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.

8 thoughts on “Originality and the Serious Writer

  1. I agree! I do think that to succeed in one’s own time, one needs novelty. But as time passes, one becomes notable less for one’s own innovations, but for how well one represents an entire time. For instance, I love Sei Shonagan’s THE PILLOW BOOK. It’s part of an entire genre of 11th century diaries by Japanese noblewomen. Was it new? I have no idea. Is it a particularly good example of such a diary? I also don’t know! It’s new to me because these diaries are very different and interesting (I’ve read two, this one and the Sarashina Diary, and there’s one attributed to Lady Murasaki that’s also popular, but my understanding is that dozens exist). The same is true of, say. Shakespeare. Is the differential between him and other Elizabethans as great as we make it out to be? I don’t really know.

    Which is to say, that what we regard as a ‘serious’ writer is largely formed by our impressions about the aims of the writers of the past, but many of the virtues we impute to them are probably not as unique to them as we imagine–they’re merely the survivors of a lost time, and sometimes their survivorship is a matter of luck rather than novelty. For instance Philip K Dick is regarded as the most ‘serious’ of the hallucinogenic sixties and seventies sci-fi writers, but his fame is primarily due to the commercial success of BLADE RUNNER. He’s a great writer, but if someone had made a successful movie out of STAND ON ZANZIBAR or BUG JACK BARRON, then maybe their authors would’ve taken the space in our culture that’s now reserved for Dick. Which is to say, I think that authors strive to be new and different, but sometimes they’re valued most because they’re a pure expression of their own time.

    1. I’m sure you’re right about the contingency of historical acclaim. Like you, I suspect it’s pretty random who stands out from the distance of centuries among a host of writers doing similar things. Shakespeare’s a great example, since the cult of reverence for him owes more, if I understand the reception history properly, to German and French romantics than to the assessment of his contemporaries or near posterity.

      But I think maybe the discourse about “serious writing” has less to do with fame than with something else. Often the people who get the most praise for their seriousness aren’t all that popular — often they’re the writer’s writers, the highly respected and little read; and sometimes being called a “serious writer” almost sounds like a consolation prize. But I guess part of what I’m clumsily groping at in this little essay is that the ill-defined nature of “seriousness” opens a door to talk about virtues of literature beyond the ones we’re all familiar with — beyond popularity or economic success or award-winningness or whatever. Whether they are truly “serious” seems to be a question that often plagues massively famous bestselling writers, for example.

      I’m reminded of something you wrote on your own blog a few days ago, when you mentioned that you don’t think rewriting changes the reception of a book very much, but you rewrite your own books over and over anyway, just because that makes them better. That strikes me as a very “serious writer” sort of attitude to have — that attachment to writing which maybe you even find a little annoying in yourself, that attachment to it as something of value in itself, something worth doing as well as you can even if the extra effort has no noticeable outward effect. That’s exactly the sort of commitment to expressing an individual point of view that I’m talking about as characteristic of seriousness, and it seems admirable to me.

  2. Your thoughts seem fairly similar to mine, in that I’ve long thought of “distinctiveness” as a synonym for “literary value”. I think of it as having a voice versus not having a voice, and when I read I’m listening for the voices. But it’s a broadly applied differentiation criteria that is as much about the difference between what makes a book worth reading at all and what makes a book a characterless chunk of polystyrene, and about the way it so often seems to be the books within a genre that give you a little something in excess of what they needed to give to meet genre requirements that actually give you the excitement or entertainment that the genre is known for but doesn’t always deliver, as it is about the difference between goodness and greatness.

    A hazy metaphor is another way I think about literary value and achievement. To be more wishy-washy and mystical than you, there’s a surface like an ice rink and an underworld of meaning and truth, a sort of spiritus mundi, I suppose. To tell a story with distinctiveness means to move across the surface and magnetically attract the material towards you. To tell a story with distinctiveness but without genius might mean to trace lightly, attracting only thin strands to the surface but creating a neat pattern which does have the material underneath to lend resonance and truth to its lines. Or it might be to attract a large clump of matter that you then drag around clumsily, not doing it justice but having got hold of something so real that you can’t help but be interesting, if frustrating. To combine density of material attracted and the fineness with which it is worked is the greatest achievement, or at least the one that I associate with the stereotypically defined Great Writers. But then it may find itself sitting on the shelf next to the two previous examples if the clump is big and compelling or the pattern intricate, enough that they attract affection and inspire further exploration. Originality and distinct voice does have something to do ability to connect with that world of meaning but perhaps it’s not always easy to see why that should be so when by meaning I mean the animation of archetypes and the appeal to universal emotions of gladness and grief. The relation of the particular to the general can be mysterious.

    To the very limited extent of my experience, I would say that to write distinctively is to concentrate as much as possible while you write on the thing you’re writing about.

    1. Thank you for your thoughts, and the lovely way you put them.

      I think connecting distinctiveness / having a voice to concentrating on the thing you’re writing about is the entire crux of the matter. That’s the whole game, from the writer’s point of view.

      Perhaps the subterranean world of meaning can be accessed by distinctive voices because the archetypal is not so much a generalization to be connected to the particulars of writing as it is a set of qualities that can only belong to the individual. Just to take grief, which you mention, as an example, it seems to me I can only grieve for what is individual. Grief in its fullest sense is an affective response to the death of a singular nexus of meaning, something mortal, limited, specific in every sense. To me, its universality (or perhaps we should say — its repetition) is more mysterious than its connection to the particular.

      Hmm. Much food for thought, thank you.

  3. I probably don’t think of it as serious writing, though a good a name as any, but I do struggle to find something worthwhile to say and a way to say it. Which if you squint is related to your idea of original point of view. I’m not sure how to get there, how anyone gets there, but I agree reading at the periphery, its own reward, may also be instructive. Joyce Carol Oates in ‘On Boxing’, and even making this comparison seems self-indulgent, captures what it might mean to try (and also hints at my deep down feeling of writing as pain).  

    “Boxers are there to establish an absolute experience, a public accounting of the outermost limits of their beings; they will know, as few of us can know of ourselves, what physical and psychic power they possess—of how much, or how little, they are capable. To enter the ring near-naked and to risk one’s life is to make of one’s audience voyeurs of a kind: boxing is so intimate. It is to ease out of sanity’s consciousness and into another, difficult to name. It is to risk, and sometimes to realize, the agony of which agon (Greek, “contest”) is the root.”

    1. Well, quoting Joyce Carol Oates is always a good way to get me to pay attention, since I’m obsessed with her.

      I don’t think you have to squint at all to see how the struggle to find something worth saying — which, I presume, means, among other things, something that hasn’t been said ad nauseam already by others — is related to an original point of view. I’m intrigued by the idea that a “serious” writer is engaged in “a public accounting of the outermost limits of their being” — I don’t quite understand what that means, to be honest, but it has the ring of truth!

  4. Out of a deep, eternally hopeful but ritually disappointed love for the essay form (and, it is to be admitted, a neurotic need to Keep Up With Things) I find myself reading a lot of literary criticism and political writing. So, I’m really never not thinking about the problem of cliche, and your observations about it have pushed me to the edge of wanting something impossible — wanting, of course, to say something original regarding cliche. What’s easy to say is, apparently, difficult NOT to say, and it keeps being said; it’s always astonished me that so few people who are really interested in ideas have an aversion to cliche. (My aversion to it is so emotional it’s almost impossible to explain critically.) It’s understandable, I suppose, in journalism. but why are so many journalists praised as “essayists?” Of course, it’s possible to do journalism well. but if I have to read another article about Orwell I may have to put my head in a bag. I guess it comes down to this – why are sociology, politics, “culture” (I reach for my revolver, yes) interesting, but so little writing about those subjects interesting at all? Is it that only a novel can approach the political without cliche – I’m thinking of Krasznahorkai’s BARON WENCKHEIM’S HOMECOMING, or Vargas Llosa’s CONVERSATION IN THE CATHEDRAL. Do some subjects just have a force field of cliche surrounding them, like the public speaking you referred to? (Much political writing and criticism is attempting to be a form of public speaking, and running into cliche thereby.) In one of my very old notebooks I have a quotation from Mary McCarthy, from which of her essays I’m uncertain – “Who has ever described anything to you but a character?” Does creating a characterological voice permit cliche to be transcended? I haven’t much to contribute, I’m afraid, but it’s refreshing to see someone as vexed by the subject as I am.

    1. I really like that line from McCarthy, and I find myself trying to work out why it seems true. For one thing, when a character notices and describes something in their environment, it does stick with me more vividly than when fictional description isn’t motivated by the noticing of a character. (I once heard this bluntly summed up by an old wise hack writer: “if you want a reader to notice the beautiful stonework on your fictional belfry, put a sniper in it.”) But it’s strange to think this kind of motivated description would be a way out of cliche, because that way of noticing things in everyday life is the great source of cliche — seizing upon things for their use to us, assimilating them into our dreary carousel of needs and desires, and failing to notice their individuality. (I’m sure that’s why political speeches are so cliche-ridden, as you rightly point out. Their whole function is to sound a series of Pavlovian bells, necessarily cliche, to raise and manipulate desire in many people at once.) Maybe what escapes cliche in the motivated noticing of a character is the character themselves — they are somehow individuated by what they describe.

      It’s interesting to me how the proposals for cliche-evasion from two of you in these comments offer diammetrical advice: fascetiousnights suggets the trick is maximal concentration on the thing you’re writing about (and therefore, presumably, a minimum of self-consciousness), while you suggest characterological description, or, I venture to paraphrase, an extremity of consciousness of the self doing the describing.

      I’m inclined to think you’re both right. That cliches proliferate in the middle distance, in inattentiveness, easy mode, the myopic slurry. And that to notice what makes a thing the thing it is and not another thing requires being the one you are and not another — and that’s so hard, making contact like that from the depth of the self with the real outside, so to speak. Language almost seems to interpose itself. And you almost have to break it or break through it to say something new.

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