It has recently come to my attention that a famous celebrity stole my idea for a novel.
Okay, that’s not exactly true. It’s not like the celebrity snuck into my house at night and downloaded my manuscript off my computer. In all likelihood, he doesn’t even know I exist.
What happened is that he wrote a book that sounds awfully similar to the book I wrote — the book my agent is currently trying to get published. What sucks is that the celebrity got his published first. Now it’s going to look like I’m copying him.
And I would tell you who this celebrity is, but now I’m sort of worried that you’ll steal the idea, too.
When I was in high school, I used to make mix tapes for everyone — friends, family, even some of my teachers. When I made mix tapes for my dad, he would criticize my favorite songs by saying the artists were ripping-off bands from the seventies.
“There’s no originality in music anymore,” he’d complain. “All the bands these days are just copying stuff that was already done a few decades ago.”
“So?” I’d say. “I still like these bands. I don’t care if they’re copying other people.”
And the same goes with books. Authors are influenced by other authors all the time. Diane Setterfield’s The 13th Tale borrows from gothic novels like Rebecca, and Night Film by Marisha Pessl steals from crime noir and horror novels. Do I care? No. I loved reading those books, and in both cases, the author brought new things to the table along with the old.
According to author Anna Quindlen, “every story has already been told.” In fact, you may have learned that there are only five basic conflicts in literature, or only seven basic plots. Leo Tolstoy once said, “All great literature is one of two stories; a man goes on a journey or a stranger comes to town.”
So why do people keep on writing books if all the stories are used up? Maybe it’s because an author can tell a familiar story in a fresh way. Author Audre Lorde says, “There are no new ideas. There are only new ways of making them felt.”
I agree with that, but I’m going to go one step further. I’m going to say that sometimes authors tell familiar stories in familiar ways, and that’s okay, too. Because people like stories, and we’re always going to be hungry for more, whether they’re fresh and new or they’re a recycled version of something old. It doesn’t really matter, especially if we don’t know or remember the old version.
For example, when I was fifteen, I loved a song by the band Less Than Jake called “867-5309/Jenny.” I didn’t realize until a few years later that it was actually a cover of an 80’s song performed by Tommy Tutone. Does that mean I stopped liking the Less Than Jake version? No. In fact, I still prefer it.
Having an original idea or a totally new way of telling a story is a great thing, but I don’t think it’s always necessary. Besides, unless you copy word-for-word or note-for-note, your version of a story or song is going to be different in some way by the very fact that you created it instead of someone else. It seems to me that writing and music, and probably art in general isn’t always about originality, or at least that’s not the most important factor. It’s more about creating something that people can enjoy or connect with or respond to.
The book by the celebrity was just released a few days ago, so I haven’t had a chance to read it yet, but I watched a video of him reading part of it, and it turns out that despite his book being spawned from the same basic idea as mine, his story is totally different. It’s a children’s picture book instead of a YA novel. His story is whimsical and full of witty asides, whereas mine is more of an adventure tale with a serious tone. In short, despite the fact that we were both inspired by the same idea, we’re not telling the same story, nor are we telling our stories in the same way.
Perhaps authors and musicians and artists have to let go of the fear of copying someone else, or being copied. In the end, we’re all just doing our thing, and if it turns out that our thing is similar to someone else’s, it’s really not that big of a deal because art is about more than just originality.
But I’m still not telling you who the celebrity is.