The burden of originality

A few weeks ago someone at work was reading aloud a review of a science fiction novel. During the part that described the plot, another someone snidely remarked ‘like that has never done before’.

I have to say I bristled at this. Realistic fiction is full of same old stories, but speculative fiction seems to be given a greater responsibility of coming up with fresh and original plot lines. There’s still an old-fashioned assumption that SF (particularly the science fiction part of it) is purely a genre of predictions and ideas.

Why do we (mostly) forgive realistic fiction for rehashing same old marriage-in-trouble, coming-of-age, going-off-to-war, dead-family tropes, but do not forgive science fiction for retelling its stories in different ways? Speculative fiction is absolved for re-imagining tales only when it cops to doing so on purpose (see a number of fairy tale-retelling anthologies).

But perhaps we do not let the so-called mainstream fiction off the hook either. I often see people look at a book and go ‘oh no, not this stuff again’. So what is the problem? At least half of the time I think it’s just the dust jacket description. I remember the blurb for Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by N.K. Jemisin. It sounded so boring, I avoided the book for months. But in reality, it’s one of the best fantasy books I (eventually) read.

Every day, I look at stacks of ARCs and galleys in the break room at my job. These days, I pick them up and read the first sentence of the blurb. If it grabs me, I take the galley, but about 99% of the time I put it back. That’s because most of the blurbs are along the lines of: ‘after a terrible attack, person rebuilds her life’, ‘after losing parents, person rebuilds life’, ‘person is faced with a failed marriage and rebuilds life’. They all sound kind of the same and kind of unexciting, mostly because they are so general. It’s always a story of friendship, a story of love, a story of loss. When summarized in a sentence, even the best tales sound, well, kind of meh.* I want to quote Jo Walton, who wrote that her child had once jokingly remarked that there were only three conflicts in books: Man vs. Man, Man vs. Plan, and Man vs. Canal (i.e. technology). We always say that there are no new stories, and yet we demand newness, something we have not seen done before. Why do we care about this elusive ‘originality’? And why is certain type of fiction held to a higher standard when it comes to it?

What do reviews mean when they talk about ‘originality’ anyway? Things can’t be too original or they become ‘experimental’ (i.e. hard to read and too weird). Maybe it’s not the plot, maybe it’s the setting or the characters. My opinion is that this ‘originality’ is all in an author’s voice that can bring the same failed marriage of two orphans in New York to a whole new level. Or a voice that can take first contact or a sentient spaceship or the chosen one trope and spin it in new ways. And voice is really hard to encapsulate in a blurb.

I don’t think I’m looking for originality anymore. I’m looking for a book that has a good voice, because that’s what’s going to make characters I can feel emotional about, a setting that seems fascinating (even if it’s same old Mars), and a story that I want to follow (even if it’s the same chosen one trope). This requires me to mostly ignore the blurbs and just read the books. Stay tuned for future posts dedicated to topics like abandoning books halfway, using complicated social recommendation algorithms to find books to read, and wishes for time-turner or superhuman speed-reading ability.

 

*Let’s play a game where we summarize some good speculative novels in a sentence, shall we? Try to guess what any of these are. 1) Young man escapes an attack on his life and flees into the desert. 2) An order of monks preserves the remnants of humanity’s knowledge in the post-apocalyptic world. 3) Two people learn to understand each other better after a long trek through ice and snow.

What snooze-fests these must be.

 

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8 comments

  1. The first one is Dune and the third one is Left Hand of Darkness but damned if I can’t place the second one… there’s a Varley like that and the Asimov I’m currently reading is kind of like that, but I’m sure that’s not what you mean.

    Honestly, that third blurb sounds really good, although it may just be because Le Guin has expanded my expectations of trek-in-the-snow stories.

    1. Okay… it’s driving me crazy so I had to look it up. Canticle for Liebowitz? Really? That’s what it’s about? (Haven’t read it yet.)

  2. Originality/creativity is about taking what has come before and recombining it in a novel way that elevates the experience a notch. You don’t reinvent the wheel. You design a better vehicle.

    1. I guess my frustration stemmed from the fact that there was a double standard for different genres. Speculative fiction is for some reason required to design not only a better vehicle, but redesign the whole infrastructure.

  3. I was so excited to read your reference to Canticle!!! It’s one of my favorite books of all time! I was delighted recently to find it on my daughter’s shelf of books to read.

  4. 1. Dune.
    2. Canticle for Leibowitz
    3. Hmm, Left Hand of Darkness?

    You have a good point and have certainly gotten me thinking. I tend to agree that we (“we”…humans, writers, whatever) tell the same stories over and over again (and that’s ok), but that the originality is in the details. Some totally batshit monster. A really unique voice, like you said, I think is the clincher. Just an interesting way of putting words together into sentences can do it for me. Then again, this is all totally relative. So often something appears unique, but the truth is that the reader talking about it simply hasn’t encountered the thing it is parroting.

    1. Yep, it’s Left Hand of Darkness. Obviously not all of it, but just that part where they endlessly trek through snow.
      I agree. I think we don’t really know what ‘original’ is, but we keep asking for it.

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