Not sure that genre fiction spends enough time wrestling with the anxiety of influence

Justine Larbalastier posts (on her, as always, excellent blog) about how most books are inspired by other books:

If I get an amazing idea and then realise that it’s similar to a book by someone else I start to think about how I would do it differently.

Which is absolutely true. No writer is working in isolation. Every writer is in conversation with other work. For instance, my own book, Enter Title Here, is very much a response to the ‘nerd transforms her life and becomes a popular kid’ genre of novel. And part of the reason why I try to read all kinds of stuff is in order to be inspired. 

Buuuuuuuuuuuuut, there is also such a thing as being derivative.

I think that one of the major reasons for the number of mediocre novels in the world is the way that too many people are satisfied with facile reinventions of the books that inspired them. There are too many authors out there who said, “Oh, it’s like Pride and Prejudice…but with vampires” and then proceeded to do their best to create a work that mimicked the feel and texture of Austen (plus a little vampire action to titillate the fans) without in any way commenting upon or transforming the source material.

And the problem isn’t that authors are imitating their inspirations; it’s that they don’t know that they’re doing it. People think that if you have a farmboy discover his mystical powers and use them to save the universe, but make the farmboy an ancient Egyptian, then they’re doing something fresh and inventive. But when the work’s only ambition is to make people feel the way that Star Wars makes people feel, then it’s going to come off as derivative even if all the external trappings are different.

Justine’s post began as a response to a Twitter follower who asked her: “Do you ever get amazing ideas for your books and then realize it was just something you read in someone else’s?”

And my answer to that would be yes, I all the time realize that my wonderful idea is just something I’m copying from someone else. And, moreover, I worry all the time that I’m writing things that contribute nothing new to the world and, because of that, don’t particularly need to be written. And I think that worry is a necessary part of the writing process, because it’s that worry which encourages me to really try to push myself to do something new with the material.

5 thoughts on “Not sure that genre fiction spends enough time wrestling with the anxiety of influence

  1. BlackHoleExtinction

    Do you ever feel a pressure to be somewhat derivative in genre? I’m writing a fantasy novel, and feel anxious because it can’t exactly be described as epic fantasy, urban fantasy, heroic fantasy or magic realism.

    1. R. H. Kanakia

      Yeah, sometimes. It’s hard to sell an uncategorizable genre novel. If that’s what you’re doing, though, you would be better off trying to market it as literary fiction.

  2. Darren

    What do you do with the fantasy novel/triology you were planning once you realised James R R Martin got there first? It had three warring kingdoms, badlands to the north, and I’d even gone as far as inventing a language for the warlike mongol horde – no dragons though!!!

    It’s been on the shelf since first reading/watching Game of Thrones.

    1. R. H. Kanakia

      Those things don’t see, per se, like dealbreakers. In fact, the best time to sell something like that is right after there’s been a monster hit that’s similar, because that’s when publishers are looking for other books that Martin’s audience might want to read.

  3. John Barnes

    Stray observation: this is less of a troubling problem for writers who are fussy readers, especially if they are also arrogant. Take, for an obvious example, me. Many books have influenced me but mostly to ask myself the Primary Question you can ask about almost any novel: What would this be like if it were good? (Or interesting? Or real? Or satisfying?)

    Of course whether or not that actually works for me, or merely allows me to be psychologically comfortable, is very much a question for the readers to decide, and pretty much none of my business.

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