Is Originality All It’s Cracked Up to Be?

In a review of the William de Kooning exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art (New York City), I came across an interesting quote attributed to the artist:  “In art one idea is as good as another.”  This seems to run contrary to what we always hear about originality.  Everyone seems to prize originality, and artists seem to seek it like the grail, but is originality an over-rated concept intended to mystify what artists, including writers, do? 

I’ve heard it said that every story can be classified into one of a few basic plots (this number seems to vary for one to more than thirty).  What makes stories different from each other are the details and the execution.  If this is true, it would support de Kooning’s thesis: ideas doesn’t necessarily make it art; it’s the execution of the idea that does.

Everyone can tell a story, but only a few people will ever be professional story tellers.  Are my stories any different from anyone else’s stories?  At their most basic level, probably not.  Where my stories differ—hopefully—is in the construction of the plot, the development of the characters, the building of suspense, the deliver of a satisfying climax, and the beauty of the prose.  In essence, being a writer is ultimately about the craft.

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About D. Thomas Minton

Writer of speculative fiction
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4 Responses to Is Originality All It’s Cracked Up to Be?

  1. Marc Schuster says:

    Your point that writing is ultimately about craft is a good one and fits nicely with de Kooning’s point about one idea being as good as the next. Along similar lines, my favorite conversations with writers rarely focus on what their fiction is about. I get the most out of discussing craft with other writers. And with respect to the concept of originality, I like to think of writing as a kind of cultural dialogue — we’re all having this big conversation about what writing should do through the books and stories we create. You write something cool, and it inspires me to write something cool. And that’s how literature evolves. I guess it’s not “originality” in the traditional sense of creating something completely different from anything that’s ever come before, but I’d argue that it’s still a generative process that does, in fact, lead to the creation of new and interesting material.

    • Marc Schuster says:

      And speaking of you writing something cool, I just read “Thief of Futures” and loved it!

      • I’m glad you enjoyed “Thief of Futures.”

        BTW, I read your story “My Life as an Abomination” a few weeks ago. I had no expectations going in, and I found it to be a wonderful story with one of the best narrative voices I’ve read in a long time. I’m looking forward to reading some of your other work when I get the chance (“Leaving the Sasquatch Business” is waiting on my e-reader!).

    • Marc, I think your right about the generative process of writing and creating something new/different and hopefully relevant to the cultural conversation. Without cultural relevance, the only meaning in a story is associated with the basic human condition, which is common across all cultures. It seems that if “originality” lies anywhere, it’s in the details.

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