Beer Is Not Juice; The Questionable Value of Originality

Ok, so check out my bad-ass new plot: A poor farm boy, orphaned at a young age, discovers on his sixteenth birthday that he has unusual abilities. Then a mysterious and malevolent stranger appears, a black-cloaked man on a black horse. The boy flees, but not before his foster-parents reveal his hitherto unsuspected parentage, and…

Wait, what? Tolkien already has a black-cloaked man on a black horse? David Eddings has one, too? And Robert Jordan? Dammit. Well, at least I have my farm boy. What?? Eddings has a farm boy, too? And Jordan? I hate writing fantasy. I quit.

For those of you who hope to avoid my pain, here’s a quiz that will tell you just how original (or un-) your prospective novel will be. It includes questions such as the following:

Who serves as comic relief in your group?

a)     a court jester or clown

b)    a bumbling magician

c)     a talking animal

d)    a chubby person, dwarf, or an obnoxiously conceited rich person

e)     none of the above

You can decide for yourself which is the most novel answer, but I’ll give you a hint: it’s not a, b, c, or d.

In fact, if you wanted to concoct the most original fantasy novel ever written, you could compile a list of all the relevant clichés – magic swords, white dudes on dragons, villains whose names begin with Z or M – then systematically purge those elements from your book. Once you’ve removed all prophecies, quests, orphans, monsters, and magic you will have something utterly new. But here’s the thing – will it still be fantasy? No one will accuse your book of re-treading Tolkienesque ground. The work is absolutely original. Only, maybe originality isn’t an absolute virtue.

We didn’t always revere originality. Imagine if Luke had glanced over the gospel of Mark and thought, “Well shit, this guy already wrote about Jesus.” Or if Michelangelo skipped his Pietà because it was, you know, old news. Or if Shakespeare who, not wanting to retread ground already well-stomped by Saxo Grammaticus and Belleforest, skipped Hamlet to write “Jim and the Red Shoe.” And don’t get me going about the sonnet or the minuet. I picture Bach in Leipzig thinking, “Well, I was going to write another mass, but fuck it. I want to do something new.”

This isn’t to say that originality is bad. The joy of listening to a Bach ciaconne or Alannis Morissette’s outstanding cover of My Humps lies partially in discovering the myriad ways in which the artist can remake a familiar genre or form. But then, in order to remake a genre, there must be something there, something necessary and essential, to remake.

As I write, I’m drinking an unusual beer from one of my favorite breweries, Dogfish Head. It’s an IPA brewed with apricots. It’s original. It’s good. I appreciate the unusual take on a classic brew. I would be pissed, however, if Dogfish Head had pawned off on me an entire bottle of apricot juice. That would be even more original, more unexpected, but it wouldn’t be an IPA. When I drink an IPA I expect the beer to fall within certain parameters of hoppiness and maltiness, and the fun lies in seeing what the brewers can come up with inside of those parameters.

As Robert Frost famously said, “Writing free verse is like playing tennis with the net down.” I think he’s off the mark on free verse, but the point is that structure and expectation can bring pleasure and purpose to games and art alike. Watching Federer and Nadal idly bat tennis balls in random directions would get dull pretty quickly. We enjoy the game – playing it and watching it – because of the net and the lines.

The hoary old tropes of fantasy, even its clichés, are the net. They condition our expectations and allow us to appreciate the virtuosity of the writer. This isn’t to say that every fantasy needs to have dragons, or magic swords, or ancient prophecies, but the writer who, in the quest for absolute originality, purges all vestiges of tradition from her novel is writing something else, something that is no longer fantasy. Police procedurals, maybe. Or instruction manuals.

So I say, bring on the country tunes involving tractors and heartbreak! Bring on the hoppy IPAs! Bring on the white wedding dresses! I’m ok keeping six strings on the guitar and gin in my martini. The question for all of us, I suppose, is this: Which tropes in fantasy make the genre what it is? What, if anything, can we not do without?

6 thoughts on “Beer Is Not Juice; The Questionable Value of Originality

  1. Wow, I was just thinking about this the other day! It was really bugging me because whenever I came up with something new, it always seemed to have a root in some other book…but I suppose that is not bad. This article did much to finally convince me of that. Anyway, my two cents. I would say there are a few main things that define Fantasy as a genre. First off, the story usually takes place in a separate time or world, the default or most common being a world based off of Medieval Europe. This is perhaps the most the most overarching and eminent feature of any fantasy novel, for it is the keenly imagined world which primarily draws people in, and, in many ways, adds invaluable depth to the characters inhabiting said book. Of course, the venerable Lord of the Rings is a prime example of this: because Middle Earth’s history seems so believable, the characters feel so as a result. Second, nearly every Fantasy novel features characters pitted against overwhelming odds. There’s a good old saying that come to mind: hardship brings out the best and the worst in people. This makes Fantasy such an engaging genre, for even amidst all the magic and monsters, the human spirit still triumphs (or shows how weak it can be). Even for all the supernatural, I would say much of what makes fantasy fantasy is quite human and real. And finally, the third aspect: the supernatural. This may be a fairly obvious one, but it is defining nonetheless. Even in science fiction novels, which I see as a genre inextricably linked to fantasy, that abnormal element takes a front seat, whether it be some piece of lost technology or the unknown reaches of the void. In respect to what you said about things being too similar to other books, I think writing is similar to art in many ways. Thousands of artist can all draw that dark, cloaked rider you mentioned, but every single picture will be different from the next. I think its about injecting your own style into what you write. If a writer is going to include a talking animal for comic relief, he could do it in his own unique way.

    • These seem like really sensible parameters, although I might narrow your list of three down to two. I’m convinced by the separate world and supernatural provisions, but I’m not sure characters need to struggled against overwhelming odds. There seems to be a strain of fantasy now in which there isn’t a force of absolute evil (I’m thinking Joe Abercrombie here, and maybe Scott Lynch). Conflict becomes more local and specific, with the characters struggling against one another (and themselves) rather than against The Dark One or Sauron or whatever. While I enjoy books that involve impossible odds, I think this new variant has been good for the genre, opening up all sorts of new plot possibilities…

      Thanks for the comment!

    • I wouldn’t worry! A lot of people I’ve talked to have been at either 0 or low single digits. The quiz seems slanted toward a very traditional notion of fantasy….

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