Is Originality Overrated? By Rafe McGregor
I came across Richard Bradford’s excellent Crime Fiction: A Very Short Introduction at the end of last year, while preparing a syllabus for a creative writing module. I was disappointed but not surprised to see that the guide hadn’t gone down well with reviewers on Amazon and Bradford does indeed make several controversial – if perspicacious – claims about crime fiction. There are two points in his critical review of crime as a literary genre that have stuck with me through the intervening months. First, his explicit claim that Bill James is the most underrated crime fiction writer of the twentieth century, deserving of more recognition for his Harpur and Iles series. Second, Braford’s implicit claim that the Anglo-American division of the genre has been in steady decline for the last quarter-century. There is a strong subtext in the Very Short Introduction to the effect that there has been little innovation or originality in Anglo-American crime fiction since John Grisham and Patricia Cornwell made their respective marks on the genre in 1989 and 1990. Ultimately, I disagree with both of these claims, though I admit Bradford makes a good case for each.
An accusation of unoriginality is about the worst an author can contemplate, but Bradford’s criticism made me think about originality more deeply, as both a possibility and a value. While digital publishing and the Kindle revolution haven’t replaced the book, as many thought they would a decade ago, they have heralded something of a return to the pulp fiction era of the interwar years. Just as magazines could be printed on cheap wood pulp paper and distributed to a mass market so ezines and ebooks can be published even more cheaply and distributed to an even bigger mass market. Pulp fiction wasn’t just named after the cheap paper, however, but the cheap thrills and a lack of quality in writing as well as production. I’m not suggesting that there is an equivalency between the quality of pulp fiction and Kindle fiction; rather, that in consequence of the sheer amount of crime fiction published from the Penny Dreadful to the pulp era to the Kindle era, every single possible crime story has been told – twice, thrice, and many more times over. So perhaps, as writers, we are setting ourselves up to fail if we aim for complete originality. But writers write for readers and if readers demand originality, then we must oblige.
Crime fiction is notorious for its long-running series: to take just two examples, Cornwell’s Scarpetta is currently on her twenty-fourth outing and Harpur and Iles on their thirty-third. Readers like a series based around a central character or pair of characters because those characters provide a safety net of familiarity and a guarantee of ‘same but different’, i.e. the same characters, whom we have come to know and love, but investigating a different case. We might like to think that we demand originality from our entertainment, but the lesson from Hollywood is quite the reverse. Typically screenwriters and critics will identify seven or eight plotlines – certainly no more than ten – on which all popular movies are based and all of these plotlines follow the same five-point (or forty beat, if you prefer) structure. Nonetheless, the industry churns out dozens of these films making dozens of millions of dollars each and every month. So perhaps, as readers, we should look at the tendency of crime fiction authors to favour series over standalone as an original way of dealing with this demand for more of the same rather than a lack of originality in conception.
In my first crime fiction novel, The Architect of Murder, I was especially concerned with originality and spent a great deal of time not just researching the history (it is set in Westminster in 1902), but other crime fiction set or written in the late Victorian or Edwardian periods to ensure that my plot was completely different from all that had come before. For my second crime fiction novel, which is the first of a series, I was less concerned with originality and more with reality. Like David Baldacci’s John Puller, Captain Garth Hutt is an army investigator. Unlike, Puller, Hutt works for the Royal Military Police and unlike Puller he isn’t any kind of superman. He’s tough and he’s shrewd, but he gets outsmarted and beaten up and early medical retirement isn’t out of the question. Hutt’s first case, Bloody Reckoning, tells a story that could happen or – with a bit of bad luck – might happen. I’m not sure whether this makes him less of an original creation, but I do know that the reality imperative took me in a different direction from the originality imperative. As to which makes for a better story – well, that’s for readers to decide.
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