These days, the word ‘original’ is usually perceived as a positive quality when applied in the arts sphere. A songwriter or playwright or painter or dancer or novelist may be lauded for efforts that are ‘fresh’, ‘new’, ‘unique’, ‘original’ – that is, if the artist in question manages to successfully execute that work (because too often attempts at originality, at breaking the mould, fall flat).
But then again, even if such artworks appear at first glance original, are they, truly?
According to Pablo Picasso, ‘Art is theft.’ According to TS Eliot, ‘Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal.’ ‘Theft’ and ‘steal’ are emotive words, but the meaning isn’t remotely dark. Neither were talking about plagiarism; they were concerned with inspiration and influence, with the body of knowledge and experience from which an artist draws for their own work.
The fact is that no artist – whether sculptor or writer, composer or fashion designer – is born with their individual style, all ready to go. They must learn how to be an artist, and the only way to do so is through practising being one – and the only way to practise is to imitate those they admire to get a feel for what shaped their art and themselves as artist.
From there, the artist moves beyond imitation. As Austin Kleon writes in Steal Like an Artist, 10 Things Nobody Told You About Being Creative: ‘At some point, you’ll have to move from imitating your heroes to emulating them. Imitation is about copying. Emulation is when the imitation goes one step further, breaking through into your own thing.’
Through emulation, the artist creates in their own style, which is unique to them – and yet, is heavily influenced by artworks they have studied and admired. In this way, Kleon points out, ‘All creative work builds on what came before. Nothing is completely original.’
In fact, the notion that originality is the very pinnacle of artistic achievement is a relatively new one. Take Shakespeare, for example. John Kerrigan, Professor of English at Cambridge University, recently published a book entitled Shakespeare’s Originality, in which he details the many sources from which Shakespeare drew (or borrowed, or copied, or pilfered, depending on your viewpoint) for his plays. The essential point here is that to do so was expected of Shakespeare at the time. From the Royal Shakespeare Company’s William Shakespeare Complete Works: ‘while we applaud difference, Shakespeare’s first audiences favoured likeness: a work was good not because it was original, but because it resembled an admired classical exemplar’. In his review of the book for the Guardian, John Mullan notes: ‘Shakespeare inhabited a literary culture in which imitation of earlier models was applauded. Rhetoric (the Renaissance version of creative writing) approved of “invention”, but specified that this meant the clever combination of inherited elements.’ Until the Romanticism movement in the 18th century, the concept of originality simply didn’t exist.
With all this in mind, I turn to my own area of the arts, fiction. How important is originality in fiction?
Well, we have already established that no novel can ever be wholly original. Each novel I write is influenced by all I have learned and experienced in culture. Thus, my university studies in French literature have helped to shape my style and voice; as have all the novels I have read over the years; as have the legends that have fascinated me since childhood – so much inspiration from the Greek myths in Aphrodite’s Tears.
In addition, by nature a genre novel must fit into a genre, which means it must follow genre norms. I write romance fiction, and so in each of my novels you can expect a hero and a heroine to fall in love, face challenges and obstacles along the way, and ultimately build a future together. No ground-breaking originality, but a story framework for the genre that is familiar and comfortable for the reader.
So, as a writer I don’t worry about having been inspired by other writers and artists, and I don’t worry about telling the same kind of story that has been told before; I don’t worry about being wholly original. What is left is the need to be original in the details – the where, the when, the who, the how, the what. That is where the fun comes in to the writing. All I have read sparks my imagination, and from a place of learning and knowledge gained from studying other writers’ works, I am able to weave my own story that is at once familiar and new. And that foundation of knowledge and experience? Michael Chabon put it best: ‘All novels are sequels; influence is bliss.’