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?

SHAKES

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?’

 

Sources:

JSTOR

THE NORTON ANTHOLOGY OF THEORY AND CRITICISM

 

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