The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be;
and that which is done is that which shall be done:
and there is no new thing under the sun.
10 Is there any thing whereof it may be said, See, this is new?
it hath been already of old time, which was before us.
Ecclesiastes 1:9-10 (King James Version)
Ok, so I’m a bad man. A minor author and editor of my acquaintance – very much of the fashionable artsy set, very PC, the award winning kind of author (in other words about as diametrically opposite to this lowly simian scribe) was angrily holding forth, insisting that people stop comparing his work to other authors. He’d spent x number of years honing his style into something unique that was all his own. And if anyone else told him his snippets were like some other author’s work – he’d just stop posting them. So there!
I’m a bad man. I typed: ‘This reminds me strongly of John Norman.’…
But I had second thoughts, laughed and deleted it. It’s a pointless exercise, he wasn’t going to stop — not for anything, and was just wanting all his fellow travelers to tell him how unique he was. And he is unique. Just like every artsy literary novelist of the last 20 years in the PC straight-jacket. Unique. All of them, and near indistinguishable in their uniqueness. Unique!
That’s another word for ‘Harem Guard’ isn’t it?
Sigh. Really, there ain’t no such animal, or if there is it’s a pretty ‘orrible thing. Squiggles on a page, meaning nothing except to the ‘author’. Otherwise everything we create is, ab initio, derived. Sometimes from Latin – who derived it (or culturally appropriated it) from the Greeks, who in turn etc. until we get back to Ogg the caveman (a cousin of mine, if a bit hoity-toity for me). All language, and therefore all literature, is derived. None of it is ‘unique’. It has balls, and continues to procreate.
This is a good thing, rather than a bad one, because if we did not derive, did not learn, did not appropriate, Cousin Ogg, in his cave in Africa would be the human race. Now there are people who claim this would be a good thing, but oddly they haven’t rejected the internet, let alone flush toilets and supermarkets, for the freely available joys of the cave. I know: they want others to do it, not them.
The key of course is what and how much appropriate and derive. The trick is to take the good bits, which is harder than it seems. Sometimes it is also worth considering reading around the subject (so for example about vampires, rather than just ‘Twilight’) – if you don’t want to be too influenced by it. But people do come up with remarkably similar lines. I started plotting a military sf Novel –only to be told it was essentially a movie I had never seen, and barely heard the name of. Hey, I can think of lousy ideas as well as the next guy! But if I had seen it, I would have known that.
First off, you can’t pick and choose what to take… if you don’t read. It’s not really a win – not to read. You end up deriving none the less – games, or TV or movies, are a common source. You can tell, quite easily which authors have not done much reading. You can tell which of them haven’t done much reading in genre. You can tell which critics haven’t done a lot of reading out of genre too. They tend to find run-of-the-mill literary derivation pushed into sf … unique.
The problem, of course, is that you can’t un-cross the same river. You are the repository of those stories, those styles, those mannerisms. You can’t passively assume that none of it will come out in your work. If there are some things that you see as less-than-worth-repeating, it is rather up to you to avoid that. As for the rest- you can actively try to imitate what is good, or you can just let it stew in that anti-computer (your brain is not a computer, and doesn’t function like one, at the base-level. Not even politics is actually a matter of 10 sides) and let the wonders of neurological pathways take their course.
You can actively spot the bad – or things you don’t like – and plan to avoid them. You can seek to mimic authors whose work you do admire (and doing this well, is itself a serious challenge) – but most of the time what effect that reading has is to mix and meld and allow your writing to become richer. And yes, readers will catch echoes of the other authors you’ve read in there. It adds depth and richness –if you have read enough. If you haven’t, of course, that shows too.
Most of what is extravagantly praised as ‘unique’ tends to be latter, so, personally, it’s a label I’d prefer to avoid. I’m kind of good with my work reminding readers of authors that they’ve read – one hopes with enjoyment because mostly those are the names you remember. And even if it’s an author I don’t like, it is a form of recognition, and of flattery too. Yeah, even poor Jim Theis (he was 16, for goodness sakes, and yep, it was plainly derivative). At least people remember his work, and that, to a writer is priceless.
So: in short – worry less about being ‘unique’ and more about being read and enjoyed. There’s not much of a prize for the former (Maybe a Chavez Award) and the possibility of a good living for the latter – and remember ‘All the rivers run into the sea; yet the sea is not full’ and ‘the eye is not satisfied with seeing, nor the ear filled with hearing.’
Yes, actually I read that book too, and it probably derived a thing or two from it.