Show Me Something New

A SHORT HISTORY OF TRACTOR IN UKRAINIAN     The issue of originality has been bugging me lately. The novel I’m planning follows on from Saturday Afternoon, Odessa (click and scroll down page), ten years after that point, and it seems every time I mention its vague content to people they say, ‘Oh, like such and such?’ 'A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian' has been mentioned to me a few times (I’ve never read it, but have just bought it to check) as have a few others, some of them well-known, that work along the same themes. Most of them I’ve not even read, but it’s disheartened me a bit as it seems that my idea has almost already been done. Just walking into a bookstore can also feel a bit overwhelming, as it makes you realise just how many books there already are…

     So what do we have to offer that’s new? Original, even? New sci-fi realms, perhaps? Or our take on the latest trends or issues, before anyone else? 

     Whilst thinking (rather despondently) about this and hoping there might be someone out there who can give me an answer, I came across David Lodge’s brilliant book on writing, 'The Art of Fiction', in which he presents the idea that true originality comes from the Russian concept of ostranenie, which means ‘defamiliarisation’ or literally ‘making strange’. 

     He quotes Victor Shklovsky, who wrote an essay on this very thing in 1917:

The Art of Fiction: Illustrated from Classic and Modern Texts‘Habitualization devours work, clothes, furniture, one’s wife, and the fear of war…And art exists that one may recover the sensation of life; it exists to make one feel things, to make stony stony. The purpose of art is to impart the sensation of things as they are perceived and not as they are known.’

So, to be original, or to show them something new, we must paradoxically show them things they already know, but anew. Through fresh eyes, or without the usual convention or complacency. Make the familiar unfamiliar.

     To me, this means that to write something worth writing, you need to deconstruct the world around you and then build it back up in prose using your own eyes and your own feigned innocence to produce something that makes the reader go, ‘that’s true, I forgot’ or ‘I never really thought of it that way’. And everyone will do this differently, I guess. So every book worth writing is worth writing? Maybe you just need to look sideways at the world and write about the questions (and maybe answers) that spring to mind. Am I right in thinking this is the conclusion I should come to?

     Lodge uses Charlotte Bronte’s Villette, in which the main character rather contrarily deconstructs the conventions of salon art, but I am going to try something else, something a little less high-brow, to illustrate this idea as I understand it (partly because it’s really, really funny). Strip words and situations bare of all that has been artificially ascribed and assumed over time and look at the real meaning of things, perhaps:

What do you think? What’s does ‘originality’ mean to you? Or is it all in the execution, perhaps, rather than the idea?
Also, Tolstoy is my Cat now has a home on Facebook; love to see you there.  


  1. I find that if I let myself worry about whether my writing is original enough then often writing becomes the thing I am doing less of. I say give yourself and your writing permission to be and just let it speak to how you see the world. Who knows? It may suddenly surprise you. Good Luck!

  2. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-12613617

  3. Thanks Nancy! You're totally right, I have been known to over-think :)

    I've actually (since writing this post) decided not to read 'A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian', as I'm worried it will confuse matters, especially as the subject material is (apparently) so close. Too dangerous, methinks; better if it just sits on the shelf!

    Love your post about lemonade, by the way. Sweet and tangy, yum :)

  4. Great link Jim, thanks!

    It's such an interesting discussion, isn't it?

    I loved this quote from the article:

    "Being 'original' does not mean having novel ideas never before expressed by a human. It simply means doing the work for yourself."

    I can manage that :)


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