How important to a book is originality?
November 8, 2012
It is a matter of how we define originality.
The writer of Ecclesiastes put it this way: “There is nothing new under the sun.”
Yet, we all have the sense that a good book brings new insight, something new under the sun.
Jim Thompson, the great writer of pulp fiction crime novels in the 1940s, 50s and 60s, said there were many ways to tell a story but there was only one plot: Things are not what they seem.
If by originality we mean something along the lines of experimental, then a very original work would be one in which there was nothing but punctuation.
How about this story?
That’s a grabber, isn’t it?
Or we could allow the reader more leeway.
“What happened today?” he asked.
(At this point in the story, the reader inserts three paragraphs of his choosing.)
(The reader inserts two short paragraphs neither of which begins with the letter p.)
And so forth.
Or, we can imagine stories with no punctuation whatsoever.
Or stories with no vowels.
But I doubt that these examples are what we mean when we say we want a story with originality.
Originality is something inherent in the way we tell a story. After all, a book is just a written slice of life. We all cut the slice from different pieces of the loaf.
A common exercise at writers conferences is to take five minutes to draft a few sentences based on a prompt. For instance, the teacher says, “Write a paragraph with the first sentence: My sister ran off with a traveling salesman.”
I don’t care how many people receive that assignment, not a one of them will write the same thing. Some will write funny pieces about what a slut their sister was. Others will tell of domestic abuse that caused sister to take up with the first man who came along just to get out of the house. Others will describe a dashing salesman who swept sis off her feet and remained married to her for sixty years. Some will talk about little sister calling from a bus station in Mississippi three days later.
Every one of these pieces will be originals.
They are originals because in them the writers bring their unique experiences to bear on the human condition. Some may tell a story better than others, but each will tell their own story.
They don’t have a choice.
So, I think when we look for originality in a book, we are yearning for the uniqueness of an author’s voice, an author who is unafraid of her idiosyncrasies, who is fearless in her vision. She is writing about things we know, but in a way we haven’t explored.
In that sense, originality is the most important thing we can find in a book.
(Stephen Woodfin is an attorney and author of legal thrillers. If you would like to subscribe to his blog on your Kindle, please click here.)