A while back, a reader sent a lovely letter to my publisher. He enjoyed my novel, The Hakawati, tremendously, he wrote; however, he wanted to make sure that the writer, I in this case, knew that a story, one of the hundreds of stories in the book, was similar to one told in an episode of the old television series, The Twilight Zone. He wanted the writer to understand that even though he thought the novel was inventive, that specific tale was not original.
That letter led me to consider a paradox: Why do so many of us, as readers or maybe as a society, assume that originality springs forth out of nothing, although at the same time we understand that every idea, every story, has a precedent? In the acknowledgments of The Hakawati, I wrote:
By nature, a storyteller is a plagiarist. Everything one comes across—each incident, book, novel, life episode, story, person, news clip—is a coffee bean that will be crushed, ground up, mixed with a touch of cardamom, sometimes a tiny pinch of salt, boiled thrice with sugar, and served as a piping-hot tale.
Every story in the novel is influenced by another—maybe not by an episode of The Twilight Zone, but by a tale from elsewhere. Every story anywhere is inspired by a coffee bean of some sort. A plant sprouts from a seed.
Rodin said: I invent nothing. I rediscover.
The Greek playwrights used tales that their audience knew quite well. Shakespeare’s audience had heard the stories of his tragedies, his comedies, and of course his histories, long before they entered the theater.
An original writer brings a pair of fresh eyes and a new pen. She makes us think that the story we’re reading has never been told before. While reading a great book, a reader rarely thinks about the story’s influences; he is taken in, swallowed by a new universe. The reader’s eye is directed to what the writer wishes it to see.
Critics and literature professors insist that a good novel opens your eyes. Rarely do they remind us that it also blinds you.
Influenced by his predecessors, Rodin might have been rediscovering, but what we see is originality, something we’ve never encountered before.
In the notes for one of my earlier books, The Perv, I wrote, “A writer is as original as the obscurity of his sources.” I cannot recall whether I had heard this or something similar before, or whether I had come up with it myself. I searched online and found a Benjamin Franklin quote: “Originality is the art of concealing your sources.” I knew this quote hadn’t directly influenced mine, since I’ve never read Franklin. It could have indirectly, of course—like a story, a saying will move from mouth to ear, getting distorted and rediscovered along the way, until a day comes when we think it’s a new saying, and ever so original.
I am intrigued by the idea of influences, the obvious and the not so, the visible and the hidden, and the transformation of those influences into something new. V.S. Naipaul’s A House for Mr. Biswas may have descended directly from Balzac to Tolstoy to Forster, but by turning his eye to immigrants, by writing about a family of third-worlders, the author created a new way of telling the story. Fresh eyes.
Writer influences writer; sometimes the influence is glaringly apparent, sometimes not. Story influences story.
Yet, what arouses my interest most are the influences of real life. Naipaul’s childhood in Trinidad, his escape to Oxford, his relationship with his father, are subjects that are repeated in his novels. How do real-life stories affect originality? If a writer uses real experience as a springboard, as a seed, is he as original as someone who doesn’t? Which is more original: Italo Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler, a novel that isn’t based on any discernible real experience; A House for Mr. Biswas, a novel based on the author’s experience (Nabokov calls this auto-plagiarism! ), or Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, a non-fiction novel based on actual events?
Fresh eyes, all three.
None of these authors concealed their sources. Benjamin Franklin is probably wrong. Probably I am as well. But then, maybe not.
Henry James once wrote, “Everything about Florence seems to be coloured with a mild violet, like diluted wine.” It’s a most lovely description. But imagine this, only as a possibility, mind you: James walks the streets of Florence. Rain had kept him cooped up inside for a while. A man, slightly drunk and having finished lunch, exits a tavern carrying his glass of wine (he’d refused to give it up). The slick pavement makes him slip and spill the wine, which mixes with the still rainwater on the ground. Diluted wine, James thinks, and it is the same color as the stone it is covering, the same color as Florence, this mild violet.
Would the description still seem as original as it did when we didn’t know how James came up with it?
In Microcosms, Claudio Magris described Mitteleuropa as the “grand, morose laboratory of civilization’s discontents.” Utterly brilliant.
Imagine Magris as a young boy, maybe eight years old, at home. His father says, “They treat us like animals. These great powers from the east and from the west try out their wars on us, experiment on us.” His mother sits at the dinner table looking grand, but so morose. Imagine.
When Benjamin Franklin wrote, “Originality is the art of concealing your sources,” he was being funny, but he was wrong. A writer doesn’t have to conceal his sources. Often he does not know what his sources are. No story is created out of a vacuum. Originality is not Immaculate Conception. A writer’s work is the stew of numerous plants that have sprung forth from many a seed.
I don’t know whether the seed of my story was an episode of The Twilight Zone or something else. Either way, I’d hope I, and the reader, would see it with a fresh eye.