With demand and availability of novels increasing, there is a tendency to lean towards the narrative that this leads to ‘watered down literature’ - is there really such a thing as original writing anymore? Heather Slevin argues that yes, there is.
‘Original writing’ can mean many things: originality in plot, character, style, narrative, dialogue, invention. But what is originality in the 21st century, when books and media are so widely available and the demand for such things is still increasing?
Take Beauty and the Beast, for example. Published in 1740 by French author Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve, this story is still widely popular. There are more than two hundred and twenty-five retellings of the tale of Beauty and her beast, and those are only the ones listed on popular literary sites. The most recent popular retelling of the tale has been Sarah J. Mass’s 2015 novel, A Court of Thorns and Roses, which was quickly followed by Brigid Kemmerer’s A Curse so Dark and Lonely, published in 2019. The plot of A Court of Thorns and Roses (shortened to ACOTAR by fans) follows nineteen-year-old Feyre, who, after killing a wolf, is dragged into a new realm by a beast demanding retribution.
The ‘beast’ in this version must also be freed by true love, cursed by an evil enchantress. ‘Belle’ is captured by him, and over time the characters fall in love, and the curse is broken. Similarly, in A Curse so Dark and Lonely, the main character, Harper, is kidnapped by Prince Rhen’s henchman, Grey. An evil enchantress has cursed the Prince and the curse can only be broken by true love. Again, the two characters fall in love, and the curse is broken.
At their core, these two novels contain many similar elements. The idea is not original - an evil enchantress, a curse broken by true love, and two characters who fall in love in order to escape their fates. But it is the writing that makes these stories original. Harper, from A Curse so Dark and Lonely, has cystic fibrosis. She struggles to adapt from the modern world to this traditional, medieval setting, and the love story between her and Rhen is inspiring. Feyre, on the other hand, is a skilled hunter and painter, and the love story between her and Tamlin grows as their understanding of each other grows. The writing in both these stories is incredibly original and contains things not at all seen in the original tale. ACOTAR has sold more than six million times worldwide and was recently announced to be adapted as a Hulu show. A Curse so Dark and Lonely landed Brigid Kemmemer on the New York Times bestselling list in February 2019 for the first time in her nine-year publishing career.
These books are not unoriginal simply because they are retellings. They are original works in and of themselves.
It is not the fact that these novels are retellings of Beauty and the Beast that made them so popular amongst readers. Cruel Beauty by Rosamund Hodge (2014), yet another retelling, has not had half the success of both of the other books. It is the author and their original takes on the tales that made them so popular. These books are not unoriginal simply because they are retellings. They are original works in and of themselves. The characters are not the same as those in the original, nor are the plots. Original ideas are starting to become few and far between, and this is only one example of retellings of a classic fairy tale. Retellings of Snow White, Cinderella, and many other classic stories about princesses have been done time and time again.
Original writing is what an author makes of the story. An original idea, however, is hard to come across. One author might write one novel about a magical school - does that then make every novel about a magical school that follows unoriginal? No. What makes the writing original is style. It is the narrative, the design and development of characters, from their hair to their personalities. It is the ability as a writer to take old tales and give them new twists. To take old ideas and make them new.
Original writing now means more than a new idea, a new world, a new plot. Original writing is a fresh take on something old, and with many POC authors now being introduced to the scene with more space being made for them in writing circles, these stories will again be rehashed, rewritten, and represented with diverse characters, new backdrops, and in new, modern times, something all readers are, unsurprisingly, very excited to see.