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NaNoWriMo Notes 18: Originality Above All

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Kaavya Viswanathan has been forced to remove her books from bookstores and rewrite passages to eliminate the similarities that her book bears to another written by Megan McCafferty. An as yet unknown number of paragraphs in Miss Viswanathan’s book were either lifted straight from the other books, or are considered similar enough to be copies and not original material.

“When I sat down to write my novel, my only intention was to tell the story of Opal.”… “I was so surprised and horrified when I found these similarities.” Kaavya Viswantathan

Well that’s all any of us do when we sit down to write a story, tell the story of our characters, their circumstances and anything of interest that happens to them along the way. So that’s easy enough to accept as her motivation for writing the book. In fact it sounds like there are striking similarities between the author’s life and the life of her heroine.

They are both young woman from ethnic backgrounds who have pushed themselves to succeed no matter what the cost. In Miss Viswanathan’s novel her character stumbles because she has forgotten to have a life outside of her academic ambitions, while Miss Viswanathan herself has stumbled for trying to take shortcuts on the road to success.

On the other hand, with regard to the second part of her statement, how possible is it that another author’s work will turn up verbatim in one’s own book unintentionally? Especially when the books are about circumstances that bear a striking thematic resemblance. It’s one thing to write a book that covers the same territory as another, but an author is expected to write their own version, offer a new perspective on familiar circumstances.

I haven’t been following the story too closely because, to be honest about it, sometimes this type of story strikes to close to the bone. Thoughts about originality and copying another’s work have lurked in my brain since I started writing my novel. It’s not that I’ve sat down and either copied out someone else’s words, or even taken their ideas and retooled them, but the fact remains that other people have written stories set during the same time period and locale as me.

The very strange and great French writer Jean Cocteau once compared originality to a new suit, stiff and uncomfortable and difficult to wear. But this was more along the lines of an admonishment directed at young artists who were trying to invent brand new means of expression while completely discarding what came before them, and not about content.

Stylistically, he was saying everything must build on what has come before, even if it is just to reject what your forebears have done. Something that is new, only for the sake of being new, will not have the substance of something that has roots in the past.

I have always been a voracious reader, devouring books since I was five, and there is no doubt that along the way bits and pieces of different writers’ styles have rubbed off on me. Denying their influence would be like denying that I have drawn breath for the past 45 years. Some voices have, of course, been louder than others. Everyone has their favourite authors, and there is no doubt that on occasion I’ve written something and thought, “Wow, that sounds like so-and-so could have written it.”

“Hell, he only stole from me; I steal from everybody,” has been widely attributed to the American folk singer Woody Guthrie. But folk music has always had a mysterious convention that has allowed the same tune to be used over and over again, only with different lyrics attached to it. Maybe it’s the word “folk”, meaning the music is for all of us, that has given people that licence. Or perhaps they realize there are only so many songs that can be written within the framework of the chords available.

Either way, no one seems to raise much a fuss when it happens. But the key there is that the lyrics are always different. How often have you heard a song where the lyrics and the tune bear similarities to another? Maybe folk musicians feel that you can’t punish someone from using the same tune any more than you can punish writers for using paper to write a story on.

In writing there is no situation really similar to that of folk music, where tunes are interchangeable with the lyrics or the story, except when people approach the same topic. In those circumstances the subject matter could be said to be the “music” of the story, and the author’s job is to do is come up with new “lyrics” — a different approach, or a new way of telling the same old story.

West Side Story and Romeo And Juliet are often cited as an example of the same story line being used but the circumstances changed. But I would call the former merely an adaptation of the latter, not a different approach at all. There are far too many structural similarities between the two pieces for it to be otherwise.

If Leonard Bernstein had only taken the theme of two lovers from different backgrounds, and changed everything else, then West Side Story could have been considered a new telling of the same old story. But he stuck far too closely to Shakespeare’s plot outline for it to be considered original in that manner.

The challenge faced by me, or any author when entering into territory that somebody else has already covered, whether it is an historical period, or the theme of star-crossed lovers, is to find your own way of telling the story. In my case I extrapolated a story from an incident that took place in an historical period.

By removing the story from the actual circumstances and only using history as my basis, I have been able to give myself miles of room for the creation of an original story. I know that there are other authors that have done the same thing with this period, but I have focused on such a specific event that I’m hopeful no one has attempted it before.

So why then do I worry about copying another’s work? It sounds like I’ve covered all the bases, doesn’t it? Maybe I have no cause for worry, but still, the thought of whether my work sounds like someone else’s nags in the back of my head. Will you pick up my book, and say to yourself, “Oh, this reads just like this person’s or that person’s work?”

Maybe compared to plagiarizing another’s work, it sounds like a trivial concern to you, and that I should be happy if someone just publishes my work and it sells. But that’s not why I’ve written this story. If I’d only wanted to get published there are lots of other more accessible topics that I could have tackled that would find a market more readily.

Perhaps it’s ego, but I don’t want the work to be tainted by people thinking it’s derivative of somebody else’s attempts. I feel it would cheapen my effort and the story itself if there were any implication or hint of it having been created through any means other than my own creativity.

Of course others have influenced me, one can’t help that, but it is still my work and I have enough pride that the idea of copying someone else in any form would never occur to me. Perhaps that is why I haven’t wanted to read about Kaavya Viswanathan — I don’t understand the circumstances that would drive anyone to doing what she did.

I’m no saint, but there are certain things that I consider to be sacred. One of those things is artistic creation. As part of one of my email signatures I have this quote from e.e.cummings: “every artist’s strictly illimitable country is himself, and the artist who plays that country false has committed suicide.” If I can’t stay true to that, I don’t see any point in writing.

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About Richard Marcus

Richard Marcus is the author of two books commissioned by Ulysses Press, "What Will Happen In Eragon IV?" (2009) and "The Unofficial Heroes Of Olympus Companion". Aside from Blogcritics his work has appeared around the world in publications like the German edition of Rolling Stone Magazine and the multilingual web site Qantara.de. He has been writing for Blogcritics.org since 2005 and has published around 1900 articles at the site.
  • http://elvirablack.blogspot.com/ Elvira Black

    Richard, another great article. Here’s my two cents on the issue of originality and influence:

    The whole thrust of modernism was trying to break free of convention and pursue “absolute originality.” There was always an anxiety about the influence of predecessors, but the grand goal was to invent something totally “new.”

    I’m firmly convinced that, whether we ackowlege it or not, we are now steeped in a postmodern cultural universe, where we are “allowd” to absorb, process, and reflect on what has come before.

    However, I do believe that this still leaves plenty of room for originality, and knowing your work here, I doubt you have anything to fret about in terms of the originality and absolute integiry of your work.