Why Originality Is Bullshit

This is sort of an expansion on my earlier essay re: Why Tolstoy Is Bullshit, and has sort of become part of an ongoing series, although it won’t be particularly regular. Despite the number of ideas that annoy me on a regular basis, only a few of them inspire essays.

And first off, just to forestall defensiveness: it’s not bullshit to enjoy novelty or experimentation in; your media, to like twists that you didn’t see coming, or to note when an artist or a work pulls all of that off well. Different experiences can be great, and “nobody’s done this before,” shouldn’t stop you from what you want to do, artistically speaking. (Just don’t depend on it for a livingbut, at least in the US, I’d say you shouldn’t voluntarily depend on art for a living these days until you’ve actually started making a living from art, and have at least six months of expenses or an equivalent safety net, but that’s a different issue.)

The thing that is bullshit–which sounds like the title of a really gross 1930s pulp/1950s B-movie monster–is looking at a trope, an idea, or a plot and sniffily dismissing it because it’s been previously done a number of times that is more than some arbitrarily-determined acceptability threshold. Genre fiction gets this a lot: not because there’s anything wrong with the concepts used themselves (although sometimes there is) but because, yawn, they’ve been done, they’re so last year. Likewise, people (typically college creative writing students of the more tedious sort) will sometimes start work as an attempt to Do Something That Hasn’t Been Done Before, rather than with a character or a plot or even the notion that they haven’t seen this thing done before and would find it interesting to try.

And this is insufferable bullshit, for a number of linked reasons:

  1. Either nothing has been completely done or everything has.  Humans have been around for millions of years, we’ve been telling stories for most if not all of that time, and most of them have covered similar themes: sex, death, and religion, with minor detours into property loss and amusing incidents with livestock. SF gets at tech concepts that haven’t per se been done before, but a lot of the issues in stories boil down to What Is Reality? and What Makes Someone A Person? and similar, which, yeah, have been around for a while. Which means…
  2. It’s the details, fundamentally, that distinguish stories. Some details are larger than others–a happy versus an unhappy ending and a hero versus an antihero are pretty huge, but even a couple years’ difference in the characters’ ages (all those high school AU fanfics), setting the story in a small town versus a big city, or writing in a different style or from a different point of view can make a major difference. You see this with movie adaptations a lot: the BBC Pride and Prejudice miniseries and the 2005 film both draw from exactly the same book, but the resulting films are different enough to inspire fairly strong partisanship on Twitter.

    Also, before we started writing shit down, this was how stories worked. Homer used type scenes full of set phrases all the time. Most myths and fairy tales were expansions or variants on a few central themes, told and retold to listeners until “Cinderella” encompasses both the Disney version and a Greek variant that starts with weaving-associated cannibalism. Half of Arthurian legend is minor variants of “but what if these guys fought giants and sorcerers while making the worst romantic decisions ever?” The difference was about how well different plot elements worked, which was a function of the storyteller’s skill at knowing their audience for pacing and references, and of being able to adapt and illustrate.

  3. Which means: the same plot and plot elements, handled by different authors, are going to result in different stories. This isn’t to say that plagarism is okay, or that an author should rip off an entire distinct story structure, particularly without crediting the person who came up with it, and trust their style to cover for that. (“At least switch whether the main character’s a vampire or not,” is a good guideline there, evidence suggests.)  But, okay, an illustrative story:

    My old job had a Trivial Pursuit night once, and one of the clues was “this author wrote a series of books featuring a World War II nurse who goes back to 1700s Scotland,” or similar. For me, this was obviously Diana Gabaldon, but since I was not on the answering team, I got to hear their guesses, which were:

    C.S. Lewis
    Stephen King
    Tom Clancy
    Kurt Vonnegut

    Obviously, this was hilarious, but I also remember thinking that all four of these books would be very different from each other, and from the original, and I would kind of love to read somewhere between one and three of them. (I myself am not into Clancy and often find Vonnegut too depressing. Lewis…depends on whether we’re talking Perelandra Lewis or Last Battle Lewis.)

    Even more so, fanfic: I’ve read a fair amount in my life, and I could still probably distinguish one good “Jareth and Sarah get together because of magical shenanigans that happen when she’s in her twenties/thirties,” or “Buffy and Spike in the aftermath of him getting tortured by Glory,” or “Darcy/Lizzy wedding night,” story from another, and I still want them all around, because each one is different enough to be valuable.

  4. Additionally? Tropes, or familiar beats, or elements/dialogue that call back to others are assets for some people. I deliberately engineered the plot of the novel I’m writing so that it could include a Formal Event Becomes a Demon Fight scene, because those are great and I’ve always wanted to write one; it did not become an Everyone Here Is Surprisingly Well-Armed And/Or Good At Improvised Weapon Use scene, so I am damned well going to write one of those in another book, because I like what those do and I like that they remind me of other scenes.

    When I read a scene and I can see Oh, Shit, It’s The Bluebeard Thing, when an act of self-sacrifice on a bridge to take an enemy with you reminds me of Gandalf and the Balrog, or the main character is the Grandma Who Does Not Take Shit From You, Zombie Lord, I love it. For me, those moments are–to make a seasonally-appropriate reference–Easter eggs: not only do they make me feel clever for seeing them, but they provide a sense of connection to a greater whole, a resonance with what came before and will come again.

And again: if you like experimenting on a broad scale, or engaging with works that to, have at it! Just…using that as an objective measure of quality to which all should aspire makes no sense from either a historic or an artistic perspective.  When talking about a similar trope with food, someone–I can’t remember who, which is sad–pointed out that there’s a reason we don’t generally see mustard-flavored ice cream in the grocery store.

Speaking of things that have been done before, next week I’m going to start on Wands!


Izzy and Sugar Explain The Tarot

I’m not drunk, because I’m working, but I have had a scone with jam and clotted cream and a hot chocolate with crushed Cadbury eggs in it, so I wouldn’t call my state of mind normal, as such, albeit for me a semi-constant sugar high is pretty standard.

And if any cards go with sobriety, the Swords royalty are them. (You really want to be drunk for the Nine and Ten, likewise for the Devil and Tower, each in their own ways, and Temperance isn’t about being sober, despite the name–it’s about being just the right amount of drunk, the right amount of the time.) The King and Queen, at their best, are both about clear thinking, the wise use of power, and the ability to step back and see what the fuck is actually going on. Much as I enjoy a drink or three, none of that goes with booze.

The Queen of Swords is a (generally) dark-haired woman in fancy, flowy robes, often some variety of blue and white. She’s holding a sword, point up, and classically enthroned, though some cards have her standing dramatically on the edge of a cliff. There are nearly always clouds in the background, and usually a river and a tree and some mountains as well. This is really the Most Nineties Fantasy Cover of Tarot cards, except for the ones that are blatantly Elizabeth I.

This one was also a TV series title, of course, and has at least a few namesake novels.

The Swords royalty are really the most classically royal, as is unsurprising in a suit dealing with power. This is a person who’s got good judgment, as a general rule–not so much insight, but a lot of knowledge and the smarts to apply it well–and they make it without bias and with an awareness of the Spider Man-style responsibility they’ve got.  The Queen is careful, but they’re also decisive: they’ll weigh all the information available, but then make a decision rather than dithering.

In the way of Swords, this can come off as harsh, and, indeed, the Queen of Swords doesn’t have a lot of time or energy for the softer considerations of life. Ideally she’s not unsympathetic, but the sob story only goes so far–“well, that’s too bad, but….” is a phrase that she might apply a lot. The negative potential gets at all the Scheming Woman archetypes in fiction, from Lady MacBeth to Miranda Priestly to Lloth: goals matter, the situation matters, and nobody who stands in their way does.

Many interpretations say that the figure is someone who’s known sorrow, which makes sense: when you make a decision and stick to it, especially when you have the power to do that, you often piss people off, or sacrifice some part of your life. That’s sad, but that’s not the end of the world–indeed, “sadness is not the end of the world” is a pretty good Swords summary.

The King of Swords:

In appearance and posture, he resembles the Queen a lot: throned or sometimes standing, holding a sword, dressed in blue and white. There are generally more mountains and fewer clouds in the background.

Speaking of biased interpretations, this card has never been my favorite: there were a lot of readings for me where it was associated with my at-the-time boyfriend and Surly Friend Guy and other Men Who Knew What was Best For People.  The failing of king-type people in general is that of extending responsibility too far, and the intellect of Swords can combine with that to produce a really obnoxious form of moral certainty slash authoritarianism: the sort who got deeply annoyed when other people didn’t run their lives by his principles, and would constantly try to argue them into doing so.

(The King of Pentacles, gone wrong, is classic Overprotective Dad: nobody is taking care of themselves well enough, and nobody has good enough health insurance, and why haven’t you gotten someone to check out that noise in your car OMG YOU’RE GONNA DIE. King of Cups can be either The World Must Understand My Art guy, Dark Messiah, or Super-Incel Stage 5 Whiner/Clinger. King of Wands, we’ll get to.)

That said, this card has as much potential for good as any other, and a good King of Swords is great to have around as a manager, a commander, a head of state, or even a friend. As you might guess, if you’ve been following this blog,  this is a person who’s good with knowledge, power, and freedom–and at his best, they use the first to balance the second two.  They’re strong and commanding, but they’re also honest and fair, and they have the self-knowledge to know the limits of their authority.

“When all philosophies shall fail,

This word alone shall fit;

That a sage feels too small for life,

And a fool too large for it.”

–King Alfred, by way of G.K. Chesterton, and I think apt.

And that’s Swords! Next time: Wands, but before that, Resonance, or Why Originality Is Bullshit

English Majoring It Up

CW: Violence, child death, pet death.

Spoilers: Pet Semetary

Gotten into a surprising number of conversations about Pet Semetary of late, or maybe an unsurprising number given the recent new movie. One awesome Twitter comment stuck with me: namely, that the story is about how everyone dies because dudes don’t listen to advice.  (Yeah, yeah, #notalldudes, whatever.)

And yeah. I posted this on FB and was like yeah, I’ve read the book, I know there’s supposed to be an eldritch horror with mental influence, but frankly in this day and age I think that guy could just sit back with a beer. Except…okay, maybe the story is “everyone dies because dudes won’t listen to advice except from a creepy corruption figure who tells them to give in to their worst impulses,” which makes the Wendigo in the story, like, Jordan Peterson or Ben Shapiro, and I’m cool with this analogy.

Then I went to buy milk and a sweater, which involves a lot of walking, which is generally when my brain comes up with Dubious Ideas. And so: Totally Unintentional (obviously, a lot of these assholes weren’t even born when the book came out) Pet Semetary As Analogy For Incels/MRAs/Those Dudes That Whine About Girl Ghostbusters.

So okay. One of the basic concepts of the book is that sometimes shit happens and it’s often unpleasant and not necessarily fair, but our job as people is to accept it, do what we can, and get on with our lives. Going forward is painful, but the best option. Trying to bring things back ends with zombie children.

Now, obviously, not getting laid by the people you want or having girls in your video games or whatnot is not a problem compared to having your kid or your pet get run over. But I’m going to be charitable–mostly for the sake of a literary metaphor, not because these assholes in any way deserve it–and say that, okay, it does hurt when you legitimately do everything right and the person you’re into doesn’t return the feelings, and the patriarchy is bad for men too, and when you’re used to privilege equality feels like loss and so on. So there’s some pain.

The route that doesn’t end in badness, the Victor Pascow/Mostly Jud Crandall route, is acceptance. Yes, whatever’s going on hurts, but there’s nobody to blame for it, and you can’t change the situation by force. At best, you can maybe keep it from happening again, but often it’s just a case of sitting with the pain and then moving forward.

Unless you listen to Peterson/Shapiro/the monster beyond the deadfall. What they tell you is that you can totally keep or make things the way you want them to be, that you don’t have to let go and move on, and that you’re right to cling to what was, or what you thought was, or what you wanted to be.

This is where the metaphor shifts.

Because it’s yourself you bury if you listen to those people. You’re sticking your mind in the Dubious Resurrection Pit, because you can’t let go of your old self enough to take in new information like “I’m sad right now, but it will pass, and nobody owes me a relationship,” or “some of the things I liked did leave a lot of people out, at best.”

Most people who do that, thank God, get the animal resurrection model. They’re not pleasant to be around, they’re surly, and many of them smell weird, but basically they’re harmless. Some go all Timmy Bateman with the verbal or emotional abuse. And, as we know from the news, no small number end up full Gage.

Don’t listen to the fucker in the woods. It does not end well.

And that, folks, is what I’m still paying off student loans for.

Next week,  I finish Swords!