The Age of Unoriginality

Guest Post By Phil Duncan

If one reads through the bestsellers lists, reviews the box office numbers, or peruses the iTunes top digital downloads, she will quickly realize that we live in a culture of unoriginality. Not only that, but also that unoriginality sells, and usually sells big. From the incestuous cross-pollination of the music industry—where a Ziggy Stardust bassline shows up in a top 20 hip-hop jam — to the remakes-ad-nauseum in the cineplexes, one is left wondering if there are any original ideas left in art and media. We have Hansel and Gretel sporting semi-automatics and the Wizard of Oz breaking teenaged hearts; even the seemingly sacrosanct Great Emancipator has been spotted spending his spare time slaying the undead and sanguine addicted. With these constant re-hashings, updatings, and re-explorations, where do we draw the line between imaginative re-imaginings and tired, borderline plagiarisms?

The answer to is: we don’t.

As an author guilty himself of a literary remix, I come to the timid defense of this practice by stating that not only are there not many original stories left, but there really haven’t been since the Greeks ceased setting quill to paper. Even stories heralded as landmarks in creative ingenuity, such as C.S. Lewis’s Narnia series, feature such overt references to the New Testament that the stories are basically pulled straight from the papyrus. And as for the New Testament itself… exploration of its source material is fodder for another article penned by a smarter person than I.

When I sat down to write my novel Wax, I wanted to re-visit Shelley’s Frankenstein, the original work of the undead. I was growing weary of the mindless, brain-hungry resurrected, and began to feel as though Shelley’s own creation was becoming unfairly lumped into this genre. Ask a teenager what he thinks when Frankenstein is mentioned and his response will likely be something along the lines of a big, green, grunting, flat-topped creature with bolts in its neck. What he — and most others — forget is that the monster of Shelley’s Frankenstein — the original Frankenstein — is an articulate, calculating, oddly well-read monster that juggles quite the gauntlet of existential questions throughout the story. So if Frankenstein has been remade and remixed into something completely different from its source over the last century, I saw it as a worthwhile pursuit to once again re-imagine this story and bring it full circle. Give me a monster pulled from the dead with a brain in his head and I’ll show you the types of problems he encounters.

Am I just as guilty as everyone else? Yes. And I see no issue with this. Because as writers and creators in the digital era, most of us were raised on sampling, remixing, and the ever growing “groupmind.” We don’t see ourselves as unoriginal or as plagiarists. We see our work as adding another facet to an existing mythology; fully exploring toeholds in the source material that were barely touched upon in the original. We’re repurposing the original to raise questions about and to even parody it. And it is through these thoughtful and creative re-imaginings and re-explorations that the purest originality lives today.

Phil Duncan is the author of Wax, a young-adult novel published by RainTown Press, as well as of various short fiction published both in print and online. He is a graduate of Goddard College’s Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing program and the University of Washington’s English program. Duncan is a former Jacob K. Javits Fellow and recently served as a Creator-in-Residence at the Tokyo Wonder Site-Aoyama in Tokyo, Japan. He currently lives in Portland, OR.


Posted on May 8, 2013, in Blogging Authors, Publicity & Writing. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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