • The End.

Tropic of CancerRequiem for a Dream, pretty much everything by Bukowski, The Woman in the Dunes, the list goes on. Rabbit, Run.

Both the author and the people who like that kind of thing seem to think each new iteration is fresh and original–and, compared to the endless iterations of the hero’s journey that we’ve been getting lately, it is.  Some”asshole’s downfall” books are very good, even.

The point is not that they’re bad.  The point is that the story gives the illusion of freshness and originality, but doesn’t actually provide it.

In other words, there’s a difference between originality and the appearance or feeling of it.

Second, if you did write something truly original, who would want to read it?

When people read books, they read to satisfy some need within themselves.  They want to feel smarter.  They want to escape their lives.  They want their beliefs to feel completely justified.  They want to see things happen (like revenge) that they know wouldn’t fly in real life.  They want to see the underdog win against overwhelming odds.  They want to see true love.  They want to see people that they identify with doing something fantastic and unusual.  They want the people they don’t like to suffer, and the people they do like to succeed.

A truly original book is only going to succeed with an audience if it supplies an original need.  Otherwise, it’s a curiosity at most.

So, if not originality, then what?

I suggest being specific instead.

The way you see the world will never be exactly replicated.  The place, the time, your point of view and opinions, the context of the audience you’re trying to reach–those things can never be replicated.

Kafka wrote some strange works, but they resonated with his German-speaking Jewish audience in Prague, who often laughed their way through the dark worlds he created.

American Psycho was published in the aftermath of the 1980s, by a New York writer running on empty.

Even something really unusual like If on a Winter’s Night A Traveler comes from, and contributes to, a group of metafictional writers and semioticians who are exploring what meaning itself means.

Don’t be original.  Be specific.

The world is madness which can only be combatted with sly nonsense.  Read the latest at the Wonderland Press-Heraldhere!