"Would I had phrases that are not known, utterances that are strange, in new language that has not been used, free from repetition, not an utterance which has grown stale, which men of old have spoken.” – Khakheperresenb.

Ironically these words by an Egyptian scribe, on a papyrus dated from around 2000 BC, are one of the earliest surviving texts we have.

For that matter, the story of Gilgamesh was already a millennium old by the time the "standard version," the text known to us, was carved onto clay tablets. And you thought Batman had been done to death...

My daughter's favorite author right now is Edward Eager, a man who wrote his children's books in unashamed imitation of E. Nesbit's. Just so you know what I mean by “unashamed,” the first in the series starts with a group of children sitting around glumly – they've just finished reading E. Nesbit, and are wondering why they never get to make magic wishes that come true... then suddenly they do...

As a small boy I commenced writing a novel utterly indebted to Helen Cresswell's Bagthorpe Saga; a few years later, I started writing a book equally derivative of P.G. Wodehouse -- by far my favorite author when I was thirteen. These manuscripts never got past the first few chapters. Wouldn't there be something beautiful, though, about basking in another writer's glory in this way, inhabiting another's universe for one's whole career?

My daughter got some E. Nesbit books for her birthday, and curiously, she now tells me that, on a scale of 1 to 10, she ranks E. Nesbit as a 7 -- she ranks J.K. Rowling as a 7 too -- but she ranks Edward Eager as a 10. Maybe just because his kids talk American? Maybe because she discovered him before she discovered E. Nesbit?

“It's not who does it first, it's who does it second.” -- I think David Bowie said this in an interview once.

4 thoughts on “Originality”

  1. From Neal Stephenson's Anathem —

    "'It's frustrating, talking to you. Every idea my little mind can come up with has already been come up with by some Saunt two thousand years ago, and talked to death.'
    'I really don't mean to be a smarty pants,' I said, 'but that is Saunt Lora's Proposition and it dates to the Sixteenth Century.'
    She laughed. 'Really!'
    'Literally two thousand years ago, a Saunt put forth the idea that –'
    'That every idea the human mind could come up with, had already been come up with by that time. It is a very influential idea…'
    'But wait a minute, wasn't Saunt Lora's idea a new idea?'
    'According to orthodox paleo-Lorites, it was the Last Idea.'"

  2. And yet I seem to recall the unfairly-maligned Edward Bulwer-Lytton observing that “Imitation, if noble and general, insures the best hope of originality."

  3. Feline reminiscences of Sir Edward are always welcome here.

    My daughter also likes the Diary of a Wimply Kid series — reminiscent of the Adrian Mole books that were popular when I was last based in the UK. You'd think, if people HAD to read something along those lines, they'd stick with René Goscinny's Le Petit Nicolas books, which have the advantage of actually being funny. But perhaps the majority will always prefer yesterday's reinvention of the wheel to the day before yesterday's reinvention of the wheel.

    A literary agent once told me that every commercially successful novel takes a proven formula and adds a single twist.

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