Tracing influences

TS Eliot said

Mediocre writers borrow. Great writers steal.

I have, on order, a book entitled Steal Like an Artist: 10 Things Nobody Told You About Being Creative by Austin Kleon. I’m interested in the idea of stories being recycled but also in the idea of plagiarism (am writing a new manuscript which has plagiarism as a central theme.)

Many people have said there are only seven basic storylines, eg the quest, love found and lost, coming of age, going into the woods, or something. I can’t be bothered looking up my reference. So we are all telling the same stories over and over just in different ways.

When I looked over some recent readings of Australian novels, I’ve seen direct links (possibly imagined) to earlier seminal works: To Kill a Mockingbird for example. Two books I’ve read in the last few years have had the odd eccentric hermit scary man living alone who freaks kids out. Those books ALSO had kids in peril, with either dead or bad mothers, bad or disappeared fathers. (The only good mother seems to be dead. All alive mothers are bad/distant/mean/damaged/neglectful/selfish. Constantly recurring characterisations.) Then last year, I read another kids-in-peril debut novel but it flipped it around a bit; it had a threatening adult who really was threatening but thankfully the author resisted the cliched possibilities and handled it with restraint. Tim Winton’s Eyrie also has a kid in peril, so even the ‘greats’ can be tempted by these ideas that seem so common these days, especially in debut fiction.

Even the literature I adore sometimes seems to have been inspired by other influences (that I have also enjoyed.) Eg Dead Poet’s Society was released in 1989. The Secret History by Donna Tartt in 1992. I watched The History Boys a couple of nights ago – that came out in 2006. Wow. Talk about seeing the stepping stones (and someone on a blog mentioned that they saw a connection with Lord of the Flies, eg Bunny = Piggy, which is interesting, I can see that.) But that’s okay. Nothing, it seems, is truly original. Maybe Dead Poet’s drew inspiration from Goodbye Mr Chips? It’s so long since I saw that movie so I can’t say. But there would have been something that triggered the idea. Is it true that imitation is the highest form of flattery? Maybe. Maybe it’s about who does it best and that is the challenge.

Some writers deliberately don’t read anything that is similar or covers the same themes to the ones they are writing about. I get that. You don’t want to be influenced consciously or unconsciously, you want to do your thing and be able to say – if anyone comments – Oh, really? I didn’t read that.

As for Eliot’s quotation above, I’m not exactly sure what he means. Does it mean if you do it better that the person you stole it from, it becomes yours and everyone remembers you for the idea, not the original person? What is the difference between borrowing and stealing when we are talking about ideas for novels? It’s a pretty fraught topic but let’s face it, as time goes on, and more and more books are published, and more and more ideas are recycled, it’s going to be increasingly hard to be original. (I guess fantasy & sci-fi writers don’t have this problem as much, but there would be paths of influence there as well.)

4 thoughts on “Tracing influences

  1. Perhaps when borrowing, the writer acknowledges the original owner but when stealing, they melt down the metaphorical silver and reshape it as their own.

  2. Ace post Jenny. I don’t really know what that quote means either but I do agree that there are a limited number stories and artists (of all kinds) just need to find different ways of telling them. And when they achieve that, it stands out, it’s memorable and it feels original to the audience. A perfect example is the book I’ve just finished – Just_a_girl by Kirsten Krauth – it’s a modern Puberty Blues but the voices are spot-on for now and fresh.

    1. Hi Kate, thanks for the comment. I know of Kirsten, she and I share agents (!) I’m aware of all the good press her novel is getting which is fabulous. It’s not on my list because I don’t think it’s the sort of thing I would usually read. But thanks for the reco!

      And in the original post I had reference by name to a big commercial success from 2013 which has attracted comment about the protagonist’s closeness to a character from a TV show. The author said they’d never seen the show and did not know that character. So, who can say?

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