Wednesday, August 07, 2013

In Praise of Original Stories

Its probably Shakespeare's fault; or T.S. Eliot's; or Chaucers. One of those. We have a culture based on appropriation, of stories passed down or passed off. Its not a bad thing, necessarily. Shakespeare may have purloined his plots, but that was about all he stole. The rest was all him, and it can be argued that if you're putting on a brand new play in front of several hundred people then you need a hook to bait them. That's why people say that if Shakespeare was writing now he'd be writing for film/for Eastenders/for HBO/for video games. (The fact that the formulation changes depending on what's most popular, shows what nonsense it might be.) If Tom Stoppard - whose first play was an appropriation of two characters from "Hamlet" - was alive today he'd be writing for Radio 2 about prog rock. Of course, he is alive, and of course he is writing for Radio 2 about prog rock. Stoppard's got away with loads in his career - he was perhaps last relevant around 30 years ago, so that makes him perfect to dramatise Pink Floyd's "Dark Side of the Moon." 

Writers are full of bad ideas like this of course, unfortunately we're seeing that TV and radio producers and publishers are the first to indulge them. Its not enough that Tom Stoppard, acclaimed playwright, could write an absurdist radio drama (has he ever done anything with sound before, I wonder? Surely his two great skills are wordplay and physical theatre?), it has to be hooked into some media event. Stoppard gets to meet Nick Mason, Floyd get some harmless promotion (and far less brand-affecting than a hip hop or grime mash-up for instance), and the BBC producers of a certain age (I'd imagine you'd have to be in your fifties to think this was a good idea) get to meet their heroes. "Event radio" they probably call it.

I've often wondered if the greatest barrier for a new writer is originality. Far better if you can pitch your novel as being an archetype, or give your poetry collection a hook. Making things up. That's what I always enjoyed about writing. But making things up is somehow not enough. There needs to be this appropriation somehow. Over the last year I've been asked to write poems about Jane Austen, the Fall, the North West landscape and Pussy Riot. All have, or are going to be published. Write a poem about something in your private mythos though and it falls on stoney ground.

It does seem that the last thing we want is originality. The big novels this summer are "by association." "Tampa" by Alissa Nutting is a debut that owes something of its subject matter to "Lolita" and is being reported almost as if its a news story about a female seducer, rather than a work of fiction. (The very name "Lolita" - in every sense a remarkable fictional creation by Nabakov is now used as shorthand for paedophilia.) David Peace's "Red or Dead" is both his fictional biography of Bill Shankley, and the second time he's done this, following on from his Brian Clough book "The Damned United." I'm looking forward to it, but "red or dead" isn't Peace's formulation, whereas "the Damned United" was. Just as the characters in Martin Amis's "Money" would drink his made-up "Peculiar Brews" but by "Yellow Dog" were lazily imbibing Stella.

Great imaginative feats can come from appropriation - see Hilary Mantel's Thomas Cromwell for instance; or going back a few years, Jane Rogers' Mr. Wroe's Virgins. Its not this I'm against. More that if you take something too current - too real and fictionalise it then you're in the territory of the "bio-pic" that rightly derided form of cheap drama that used to make up so many "made for TV" movies. The imagined country singer in "Crazy Heart" seems a more real creature than Johnny Cash in "Walk the Line" for instance. I was going on about that quirkily original movie "Things to Denver When You're Dead." From its title, to its set up (Andy Garcia's business making VHS tapes of cancer victims last words for their descendants to watch), to its subversion of the "lets get the gang together for one last job," (They do, its a disaster), its an original piece of work - that becomes its own archetype.

We talk about our society being Big Brother-ish, and forget that Big Brother is all the stronger for being a fictional creation. It was Orwell's imaginative leaping that makes this a contemporary myth. Yes, stories like this or "Lord of the Flies" owe at least something to primary sources, but the writer has added more than just some chocolate sauce to the ice cream; he's made it from its primary ingredients and created something new as a result.

Our three book phenomenons of the last few years are all appropriations. Dan Brown's novels fictionalise a notionally non-fiction conspiracy theory; The 50 Shades books began in the "Twilight" universe as fan fiction; even Harry Potter is a comforting amalgam of boarding school and fantasy archetypes. (That there is a book about the "J.K. Rowling universe" shows that she at least created something original from this dough.) Hollywood relies on the sequel, or as those dry up, desperate attempts to use an existing idea to create a new franchise ("Lone Ranger", "John Carter").

Writers from Irvine Welsh to Hilary Mantel to Jonathan Coe are tempted back to look again at old characters; yet at least this has the benefit of self-plagiarism, however limited the returns might be.

I don't think I have any problems with this per se, as good art is as likely to come from this as bad art, its just that the expectations of the non-creative end of the creative industries can't seem to appreciate originality when so much of their core business is anything but. You'd have thought that the gender reversal fairy tale had been done already by Angela Carter, but it didn't stop Carol Ann Duffy's "The World's Wife" or other reversionings do phenomenally well. Yet I'm trying to think the last time I remember reading a fictional creation that had legs - that could last beyond the book. Do we have to go back as far as Amis's John Self or Keith Talent? It sometimes seems that way. Modern books have characters who are defined by their problem - whether its "Life of Pi" or "The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time" - yet its worth remembering that Cathy and Heathcliff, Sherlock Holmes and Watson, Mr. Darcy, Gatsby and Carraway,  Winston Smith and others are creations: they may have not appeared out of nothing, but the imagination of the writer's involved is what made them come to life.

Yet as a writer if I do get any feedback its more "is this based on anyone?" rather than "did you make this up?" The 3rd parties who commission work seem uncomfortable with this "made up" world as if its something of an affectation; that writers should be looking for commissions such as the Stoppard one above. Of course, I should be writing a novelisation of "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band", putting some flesh onto Billy Shears, rather than creating something new. But I'm a writer. Making things is up is what I do.

No comments: