I came across this question the other day while I was trolling on LinkedIn. I never really choose to participate in conversations on LinkedIn personally, but this question in particular gave me pause. I am not a publishing industry professional, though I have studied the publishing industry extensively along with my background in literature and literary critique/analysis, plus the fact that I am a writer. So my perspective wasn’t exactly what the the person who asked the question was necessarily expecting or looking for but I decided that I felt strongly enough about the question that I should respond to it on my blog.
I like to think that originality has merit in publishing (along with the safe and currently trending types of stories). An original idea had to be put out there in order to start the trend. The question on LinkedIn referenced Hunger Games specifically, so we’ll go that route for part of the answer. Someone had to come up with Hunger Games in order for others to mimic it (there are people out there who claim to have written a Hunger Games-like story prior to Suzanne Collins, so take that how you will). Before that, someone had to take a chance on it by publishing it. So yes, original ideas exist (to some extent) and they do matter in publishing. Of course, if you fall in the camp of Sir Arthur Thomas Quiller-Couch who proposed that there were only seven stories in the world [man against man,man against nature, man against himself, man against God, man against society, man caught in the middle, man and woman], you may be so inclined to argue that there is no such thing as originality in fiction.
There are thousands upon thousands of people out there in the world all hoping to be writers and authors and one route to publication is copycatting. Copycats have existed longer than the concept of the novel and the fact of the matter is, trends matter. There are dozens of copycats from the past who are viewed in the literary world as being pivotal writers of their time. The first Gothic novel, The Castle of Otranto, was written in 1764 by Horace Walpole and everyone who took up this new genre afterwards copied him.Writers such as Ann Radcliffe, Clara Reeve and many more are considered important in the history of the Gothic genre. The later obsession with “Penny Dreadfuls” by the lower classes led to the timeless popularity of the Gothic and elements of these stories trickle down to the Dystopian and post-apocalyptic literature that people snatch up voraciously today. The novel itself had to catch on too before it was considered a worthwhile method of storytelling.
But, even though a story is inspired by something that came before, that fact doesn’t necessarily discredit its existence or its merit in the world of literature. I think that originality is possible, even if you are influenced by something that you read. And who could not be? As a writer myself, I am constantly reading and learning from the books that I read. Reading also leads my imagination to wander and thus I am influenced by what I read and a new idea may come from something that I was reading. It may take me along a completely different plane from that which was put forth by the original source of inspiration, but the fact remains that I was influenced by what I read. A worthwhile example of this is the book I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou. The story itself is not influenced by another text. But the title is. The title comes directly from the poem “Sympathy” by Paul Laurence Dunbar. I’ve transcribed the poem at the end of this post in case you aren’t familiar with it.
Originality matters in literature just as much—if not more than the copycats that signal the beginning of a trend. Art is influenced by the world around us as well as the way that our peers have chosen to interpret it. Although not every writer or author out there will agree with me, I believe that there is nothing problematic about this. It’s the natural order of things. And besides, mimicry is, after all, the finest form of flattery.
Paul Laurence Dunbar
I KNOW what the caged bird feels, alas!
When the sun is bright on the upland slopes;
When the wind stirs soft through the springing grass,
And the river flows like a stream of glass;
When the first bird sings and the first bud opes,
And the faint perfume from its chalice steals —
I know what the caged bird feels!
I know why the caged bird beats his wing
Till its blood is red on the cruel bars;
For he must fly back to his perch and cling
When he fain would be on the bough a-swing;
And a pain still throbs in the old, old scars
And they pulse again with a keener sting —
I know why he beats his wing!
I know why the caged bird sings, ah me,
When his wing is bruised and his bosom sore,—
When he beats his bars and he would be free;
It is not a carol of joy or glee,
But a prayer that he sends from his heart’s deep core,
But a plea, that upward to Heaven he flings —
I know why the caged bird sings!