Superversive: When Originality Goes Sour

A guest blog on my wife’s journal by Suzannah Rowntree, author of PENDRAGON’S HEIR, who offers her opinions and conclusions concerning when craving for originality in art oversteps itself, and shoulders love of beauty aside:

Originality. It’s one of the sacred cows of contemporary art and storytelling. As it appears, a successful attempt at originality is one of our most important measuring-sticks of artistic worth, while nothing kills an author’s confidence or an audience’s enthusiasm faster than being told your work is unoriginal.

Instead, we’re led to believe, the only art worth its salt is art that adds something to the world, art that does something new and unexpected. So we live for the genre-busting novel, the shocking plot twist, the authors who demonstrate their artistic independence and fearless vision by desecrating temples and killing heroes.

The central demand is one for novelty. We expect to be surprised. We expect something we’ve never seen before.

And I’ve come to believe that this hankering for originality is a bad thing.

Now I don’t mean to argue for artistic laziness. I happen to believe there’s a huge scope for surprise, plot twists, diversity, and high artistic quality in unoriginality. But we have come to the place where our desire for innovation has morphed into a destructive monster. This is apparent in all the arts. A few years ago I read a really quite hilarious article from no less honoured a pulpit than the Huffington Post, bewailing the decline in Beethoven’s popularity over the last one or two centuries. When Beethoven’s music first made its appearance, performances were packed. Everyone raved about how transgressive the music was, its daring use of discord overturning what had gone before. Today, Beethoven concerts are snoozefests. What, the Huffington Post asked with apparently sincere puzzlement, had happened?

But isn’t the answer obvious? Someone came along who was more transgressive than Beethoven. By easy steps, we came to twelve-tone music on one hand, and Freddie Mercury on the other, and the currency of shock value was debased to the point where it took three minutes of John Cage listening to the audience’s shuffling to really sell out a concert.

Contrast that with one of the few remaining bastions of unoriginality in modern-day storytelling: the romance novel. The genre recipe is quite simple: there must be a hero and a heroine, and they must fall in love and live happily ever after. No one picks up a romance novel because they want to be surprised by a twist ending. In fact, the guaranteed destination is the whole point. There may certainly be twists and turns during the journey, we may certainly wonder how the mess of misunderstandings, grudges, and stubbornnesses keeping the hero and heroine apart will ever be resolved, but we are never really in doubt that at the end of it all, evil will be punished, good will be rewarded, and the prince and princess will ride off to live happily ever after.

Now a foregone conclusion is not something our culture generally rewards with high artistic accolades. Who is the most highly-acclaimed popular fantasy author of our age? George RR Martin, whose reputation is largely built upon his allergies to traditional heroism. A dedicated subversive writer, Martin kills off his most overtly heroic characters when his audience least expects it, sours his most idealistic characters, and enjoys the challenge of making his downright villainous characters sympathetic.

Martin is no doubt good at what he does, but for the superversive author, a different paradigm is necessary. A superversive story may be dark and even disturbing (CS Lewis’s That Hideous Strength comes to mind) but the evil is always evil, not misunderstood, and the good is always heroic, not tragically naïve. A superversive story may be in some sense original; it may surprise, delight, and astound its audience, but its currency is not ultimately shock value or novelty. Rather, its currency might better be described, in Lewis’s words, as Stock Responses.

If you’ve read CS Lewis’s essay The Abolition of Man, you know what I mean. If you’ve never read that essay, do get yourself a copy. In that work Lewis slams modern education as a sham and a farce that produces well-trained but morally incompetent men, “men without chests.” His novel That Hideous Strength dramatises this essay in the character of Mark Studdock, of whom it is said that “in Mark’s mind hardly one rag of noble thought, either Christian or Pagan, had a secure lodging. His education had been neither scientific nor classical—merely ‘Modern’… and the first hint of a real threat to his bodily life knocked him sprawling.”

The solution, in Lewis’s view…

Well, dear reader, you must read the column to discover what was the solution, in Lewis’s view.