Everything Old Is New Again (If You Don’t Look Too Hard)
I was reminded recently of something my English teacher once told me. In the middle of the English lesson he fixed me and my classmates with a solemn stare and imparted this great truth about literature and creativity: “There is nothing new under the sun.”
I nodded. “Yeah, I’ve heard that before.”
Fortunately my teacher was an amiable sort (and corporal punishment had already been abolished) so he took my comment in good humour, recognising that it helped illustrate his point. There really is nothing new under the sun. But humanity, being dauntless, intrepid, not to mention stupid, keeps on searching. For we truly believe that one day we will find that most elusive of all creative endeavours: an entirely new idea.
Of course until then we’ll just keep on churning out the same old shit.
Hollywood keeps making endless sequels and adapting novels and remaking old films. Television pumps out franchises based around hospital and police dramas. Publishing clings to genres like a reality TV star to fame: zombies, vampires, serial killers, private eyes.
Oh, they try to convince us this stuff is new — “This thriller is from Sweden!”, “In this TV series Sherlock Holmes has a mobile phone!”, “This movie sequel features at least five words that weren’t in the original!” — but we’re too smart for them. We demand originality; like in the old days when Hollywood made classics like Farewell, My Lovely. A story which had already been filmed once before. And which was based on a novel. A novel cobbled together by Raymond Chandler from a bunch of his old short stories.
So much for originality.
It’s the same with the classics. Shakespeare raided Plautus for his plots; Joyce plundered Homer’s Odyssey for Ulysses; American Pie was a retread of Porky’s. And yet we still like this stuff. Well, maybe not American Pie. For some reason lack of originality doesn’t always bother us. Some of this can be attributed to the fact that while an idea may not be wholly original it may be original to a particular person. If someone is unfamiliar with The X-Files then season one of Fringe seems like the greatest idea in the world. And this doesn’t just apply to individual readers or viewers, it can apply to entire audiences. New generations are sometimes completely, shockingly unaware of earlier works. Although to be fair it’s impossible to keep track of everything; personally, I grew up on a steady diet of old books, films, television, comics and music, but there’s still tons of stuff which I’ve never even heard of. Sometimes even the stuff from my own generation passed me by with barely a dent in my psyche: I remember hearing about Dramarama, Monster Fun and Hammer House of Horror but I don’t recall ever actually experiencing them firsthand. They exist on the fringes of nostalgia, urban myths of my own childhood.
And then there are cultural differences. I’m always amazed at some of the stuff my American friends like purely because (a) it’s British and (b) they’ve not seen all the other stuff that predated it in the British cultural experience. Benny Hill’s brand of saucy humour can be funny, but we Brits grew up with this sort of thing thanks to seaside postcards, Frankie Howerd and over thirty Carry On films. And Hugh Grant’s bumbling fop act recalls actors such as Ian Carmichael or Hugh Laurie; even when Grant’s screen persona takes a more caddish turn it bears more than a little resemblance to a 21st century Terry-Thomas.
Then of course there’s all those people who wilfully ignore certain areas of popular culture. I had a friend, who was only two years younger than me, who absolutely refused to watch black and white films. I think the only times he relaxed this otherwise inviolable rule were with Clerks and Schindler’s List. And yet he was — let me break out the exclamation marks for this — a film buff!!! Similarly, my teenaged nephew turns his nose up whenever I recommend any film made prior to 1999. He even — and I’m seriously thinking about disowning him as I type this — prefers the Star Wars prequels to the original trilogy. You’ll have to make up your own jokes about him turning to the dark side; I’m too depressed.
There’s also a kind of cultural amnesia where people forget that they’ve seen ideas before. The way that Holly, the ship’s computer in Red Dwarf, kept wiping his memory banks so he could constantly reread Agatha Christie novels to fend off the soul-destroying tedium of drifting through endless space. For example, when The Sixth Sense came out most people I knew were raving about the ending, but one of my friends remained distinctly unimpressed, saying that the ending had been used umpteen times before. As I became more aware of the horror genre, I realised he was right: lots of stories used the same ending as The Sixth Sense. I’d actually read some of them before I saw the film. I’d even written one of them. But my brain conveniently forgot this while I was watching Bruce Willis and Haley Joel Osment being all soulful and sensitive in between being frightened out of their wits.
Similarly, when The Wire came out everyone raved about how original it was to make a TV series that took an entire season to tell a single story. Now, much as I love The Wire it didn’t invent this idea. Everyone, professional TV critics as well as ordinary viewers, completely forgot about programmes like 24 and Murder One. Oh, but The Wire told its story over several seasons, everything coming together to form one massive narrative. You know, just like Babylon 5. Now I’m not saying 24 or Babylon 5 invented these ideas, chances are some other TV programme I’ve never even heard of beat them to the punch, but it does show up a certain kind of snobbery in terms of what people remember: if it’s not the kind of thing they like, then they don’t remember it.
This snobbery can get so bad that some people refuse to even try anything different. Not only that, but they decry and defame other types of stories at every opportunity. “Science fiction is completely alien to me!” cry fantasy fans. “Fantasy is for fairies!” yell the crime fans. “Crime fiction’s popularity is a mystery to me!” holler the horror fans. And so on, through westerns and thrillers and romance and pretty much any other genre you can think of. Tribalism can even occur inside a specific genre, with hardboiled crime fans duking it out with fans of cosy mysteries or horror fans bemoaning the glut of vampire and zombie stories but quite happily reading the millionth Lovecraft-themed anthology to come out that month.
“Terence McKenna believed the universe is in a state of constant flux between two opposing forces, habit and novelty. But perhaps we have become so used to the former that we can no longer even recognise the latter.”
It can even get to the point where people become so enamoured of genre tropes that they actually reject originality in favour of comfortable familiarity. I’m pretty sure that’s why there are certain stories in, say, the horror genre which I regard as cliché-ridden drivel but which horror fans declare as instant classics. They know the stories are full of clichés, but these are their favourite clichés. Whereas I, lacking that same sense of nostalgic affection, remain immune to the stories’ charms. But show me clichés from superhero comics or private eye novels and my critical faculties tend to stop for a quick tea-break. Because of course the superhero has to disguise his identity by wearing brightly coloured tights, completely fooling his girlfriend even if she is a highly intelligent investigative reporter. And of course the private eye should investigate the crime by himself instead of informing the police, even if it is totally illegal and the police have vastly superior resources which they could bring to bear upon the case, and oh, look, there’s a mysteriously seductive blonde; I’m sure she’s an innocent party in all this…
Still, all but the most rabid fans can at least appreciate work from more than one genre, even if this appreciation is only offered grudgingly. This is why some authors feel the need to sneak in certain story elements without the reader noticing, just in case the reader associates these elements with a different genre and starts shredding the pages in rage. Personally, I’ve never been able to overcome my prejudice that romance novels are sentimental girlie pap, but slip a love story into a science fiction novel or a gritty thriller and suddenly the mushy stuff will get me all choked up. Yet somehow I still can’t bring myself to sample any of the romance sub-genres where ghosts and vampires woo earthly lovers or special forces troops carry out deadly missions in between romancing their girlfriends.
Romance fiction isn’t the only publishing endeavour that branches out into sub-genres. And not all sub-genres are done subtly. Indeed, there’s a tradition of slamming two different genres together in the hope that the resulting collision produces something original, although to me these ideas often seem rather desperate and redundant, practically screaming for attention. LITERARY CLASSIC MEETS HORROR. Surely literary classics already met horror in Dracula and Frankenstein? And the argument that the fun comes from the meeting of highbrow culture with pop culture doesn’t really hold water when the two are continually growing closer, with works by genre outcasts such H.P. Lovecraft, Robert E. Howard, Ian Fleming and John Christopher now included among the Penguin Classics line. SCIENCE FICTION MEETS FANTASY. Jack Vance, Michael Moorcock, Gene Wolfe and Edgar Rice Burroughs all beat you to it. NOIR MEETS PRETTY MUCH EVERYTHING. Magazines such as Black Mask and Weird Tales barely had time for their ink to dry before the likes of Cornell Woolrich, Robert Bloch and Fritz Leiber were mixing noir elements with horror. Alfred Bester did the same with noir and science fiction in The Demolished Man, while Leigh Brackett did it for fantasy, as did that man Leiber with his Fafhrd and Gray Mouser stories.
That’s not to say the new stuff is bad. I enjoy Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, Philip Pullman’s marriage of fantasy and physics in His Dark Materials, and Kim Newman’s Lovecraft and Chandler mash-up “The Big Fish.” Done well, cross-genre fiction is incredibly entertaining. But even the good stuff can be made to look unappealing when it’s cynically packaged to look fresh and original rather than the latest step in a long tradition.
So why do people keep rehashing old stuff and passing it off as new? Part of it is a search for perfection, a compulsion to refine what has gone before. The Wright brothers may have created the first aeroplane, but for a journey of any distance a 747 is undeniably safer and more comfortable. Similarly, why struggle through Celtic myths for tales of Arthur and Merlin when you can read Le Morte d’Arthur, and why read that when you can read The Once and Future King?
But as most writers fall short of perfection, why do they keep churning out work that is actually inferior to the original? Perhaps because there’s a similarity between the drive to create fiction and the drive to produce offspring. Most parents know that their children will only be average at best, unlikely to have any impact on the human race, but they don’t say, “Someone has already given birth to Shakespeare, we’re never going to top that, so I might as well just get a vasectomy.” No, they decide to work hard to raise the absolute best progeny they are capable of. And if they fail, they will, like all parents, just ignore their offspring’s faults. Writers are equally irrational when writing stories, feeling that they have always produced a literary masterpiece despite all the evidence to the contrary. (Personally, I’m hoping that this column bags me a Pulitzer Prize, an eight-figure publishing contract, and an endless supply of sex-crazed groupies.)
So in all the millennia that stories have been told, has anyone other than whoever first daubed pictures on a cave wall ever come up with an original idea? I don’t know. I haven’t read everything. Neither has anyone else. I mean, the experts say there are only three plots — or seven, or twenty, or thirty-six, or only one, depending on whom you believe — but has anyone actually sat down with every single story ever written to check? (Sometimes, I have the same reservations about fingerprints. Every time a new baby is born, do they send its prints along to some central fingerprints database to make sure they’re not the same as someone else’s? Just imagine, some unfortunate newborn could have the same fingerprints as a serial killer: “We know it was you who murdered that busload of nuns; that baby disguise isn’t fooling anyone. Now put down the rattle and come out with your hands up.”)
If there are only so many plots to go around, then it’s only a matter of time before all the different permutations are used up. Assuming of course that they haven’t been already.
And even if there are still original ideas to be found, they’re buried beneath all the same old derivative rubbish. With all the “new” material bombarding us from hundreds of TV channels and films and books and e-books and websites, can we still distinguish between the genuinely new and the merely repackaged? Terence McKenna believed the universe is in a state of constant flux between two opposing forces, habit and novelty. But perhaps we have become so used to the former that we can no longer even recognise the latter.
Or maybe we have already used up every last ounce of novelty in the universe and are doomed to keep watching Friday the 13th Part 57 and reading The Dark Tower LXXXIX: Oops, The Series Wasn’t Finished After All, their tedious tales vexing our dull and drowsy ears.
And if that is the case, if there truly are no new ideas under the sun, then I think the only sensible solution is to send a team of writers out in the space shuttle and see if they can find any new ideas above the sun. That may not sound very practical, but I’m sorry, it’s the best I can come up with right now.
And frankly, I’m too busy worrying that you didn’t read this column until after you’d read all the dozens of other writings debating lack of originality, and now you think all of my ideas are old hat.