“About the most originality that any writer can hope to achieve honestly is to steal with good judgment.” — Josh Billings
We’ve been striving towards original stories since who-knows-when. Probably since the invention of the printing press, at least. Nowadays, books are being published at a rapid pace. It’s become increasingly difficult – if not impossible – to avoid imitation. I remember my dad reading The Hunger Games and thinking it was a complete ripoff of Battle Royale. (I don’t know for sure if that was the title he said, but it’s a safe assumption since, apparently, loads of other people are thinking the same thing. Just search up “Hunger Games and Battle Royale or something on the internet, and you’ll see what I mean.) But in this day and age, it’s difficult not to rip off one or more people.
I think the real question is where to draw the line between borrowing certain ideas from various authors versus outright theft with a few minor name and plot changes.
I remember going into the bookstore a few months ago, and near the checkout area there was an activity book by Austin Kleon called “The Steal Like an Artist Journal.” Naturally, with such a title, I was curious. I think the book has some interesting activities, but usefulness aside, Kleon raised a good point: if you’re going to steal something, do it right. Build off of the original source instead of just ripping it off.
Of course, the only real remedy to originality is, paradoxically, to read as much as you can. This probably seems counter-intuitive, because reading just gives you the opportunity to have even more material to (accidentally or on purpose) rip off. I know a friend of mine has this mentality, wanting to avoid reading widely so he doesn’t accidentally take from other authors. But, in reality, if you read only a little bit, you don’t know what’s been done and what hasn’t been. Also, your experience is limited, so with fewer sources, you’re more likely to rip off rather than remix (to put it in Kleon’s terms).
Naturally, we shouldn’t just give up on our wish for originality. But it’s worth noting that complete originality is difficult to attain. It’s also worth mentioning that publishing houses like it when books resemble other books. Don’t get me wrong, they probably aren’t looking for rip-offs either. But from researching how to get published, I’ve learned that publishers like it when your book has simple elements from other books. They want to know that your book can sell, and by saying that your book (Book Y) is similar to Book X, and saying that Book X sold well, then the implication is that your book, Book Y, might also sell well. Some food for thought.
So when you’re reading or when you’re writing, just keep in mind the challenge of true originality in the digital age, where it’s grown so much easier to get published (especially self-published.)