Fireside Chat 1: Something You Haven’t Seen Before
A new occasional series which aims to jump-start your ideas by commenting on the arts
Clive Barker (remember him?) once gave a terrific speech about originality. He complained that genre fiction (crime, SF, fantasy, horror) was always accused by critics of being unoriginal but that general fiction never was. Nobody, he said, ever complains that they’ve read about a boy and girl falling in love before.
The difference was that mainstream novels changed according to the voice of the author and genre novels didn’t. Or in other words, genre was not about voice but plot.
Times have moved on. Now we have strong authorial voices in genre fiction. While I was judging the CWA Daggers I had to read a great many books which were unoriginal. Originality decreases popularity. So how do you write something fresh?
In one of two ways; in the first, you adopt a unique viewpoint that either comes from within you, or you assume the guise of an original viewpoint. In the second you simply do the opposite of what’s expected and trust your characters to sort it out.
I believe books must reflect reality, but now I’m going to add a cavil. You can learn from movies. The other day I was watching a 1957 Boulting Brothers film called ‘Brothers In Law’. In it, Ian Carmichael is just starting out as a barrister full of ideals, but he is a bit too keen for his fellow lawyers. It’s a slow, comfortable watch. But one of its ideas struck me as being highly original.
Carmichael is thrown into his first case without any preparation, so much so that he has to ask; ‘Whose side am I on?’, much to the defendant’s consternation. Hollywood would have a specific way of constructing this set piece. It would show the stern judge and the poisonous prosecution lawyer, and have the young barrister beat them by revealing a surprise piece of knowledge. You’ve seen that scene before.
Here’s what happens; Carmichael is clueless and nervous, so the judge helps him out. And when he gets stuck again the prosecution helps him out. And eventually everyone helps him out. And they all get through it together with a communal sigh of relief.
Now that, ladies and gentlemen of the jury, is something you haven’t seen before. Not only that – it fits with our understanding of human nature, that we are all in this together and it makes everyone feel better if we all pitch in.
In a new article in online magazine The Conversation, it’s argued that William Golding’s ‘Lord of the Flies’, which was first published in 1954, largely in response to the rise of Nazism, speaks directly to the world of 2016, where austerity and the refugee crisis, Brexit and the rise of Donald Trump have emboldened nationalist fervour and stoked societal fragmentation.
You may see where I’m going with this. It’s not enough to write an original novel which reflects the status quo. You also need to show what could be done. The moral of ‘Lord of the Flies’ isn’t just that civilisation can quickly descend into barbarity, but that it can also be prevented through commitment to a shared humanity.
In the (frankly terrible) 1970 film ‘Cromwell’, Alec Guinness has one great line. He points out that the trouble with democracy is that it expects extraordinary thinking from ordinary people. If 2016 has one theme, its that the unheard have, for better or worse, found their voice once more.
If you can reflect that startling change in some way, your writing will be timely and original.