Thursday, 27 May 2010

A Sin to be Original?

This might sound really weird coming from someone currently trying to sell a book about zombies, but originality is very important to me. There is nothing I hate more than the idea of going over ground that has already been scrubbed clean of insight or surprise. The trouble is that nowadays, originality seems to be in pretty short supply.

Since postmodernism came along and made it ok to basically steal what you like from someone else's work, originality has quickly been edged out by familiarity. Scared (financially and creatively) to take a chance on a new concept, the movie and TV industry prefers to "leverage their back catalogue" - in other words, remake stuff. Occasionally, this can have electrifying results (Battlestar Galactica, Christopher Nolan's Batman films, The recent Star Trek movie) but mostly it results in warmed-over trash (Knight Rider, Wonder Woman, pretty much every horror movie remake, etc.)

Due to the lower costs of entry, this isn't a problem that has affected the book industry as much, but I wonder if the creeping influence of "the series" will have much the same effect. With a lot of the revenue for children's book titles driven by merchandising, it makes business sense to consolidate as much as possible and to land-grab kids' time with familiar brands and characters. Children's book series are now planned very much like TV series, with a frequent drip-feed of product to keep consumers buying. There isn't anything particularly new or evil about this trend, but it can serve to lock children into a brand - you only have to observe an impressionable pre-school boy obsessed with Thomas the Tank Engine to see that particular phenomenon in action.

But even if you remain aloof from commercial concerns, the explosion in TV channels and the internet over the last 15 years makes originality very difficult. From YouTube to fan fiction to late-night Sci-fi movies, it seems that everyone else has had an idea before you. Perhaps there was no real novelty in fiction concepts before the internet either, but at least writers were generally insulated from the evidence. Now all it takes is one Google search to reveal the futility of your latest brilliant idea.

All of which leaves me with a whole load of old ideas spread over the living room carpet and no instruction leaflet. Can I reassemble this kit of familiar parts into a new book that somehow becomes an original work? Is it enough to just take a hackneyed genre and subvert it for my own entertainment? I'll get back to you on that...

Deep down, I have a naive yearning to be someone like Charlie Kaufman or David Lynch, free to mine my own unique personal vision in increasingly bizarre and thought-provoking ways. But then again, I think about films like Synecdoche, New York and the terrible Inland Empire and wonder if being wilfully original is always the best course.


1 comment:

  1. Hi Nick
    this is a late comment, I know - sorry!
    But yes - Dr Who in particular seems to use up tons of ideas each episode. Seems wasteful to me, when each one could be developed into an entire series!
    And recently I watched a children's series and wondered if they had hacked into my pc and read my script ..googling character names and titles I just made up always reveals at least 6 bands/albums/restaurants/boats/ that got there first. So annoying!
    Am now trying to ignore it all,otherwise am made crazy by it!
    Lesley (scbwi)