Did you ever hear of Max and the Cats by Moacyr Scliar? It’s a story about a teenage boy who is stranded in a boat with a panther following a terrible shipwreck. If this sounds familiar, that’s because it is. “I saw a premise that I liked and I told my own story with it,” claimed Yann Martel, when asked about the obvious similarity between his book and Scliar’s (The Guardian). In many ways, against the ideological underpinnings of modern art standards, this makes Martel look like a plagiarist. But when compared, the two novels are actually quite different: Max and the Cats is all about Nazis, while Life of Pi deals mostly with religion. To complicate matters, Martel says he didn’t even read Scliar’s book. Considering all facts, can we still call Life of Pi an original?
For that matter, the fact that J.K. Rowling used many elements from Eva Ibbotson’s The Secret of Platform 13 in the Harry Potter books blurs the line between theft and imitation. After all, Ibbotson also wrote about an orphaned boy with magical abilities who lives with his terrible relatives—long before Rowling did. H.G. Wells’ Outline of History is largely borrowed from Florence Deeks’ The Web of the Worlds’ Romance. Shakespeare, Plato and countless others are all said to have done a little literary pilfering too.
Originality as a concept hasn’t been around for as long as you might think. Prior to the 18th century, imitation was a crucial part of successful art. Writers lifted whole lines and stanzas from poems and shamelessly used the same ideas. It was only later that people started getting touchy about it—right around the time that artistic “genius” became important. I could be alarmed at these shocking revelations, but instead, I offer to you a case for imitation as part of the artistic process.
The truth is this: we are not writing in a vacuum. So why pretend that great stories, voices and characters haven’t happened before? Writing in the voice of an author that you love or writing a story based on a scenario that inspires you is another way to inform your own literary voice. In part, I think that the honesty of writing real, original works comes from a deep understanding of captivating elements of literature and writing them the way you want them to be. They say that art imitates life, but I would argue that in many ways, great art—great literature especially—imitates other great literature that has come before it.
To return to the question: why reinvent the wheel? Because the wheel works.
What does originality mean to you? As artists, can we imitate honestly, or does it come too close to theft?