Originality and Voice
As part of a brief conversation on Twitter the other night, Emma Unsworth said ‘Truth before originality!’ which struck me as a brilliant and concise maxim.
My opinion is that originality in a book is determined by the reader, not the writer. A writer cannot choose to write something original, not because everything’s been done, but because they don’t know what’s been done or not, and, more importantly, this hypothetical writer also doesn’t know what their readers have previously encountered.
If anybody ever did write a truly, genuinely original book, nobody would ever know. It would be original to all of its readers, and they might even think ‘How original!’ but they might well also subconsciously think ‘Well, it’s original to me, but then I haven’t read everything so that doesn’t mean much.’ And I think they’d be right.
Likewise, a book that is unoriginal is only unoriginal to readers who’ve read whatever text (or texts) the book is (intentionally or unintentionally) similar to. Those readers who are unaware of that first text won’t consider the ‘unoriginal’ book unoriginal at all.
Also, whether the writer of the ‘unoriginal’ text is aware of the ‘original’ is irrelevant – a reader who makes the connection between the two texts might well think that the older one influenced the more recent, and that’s that.
In short – as far as I can see, what is unoriginal to one reader will be original to another, regardless of what the writer does or not do.
It’s an amazing thing when a book affects you like no other book has before, but that, in my experience, is not achieved through the writer aiming for originality. It’s the sense that what the writer is writing is true; they are being honest. Truth before originality, as Emma says. Everybody is the same in a lot of ways but everybody is also different, and the books that strike me as the most powerful are always the ones that feel like they couldn’t have been written by anybody but the person who wrote them. This is because these writers have found their own voice, and the nuances and complexities and sadnesses of their being and their worldview can only be expressed genuinely via their own voice. Finding the voice is, I believe, the author’s first step towards writing something that will really hit their readers between the eyes and make them think differently. (I don’t think I’ve found mine yet).
An example is Cormac McCarthy. His voice communicates something to me that goes way beyond the content of his novels. The Road has been criticised for being unoriginal, but it was original to me, and anyway, whether it was original or not was the last thing I cared about when I was reading it. Originality is not where the power lies.
Those writers who manage to access and channel their individuality into their work (and thereby truly articulate something with the intended depth – i.e, unlike most writing, it is not being translated from their mind into words on the page) seem to me to do it through being truthful, through honesty, and, as far as I can see, that – as opposed to striving for originality – is the way for a writer to make a real contribution to the body of work that makes up our culture, and that is already far too massive for any one person to have experienced fully.