Originality in literature

Nowadays, originality is seen as the greatest and most central of literary virtues. However, it only arose as a literary virtue during the Romantic period, comprising inventio (practical skill of an artisan) and creatio (associated with artistry and the exaltation of the individual author and his/her original input). Before that era, getting ‘inspiration’ from previous texts was very common, and also we can find the same plots over and over throughout literary history. In fact, according to Roland Barthes, ‘all texts are made from traces of already existing texts. They are but a fabric woven with allusions and references’. But that won´t make non-connoisseurs feel less cheated when they find out that worldwide celebrated authors ‘borrowed’ from previous writers or the extent to which Shakespeare himself drew from prior works by chroniclers and other playwrights. However, why do we know about Shakespeare then, but most people have never heard of Saxo Grammaticus or Belleforest to list but a few of those whose plots and characters (some in turn previously ‘inspired’ in prior works) he copied? Does that imply that if a writer takes from a previous text and improves it he/she makes it his/her own?


Despite the compulsion for novelty that rules the market nowadays, there is nothing really new under the sun. The consumer of culture tends to look for something new and different rather than something better, but forgets that the ultimate aim of literature is mostly the portrayal of the old and unchanging human nature in all its manifestations: love, hatred, jealousy, infidelity, loyalty, violence…

And well, quoting John Erskine: ‘Is it the originality of genius in art to say something no one has ever thought of before, or to say something we all recognise as important and true? As for the question of priority, even stupid things has been said for a first time; do we wear a laurel for being the first to say them?’






TONY HARRISON, a working class poet.

Born into Leeds in 1937. Son of a baker, and a proud member of the working class.

“…the baker’s man that no one will see rise

and England made to feel like some dull oaf

is smoke, enough to sting one person’s eyes

and ash (not unlike flour) for one small loaf”.

tony harrison

He was granted a scholarship for the Leeds Grammar School at 11 and as a result he was dislocated from his background and family. The alienation from his social class and community, and from his loving and rooted upbringing had an effect on him. He went through a process of loss which implied letting go of his Leeds working class vernacular, which he experienced as class colonisation. As he explained it later, he had to confront the internal colonialism of British education, with its marginalisation of the working class by the dominant middle-class culture, a fact which elicited his anger. Harrison is very much concerned with the social, economic, and political implications of the suppression of working-class language by the educated classes. He recounts how his teachers coached him on how to speak “proper” English:

“All poetry (even Cockney Keats?) you see
‘s been dubbed by [us] into RP,
Received Pronunciation, please believe (us)
your speech is in the hands of the Receivers.’

We say ‘(us) not [uz], T.W.!’ That shut my trap.
I doffed my flat a’s (as in ‘Flat cap’)
my mouth all stuffed with glottals, great
lumps to hawk up and spit out … E-nun-ci-ate!”

(Them and [uz])

He borrowed from classical poetry but used his own dialect, themes and characters, all belonging to his working class backgroud. He never allowed middle-class education to engulf him and has always been proud of who he is. Thus, he is regarded as a writer with integrity whose edge hasn’t been dulled by age, and who speaks openly about a wide range of subjects.

In his poetry, controlled metre and rhyme contrast with his use of colloquial language and obscenities:

“Which makes them lose their sense of self-esteem

and taking a short cut home through these graves here

they reassert the glory of their team

This graveyard stands above a worked-out pit.

Subsidence makes the obelisks all list.

One leaning left’s marked FUCK, one right’s marked SHIT

sprayed by some peeved supporter who was pissed.”


Upon Ted Hughes’ death, he was considered as the next poet laureate. Anxious to share his contempt for the position, the wrote “Laureate’s block”:


I’d sooner be a free man with no butts,

free not to have to puff some prince’s wedding,

free to say up yours to Tony Blair,

to write an ode to Charles I’s beheading

and regret the restoration of his heir.


Among so many people who try to climb up the social ladder, sweeping thier origins under the carpet, it is not that easy to find writers who stand tall and announce their proud as Harrison does.

We will never be the same

Migration. We turn the TV on and there it is. We sit on our comfy sofas and watch the lifeless body of a toddler on the seashore. We watch the refrigerated truck, parked alongside a highway, full of corpses, the Hungarian reporter kicking men and women and kids. We watch the desperate families soaking wet under the rain, with their kids weeping beside them, all wrapped in plastic bin bags in order to avoid freezing in the streets, as they are denied a roof by the authorities. We watch fifty people in a rubber boat crossing the strait that separates Africa and Europe. We watch the beaches in Lampedusa, filled with stranded corpses of those who invested all they had in a ticket to nowhere. Then, we hear comments in the street; “why don’t they stay in their country”, “what does it have to do with me”, “not my business”. What a short term memory we have…


guera civil 7

Photo 1: Spaniards in a French concentration camp. 

Photo 2: “illegal” Spanish immigrants captured in Venezuela.

It’s healthy to exercise one’s memory and empathy, and assisted by the writer González de la Cuesta, that is what I’m doing.


“Nunca seremos los mismos” -We’ll never be the same- tells the story of several unforgettable although anonymous characters such as Manuel, Lola, Marga and Rodrigo, and that of well-known Spanish politicians and intellectuals  who belonged to the losing side of the Spanish Civil War: the famous poet Antonio Machado and the president of the Republic, Manuel Azaña. During the war, in the 30s, we witness how Spain becomes an unsafe place for those who lost the war, an they are finally forced into exile. They escape only to find an equally shattered Europe, just about to burst into the Second World War. And they were equally rejected and despised by the French government, who wasn’t at all welcoming. It makes us step down from our oblivious ivory tower by reminding us how it feels:

“they were running away from their defeat, from death, who lurked ominously over them like a shadow (…) and made them feel  like the scum of History. As they were just normal people, professionals who loved their country, their family and their friends (…)”

“nothing made them feel so desolate as the contemplation  (…) of thousands of people struggling to cross the border (…) the French authorities weren’t making much of an effort to aliviate the suffering of those people, who only wanted a safe place to live. What is more, they seem to be willing to thwart the mass influx of Spaniards to their country (…) by beating them up with the butts of their guns”.

Once you enter the world of the diaspora, nothing will ever be the same. You will never be the same. You leave your country behind and try to adapt to a new country, where your culture and your identity are questioned every minute, and the more you adapt -as you must survive- the more you will grow apart from your homeland. It is more so in the case of war-motivated exile. You change, but your country can change dramatically to a point of no return.

This is experienced by Manuel, Rodrigo and Marga. They leave their country to never come back, because their homeland as they once knew it -and loved it- has disappeared forever. With them, we feel the deep pain of such a great loss, together with their fierce struggle for survival and their determination.

In their journey, not only do they face rejection as in France, but also there’s a place for solidarity and transnational support, provided by anonymous individuals who will gain relevance in their lives and the story: Viveka, Mrs.Cameron, Pilar… Cruelty and indiference toward their fate shown by the authorities will be in stark contrast with the kindness they find in other fellow citizens, as usual in real life.

The cities they live in during their escape from Spain are minutely described, and one can imagine life in them during the 30s and 40s, in a wounded Europe and in the U.S. during the attack to Pearl Harbour.

They don’t ever give up, but something has been broken inside as they have been violently uprooted from their home and exposed to uncertainty.


We’ve been there as well, in the same rubber boat, sharing the same spirit, with all those who run away from the atrocity. And was not so long ago. Fleeing from a mortally wounded country, from the systematic violation of basic human rights, from hunger and death, from a fratricide conflict. We were just like them. And our ditches are there to show for it, still full of the corpses of those who couldn’t cross the borders and were killed just there and buried on the spot in mass graves. They are all over Spain. They are just there, under the tarmac. As the saying goes, «Aquellos que no recuerdan el pasado están condenados a repetirlo» -those who forget the past are condemned to repeat it- (Jorge Santayana). It’s good to remember. Let’s remember.

Escritura creativa I: el narrador.

El narrador es quien tiene la palabra en el relato. Sobre él se apoyan monólogos y diálogos. Expone los hechos, describe personajes y escenas -paisajes, ambientes, objetos-, opina, no opina pero observa, habla de sí, o se mantiene al margen de la historia. Hay que elegir el narrador que mejor se ajusta a cada historia según el matiz que se quiera aportar: distancia para darle verosimilitud, cercanía para que se produzca empatía… Es el Yo de la historia, que no es necesariamente la misma persona que el autor. Es una persona literaria. Gracias al narrador, podemos cambiar y viajar desde nuestra posición como lectores a la época y lugar en que ocurre la novela, o del mismo modo, hacer viajar a un hipotético lector cuando contamos una historia.

La elección de un narrador responde a una intención por parte del escritor, para suscribir un determinado punto de vista, un enfoque determinado. No sólo importa lo que el narrador nos revela, sino el tono en que lo hace y el punto hasta el que nos permite entrever los hechos. Existen dos enfoques principales: el narrador extradiegético o heterodiegético, que está fuera de los acontecimientos, en los cuales no participa. Suele tener acceso privilegiado a la mente de uno de los personajes, siendo incapaz de acceder a la mente de los demás; se caracteriza por el uso del discurso indirecto libre: el narrador adopta la voz del personaje pero respeta su propio momento en la narración. En esta modalidad, hallamos la mínima expresión en el narrador de “Las nieves del Kilimanjaro” de Hemingway: una mera voz que registra brevemente y con distacia los acontecimientos; por otro lado, el narrador intradiegético u homodiegético participa dentro de los acontecimientos, como personaje y como narrador externo a la historia, ya sea como protagonista, secundario o testigo. Puede identificarse con un personaje, o con varios. Si es a la vez testigo y narrador, narrando en primera persona transmite cercanía y realidad al lector.


Tradicionalmente, la figura del autor-narrador era más frecuente, a menudo por medio de la figura del transcriptor: una persona encuentra ciertas cartas o diarios narrando los hechos en primera persona; aporta distancia y objetividad a la narración. Este tipo de narrador es omnisciente, teniendo a su disposición toda la información; lo controla y lo sabe todo, tiene acceso a las conciencias de todos los personajes…, en resumidas cuentas, actúa como una especie de demiurgo manipulador o voz en “off”,y por tanto tiene control sobre la respuesta que pretende provocar en el lector. Juzga y supone sin participar del mundo que describe. Suele saber más que los personajes. Sin embargo, puede proporcionar demasiada información, y provocar que los personajes se perciban como menos centrales en la historia (Saramago). Se suele elegir por la sensación de distanciamiento y objetividad y tiene la ventaja de poder cambiar el foco de atención con libertad sin que esto se perciba como una ruptura en la narración.

El narrador organiza el texto según su nivel de omnisciencia, pudiendo preparar el terreno para algo que aún no ha ocurrido, o presentándonos los hechos según van ocurriendo, ya sea de forma lineal, o mediante analepsis (flashbacks) o prolepsis (flashforwards) en la línea argumental. Proporciona determinada información y oculta otra de forma selectiva y siguiendo una intencionalidad. Puede silenciar temporalmente una información para provocar suspense. Hemingway lo llamaba “the iceberg principle”: sólo se debe mostrar una pequeña parte, intuyendo el lector la información subyacente. De esta forma el suspense es siempre mayor. No hay que dar demasiada información.

El narrador puede proporcionar más información al lector que al personaje, y organizar el suspense en torno al momento en que el personaje descubrirá dicha información o, al contrario, de forma que la información es transmitida al lector a través de los personajes.