On Originality

In the continuing cycle of drama chain reactions, after reading Pontifus’s response to Martin’s post regarding K-ON!!, I discovered that somehow Pontifus has invaded my brain and sucked out some of my thoughts, like some kind of intellectual zombie. Pontifus discusses the presumptions underlying Martin’s uneasiness surrounding K-ON!!, which are very nuanced and laudable presumptions, but I shall cherry-pick the concept of “originality” and, in so doing, hopefully disjoint Martin himself from the free-floating concept of “originality” that I intend to blather nonsensically about here. As Pontifus has already done, probably. But at any rate: away with ye, spectre of Martin!

Pontifus mentions that we live in an era preceded by literary movements that prized originality and novelty above all others:

In the English-speaking world, at least, we’re riding in the wake of several literary movements which brought originality in vogue; the Romantics and high modernism come to mind. Even postmodern works, with their pastiches of cut-and-pasted elements, are expected to arrange these elements in refreshing ways.

Originality is often the most important value-measurement for nearly everyone I know for nearly any creative activity: execution, artistic value, intelligence, all the myriad ways in which one can qualify the enjoyment of any given work are somehow not enough to save that which falls short of the “originality” ideal from being consigned to second-class status. Not that this is, strictly speaking, a bad thing: I would be lying to you if I said that I never, ever prized originality above all else. However, I do feel as though the use and application of this originality judgment needs to be slightly and more formally nuanced.

This tendency to value the original is strongly embedded in our consciousness. Generally speaking, there is a set amount of difference—originality—that humans can comfortably handle: if we watch a series, for example, and find that there is too little new or original in it, we’re likely to find ourselves bored with the tedium of it all; conversely, if there is too much new or original in it, we’re likely to find ourselves confused and overwhelmed. Somewhere in between is the elusive balance of familiarity and originality, and perhaps the point where we are most likely to label something as “groundbreaking”, or at least “successfully original”: the original becomes all the more apparent immediately juxtaposed with the familiar in the same work.

When it comes to fiction, our perception of these levels of originality is highly relative: what is overwhelming and confusing for one person is tedious and humdrum for another, and for a third the same work will be revelatory in the possibilities it opens. In other words, narratives exist simultaneously as unoriginal, original, and too original at the same time, depending on past experience, taste, and other personal elements. The narratives one has read/watched in the past build up experience by which one can consider the originality of narratives one will read/watch in the future. There’s also a vague boundary line drawn around genre: as a longtime fan of science fiction and fantasy, I feel that I am able to make fair assessments of the originality relative to the genre; I have not read very many mystery novels, and even though I like them, I don’t feel comfortable assessing their originality relative to the mystery genre, although I am quite comfortable assessing their originality relative to me.

The question to ask, then, is: what is the purpose of the originality judgment? There is certainly plenty of merit to the “objective” judgment of originality; I can argue about subjective judgments until I’m blue in the face, but in all likelihood K-ON!! is much less daringly original than Tatami Galaxy. Such an objective judgment, though, shouldn’t necessarily preclude the subjective judgment of K-ON!! as the apex of originality, or Tatami Galaxy as dull, unoriginal tripe. Italo Calvino, in his excellent essay “Why Read the Classics?” (The Uses of Literature, 1986), lists fourteen seemingly contradictory definitions of “classics”. Calvino’s flexible definition, bringing the concept of a “classic” away from staid lists of the literary canon and towards a personal engagement with literature and fiction, certainly describes the importance and value of the subjective originality judgment far better than I ever could.

For, in the end, I feel, what becomes most important to each person is not that which is original in the objective sense, but that which is original in the subjective sense. Every time a work strikes us as original to any degree, even if, objectively speaking, it’s not, our taste expands and our perception of the world is changed. This, unfortunately, happens but infrequently, and this infrequency tends to skew our judgments and embitter our tastes. I think, perhaps, many of us already recognize this, and so, Dear Reader, I ask you this: if originality be such a rare beast, with wildly different results from objective and subjective viewpoints, why should the lack of it be apologized away, and stigmatized?

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4 Responses to “On Originality”


  1. 1 ghostlightning 2 May 2010 at 8:46 am

    Good stuff. Speaking for myself, I value a ‘new’ experience, and by that I like being entertained by an element of the unfamiliar along with the familiar. But, this unfamiliarity is relative only to my experience. To a thoroughly exposed viewer or reader there is nothing new under the sun and everything proclaimed as new merely remembers love (or hate).

    Maybe the issue for certain subjects, e.g. K-ON!! is the saturation or the perception of saturation/oversaturation held by detractors. Popularity certainly contributes to this perception.

  2. 2 lelangir 2 May 2010 at 10:29 am

    I also feel that it’s useful to phrase it as, we tend to conflate the quantitative and the qualitative; the objective and the subjective, respectively. There’s objective things we can empirically measure out (plot structure a la levi-strauss or something), and stuff that’s impossible, or at least a lot harder (the Toyosaki machine has an “annoying voice”).

    But even when we take this angle on originality, I find that even with shows like k-on there is massive amounts of originality.

    We can conflate and essentialize k-on as a “moe show,” but when we then go and try to operationalize “moe show,” the categories we come up with are easily problematized: we discover that, even if two different shows contain the same “objective” function of, say, “they both eat tea and cake in a school club,” there are infinite ways of animating, painting, or portraying this idealized scene. We speak too categorically and broad about objective functions.

    I also find merit in objectively speaking about originality. However, the caveat is that we can operationalize ideal categorizes to infinite depth. How would we exhaustively operationalize “a scene about tea and cake?” How deep can you go? – I think this matter points to how shallow the criticism can be at times. Maybe I’m subconsciously quoting ghost, but this is a matter of love and hate! Those with love will try desperately to tease out every nuance from a show disclaimed as “unoriginal” while the critics – those on the offensive – don’t really have to, and can sit safely in the zone of poorly-operationalized ideal categories.

  3. 3 Elineas 3 May 2010 at 10:43 am

    Funny you should mention Calvino, because his little quip in “If on a winter’s night a traveler” encompasses this argument perfectly. While traipsing through the bookstore, the Reader is looking through “New Books Whose Author Or Subject Appeals To You” and divides them into groups of “New Books By Authors Or On Subjects Not New (for you or in general)” and “New Books By Authors Or On Subjects Completely Unknown (at least to you),” which Calvino provides as a parenthetical the comment that one judges such books “(for the new you seek in the not new and for the not new you seek in the new).”

    I’m also interested by your last paragraph. If, say, what ultimately matters is the subjective view of originality, why would we place any value upon the objective view? And how do we go about measuring this objective originality? If we can point out aspects that we would consider original subjectively by virtue of having never seen it, surely such aspects would place merit on its objective originality? Or can we overgeneralize and claim that nothing is new under the sun, placing both Tatami Galaxy and K-ON!! on the same level of objective originality by virtue of being mutations of already established expectations? What I’m driving at is that really, under a subjective stance, the words “even if, objectively speaking, it’s not,” are perhaps redundant or intrinsically valueless, as we have no gauge of it nor any reason to gauge it given our own subjective judgment of originality.


  1. 1 When everything’s made up… « Cuchlann Trackback on 2 May 2010 at 8:01 pm

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