I was shocked a few years ago when, in a workshop I attended, a thirty-something writer who had already published a book (and has since gone on to publish two much more successful ones) dismissed the opening chapter full of action and sexy, vampire-like creatures that a 20-ish classmate was presenting with just three words.
It’s been done.
I was somewhere between their two ages and thought this was pretty rude of the older writer, though really I didn’t think much at all—I just shot back, “Who cares?”
Isn’t that how we came to have genres, after all? By doing what’s been done before? Genre might be a swear word to some, but such people are the minority of book buyers. Novels from just two genres, Thriller and Romance, combined to outsell the General Fiction category in the U.S. last year; add Mystery, Fantasy, Science Fiction and Horror to the count and it might start to feel silly to write a novel that doesn’t fit into one of these categories. If there weren’t value in familiarity, James Patterson wouldn’t have his own entire shelving unit between O and P at Indigo.
I don’t write what Patterson writes, or what Stephen King, Danielle Steel or George R.R. Martin write, either, but in trying to not go on too long about my new book, if someone asks me to tell them about it I’ll inevitably say it’s kind of like one or more of: Alice Munro’s Lives of Girls and Women, Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio, Steven Leacock’s Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town, Thornton Wilder’s Our Town or S.E. Hinton’s That Was Then, This Is Now.
That’s three collections of linked short stories, one play and one young adult novel, published between 1912 and 1971. Not writing in a genre still doesn’t make you immune to those three words, though, or these four either, which another author recently sneered at me: “I hate Alice Munro.” I don’t know if Ms. Munro is a genre in and of herself yet, but it’s not lost on me that what I’m doing has “been done” before, too.
Except, I’ve never consciously attempted to imitate any of the above texts or writers. I wrote a book of stories that come from where I come from, and though there are some direct references to John Steinbeck novels and to Our Town, these are dog-eared paperbacks and a play that are present in the characters’ lives—and a play, in particular, that many theatre people and drama teachers know most small-town high schools or community theatre troupes can be counted on to trot out every few years.
Our Town found its way into my collection in “Swept Up”, a story that could probably have been built around any other play (and, in an earlier version, was). I used it because it’s part of my own subjectivity: coming from a small town, I happen to have seen Our Town performed and to also know that, in small towns, the name of Grover’s Corners is often changed to the name of the town in which the play’s being performed. I still don’t mean to contend that there’s anything “new” in my story in terms of what it’s really about—a family falling apart just as a teenager starts to hit his stride—but I think it’s the combination of different elements, a different subjectivity, a different writer of a different age writing in a different time that helps me entertain the notion that yes, I am honoring the modernists’ imploring demand to “make it new”.
There’s a funny thing about that whole “make it new” bit, though. Often credited to Ezra Pound, who like his compatriot T.S. Eliot understood a great deal of stealing goes into to one’s writing, the line’s essentially lifted from an anecdote found in a couple of Confucian texts, and probably mistranslated as well; leaning heavily on a French translation of the Chinese to prepare his own American version, Pound rendered “fais-le de nouveau” as both “renovate” (as an earlier English version had) and, in a footnote, “make it new”, leaving aside that to do something de nouveau actually means to do it again.
I didn’t know the truth about “make it new” when I got bent out of shape in that workshop, but it only reinforces my thinking on the matter: who cares if it’s been done? Do it again!
It might be possible to say, “I’m going to be a mystery writer” and then somewhat cynically compile the most common plots, protagonists, twist endings etc. and then decide on the “new” thing you’re going to do in your genre novel. It might also be possible to very cynically say “Stephen King makes tons of money doing this kind of thing, so I’m also going to do that” without thinking much more about it before using one of his books as a template for yours.
But I also think that if you come to your writing honestly, and write what you know, you can’t help but do something new—even if it what you’re doing is something that’s been done before, perhaps even done over and over again. I think it’s like that whole “difference and repetition” thing post-structuralists like Gilles Deleuze were on about. No matter how commodified art becomes, and no matter how pressed you might feel to sell your book to a publisher (and no matter how many times they might say, “No thanks, it’s been done”!), you probably won’t have to go looking for what you’ll do that’s “new”; for one, you’ll likely never find it anyway, but more importantly, “new” is already your default position.
The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book.
Daniel Perry’s first short fiction collection, Hamburger, was published in 2016. His stories have been short-listed for the Carter V. Cooper Prize and appeared in publications in Canada, the U.S., the U.K., and the Czech Republic. He has lived in Toronto since 2006. Nobody Looks That Young Here, a collection of linked stories, is his second book.