The Part That is Original. . .

- by Elaine Isaak

At Readercon a couple of weeks ago, I had the honor of being on a panel entitled, “The Catharsis of Myth, the Shock of Originality” (yes, that kind of title is typical of Readercon–that most literary of SF conventions).  The idea was to discuss the relationship of the original idea in fantasy with that of traditional tropes that readers seem to love.  I was seated next to the fabulous Catherynne M. Valente, author of Palimpsest–undoubtedly one of the most original works I’ve read in a very long time.   So original, in fact, that sometimes I wanted something more . . . comfortable.

Those writers among you will already have recognized the famous quote referenced in my title, attributed to Samuel Johnson, ion critiquing a manuscript as “both good and original, however, the part which is good is not original, and the part which is original is not good.” 

A work can certainly be both good and original, as Palimpsest is, but such works challenge the reader, beginning with those most discerning of readers:   agents and editors.   One of what I consider to be my best books has been rejected by an editor who described it as suffering “the curse of originality.”  I didn’t think the book was *that* original, but she went on to say that her house hadn’t sold any similar books, therefore, they would have trouble marketing it.

On reflection, she makes a good point.   Readers go to a bookstore for something new, yes, but they like certain genres, authors or styles.   Other things, they emphatically don’t like.  Often, what the reader is looking for is a literary experience similar to one they enjoyed in the past.  A helpful employee will aid in the quest, not by offering something unique, but by asking what the reader already enjoys.  If the editor can’t envision how that reader would find the manuscript at hand, she can’t reach the reader to sell the book.

Myself, I am working on being good, if less original, and sneaking in original elements that entice the reader out of his comfort zone.  I think there is a balance between the frighteningly new, and the comfortingly familiar.  Where do you fall on this scale as a writer?  Where as a reader?  And where, in either case, will your next book take you?

One comments

  1. Thanks for visiting–and more for commenting!

    My postscript is that I’m closing in on a contract for my “too original” book. Picture my smile a lot wider these days.