Originality and the Serious Writer

The “serious writer” is a concept that haunts the literary world. Even the kindest and least judgmental literary types I know, in unguarded moments of frankness, will express their views on the nature of the serious writer. Our favorite outspoken critics do it all the time in caustic terms.

Why “serious”? The word crops up, over and over again, with enough insistence that even though I dislike it, I’m inclined to take it, well, seriously. “Serious writing,” “serious literature,” “serious writer.” A glance at the word’s etymology shows it to be rooted in concepts of slowness, heaviness, importance; opposed to lightness, to jesting. Obviously plenty of writers designated “serious” are not unsmiling bores who refuse to crack a joke, so I think the slowness, heaviness, importance of the serious writer are qualities of their goal or purpose, or of their overall achievement in writing, rather than qualities of their sentences or of the personality of their authorial voice. Plenty of people take François Rabelais to have been a serious writer, for instance, even though The Life of Gargantua and Pantagruel has the highest rate of fart-jokes per chapter I’ve ever encountered. So let’s dispense with facile objections to the word itself, and try to consider what readers and critics and writers are really getting at when they distinguish the serious from the unserious.

Here are the theories of seriousness I’ve most frequently encountered:

  • The Serious Writer takes pains over — and achieves — a special style.

  • The Serious Writer expresses or critiques the distinctive values of their era and society.

  • The Serious Writer serves the correct ideological programme (whatever one takes that to be).

  • The Serious Writer speaks for some prophetic demographic — whether a specific generation, or an intellectual elite, or the aesthetically sensitized, or some type or cross-section of the subaltern.

  • The Serious Writer participates in the evolution of their tradition, demonstrating continuity with it but also pushing it in new directions.

Yesterday, as I was listening to an acquaintance expound their belief in theory #2 above, I asked myself what I believe. It’s one of those questions that addresses itself to intuition or preconception more than to reasoned conclusion, because I suspect many readers and writers already harbor a gut answer. I certainly did. The theory of seriousness that surfaced in my depths surprised me, though it also made sense to me of some of my more eccentric opinions about how to be a writer and live a literary life. So here’s what I discovered that I think:

The serious writer says something new.

The moment this sentence occurred to me, I remembered something V.S. Naipaul wrote. So I burrowed through my notes until I found it. He wrote (in one of the essays collected in Literary Occasions):

Writing has always to be new; every talent is always burning itself out. […] Literature is the sum of its discoveries. What is derivative can be impressive and intelligent. It can give pleasure and it will have its season, short or long. But we will always want to go back to the originators. What matters in the end in literature, what is always there, is the truly good. And — though played-out forms can throw up miraculous sports . . . what is good is always what is new, in both form and content. What is good forgets whatever models it might have had, and is unexpected; we have to catch it on the wing.

This is useful, because Naipaul seems to believe something similar to what I do, but different enough that it helps me refine my own intuition on the subject. I dislike some of his equivalencies — for example, I wouldn’t say that what is new (nor what is “serious” for that matter) is equivalent to “the truly good.” The other qualities he mentions — impressiveness, intelligence, pleasurableness — also seem good to me. But another thing he says — that “literature is the sum of its discoveries” — unlocked some thoughts for me.

I already hold this view about philosophy. I concluded, as I was studying philosophy in graduate school, that the best philosophers fill unoccupied places in the logical space of the various problems they address. For instance, the question, “is it ever right to lie?” has a logical space of two possible answers and lots of different reasons one might adduce for them. To make a philosophical contribution to the ethical problem of lying, therefore, was to find and fill some previously unfilled logical space — to elaborate an original position on the problem. You don’t necessarily have to endorse the new position you have found (you might think some other, pre-existing position is the correct one) but you do have to provide a satisfying account of a new position, one that future philosophers have to take into account if they want to defend a position like the one you found or to rebut it. I’m particularly fond of philosophers with the negative capability to develop original positions that they don’t believe, out of a sheer explorer’s ambition to map the logical space — like Kierkegaard, say, with his pseudonyms. Obviously philosophical originality is an increasingly difficult task, especially with issues — like the ethics of lying — that have been discussed in great detail for thousands of years. On the other hand, philosophy does toss up new questions — for instance, new technologies give ethicists new problems — and also it develops in a fractal way, constantly refining and sub-dividing the big questions in ways that allow us to take new positions on them, or to find different reasons for existing positions.

But the fact remains that it was easier, in a certain sense, to be Aristotle than to be Wittgenstein. Aristotle just had to say anything at all about a bunch of his topics to fill an original logical space; Wittgenstein had to practically burst his brain to come up with original ideas about language and logic. (Although the kind of linguistic analysis Wittgenstein ended up pioneering proved to be such a fertile way to progress in philosophy — that is, to find and fill new logical spaces, and indeed to find new philosophical problems — that it completely dominated the next generation of English philosophy.)

Anyway, the point is: even before I started asking myself about “serious writers,” I had a prototype for the idea that originality is the objective of a certain kind of intellectual endeavor. Lots of philosophers would disagree with my view of philosophy, by the way. But then lots of philosophers would disagree about literally anything.

What could it mean to be new or original in literature? After all, virtually every story, poem, or essay is original in the sense that it constitutes a new and never-before-written set and sequence of words. (Apart from plagiarized texts, that is.) Putting together such a set and sequence is trivially easy. So if I associate originality with seriousness in writing, I must mean something else.

Things are about to get wishy-washy and mystical. I apologize in advance; this always seems to happen when one talks about literature.

I think the originality of serious writing is the distillation in words of an original point of view. Not a point of view in the narratological sense, in the sense writers mean when they say, “that story is written in third-person POV.” I mean a point of view, instead, which constitutes a certain way of looking at the world, a certain affective and intellectual way of reacting to experience.

Again, you might object that everybody possesses an original point of view in this sense, and that, therefore, it should be trivially easy to become a serious writer. But I think you would be wrong. True, everyone possesses an original point of view; but not everyone can express it, and much less elaborate an original point of view they don’t, themselves, possess (like a philosopher elaborating a position in logical space they don’t themselves endorse). While I believe, looking around me at other people, that every single one of them possesses an inalienable individuality, I find that most people express themselves in similar ways. This homogeneity only increases as the abstraction and technical difficulty of the form of expression increases: people are a little bit similar when they tell their everyday stories about work and family and so on; they are even more similar when they express themselves formally, giving a prepared speech or writing a letter or email, or making proclamations on their social media feeds; and they are most similar when they assay the settled forms of literary expression, writing a story or poem, reviewing a book. It is very hard to draw up out of the well of individual experience a unique point of view in writing, and those who manage to do so — like philosophers who manage to find and fill an unoccupied part of the logical space of their problem — set the coordinates, define the edges and possibilities, of literature as an overall historical project.

It follows that if one is interested in being a serious writer, one should be on the lookout for cliches. Not just cliched phrases, but cliched thoughts and reactions, cliched forms and patterns, the cliches of narrative trope and contagious opinion. Cliches at all levels of writing are the easily-caught viruses that suffocate a writer’s capacity to express an original point of view. I think a lot of the choices I’ve made were unconsciously aimed at ridding my own writing of the encumbrance of cliches. (I’m not saying that I’ve succeeded.) That’s why, from a very young age, I decided it would be better to come at writing slant, not through creative writing programs and courses but through the detour into philosophy. That’s why I prefer to read translated fiction, I think, rather than the newest English-language novels that all my friends are talking about — the further out of my context the majority of stuff I pour into my brain, the less likely it will be, I wager, to infect me with cliches. And that’s the reason I have an increasingly visceral reaction to social media. I’ve watched the original point of view of literary friends wilt and die in their writing as they become infected by the argot of twitter, dominated by its fads, inside-jokes, and organizing polemics.

Is it really worth organizing your life to improve the chances that you will be able to express an original point of view? Doesn’t it risk alienating you, in fact, from supportive communities and collective projects for the common good? Who cares if you become a serious writer? Some of my favorite living writers — some of them friends — don’t give two shits about originality, writing stories and essays that give vast pleasure to their readers despite open reliance on storytelling models and stylistic predecessors that anybody can recognize. And there’s nothing wrong with that. Yet I can’t shake the aspiration in my own heart to be “a serious writer,” in the sense I’ve outlined. Is it snobbery? The suspect competitiveness of masculinity? Narcissism? I’d like to let myself off the hook and say it’s an aspiration for my writing grown directly from my reading. Literature has been my lodestar for sixteen years now, and while I would be delighted simply to enjoy it until I die and to contribute enjoyable but unoriginal diversions to its vast body, my very love spurs me toward the hope of expanding its possibilities too.

I wrote all this as a private document to sort out my own thoughts, but now that I reread it I’m curious if readers of this blog have things to say on the subject, so I’m going to post it.