Friday, 3 October 2008

On Being Original - Charlie Butler


Is it possible to steal ideas? When the Harry Potter books started doing well, many people grumpily pointed out that other writers had been writing about schools of wizardry and witchcraft years before J. K. Rowling. Jill Murphy, whose first Worst Witch book came out in 1974 (when Rowling was aged nine), reportedly started to receive letters from young readers complaining that she had pinched her ideas from Harry Potter – which must have been galling indeed. Then there are the witch schools of Diana Wynne Jones and Anthony Horowitz – to say nothing of Eva Ibbotson, whose Secret of Platform 13 (1994) involves a portal to a world of witches, wizards and ogres, located at – yes, King’s Cross Station. Surely that can’t be a coincidence?
Actually, it probably can. The idea of the sorceror’s apprentice goes back a good deal further than Jill Murphy, after all. And train stations are, if you think about it, obvious places to locate portals for travel between worlds. If J.K. Rowling had really wanted to steal an idea from Eva Ibbotson, I think she would have had enough sense to move it to St Pancras, at the very least. 
Having a day job in literary research has taught me not to get overexcited every time I see evidence of some “undeniable influence” or “uncanny similarity.” Nothing is more likely to lead sober academics into making intemperate claims on the Today programme than the conviction that they have “found the key” to a writer’s work in this way. It can be a profoundly intoxicating experience, as I know well – but also one to be treated with great caution. Because, in fact, most coincidences are just that: coincidences.
Terry Pratchett has apparently proposed a fundamental particle called an ideon, which streams through the universe causing writers to come up with the same idea at the same time. I for one believe in it.  What are the chances of two authors publishing a book about a boy called Luke with synaesthesia in the same year, for instance? Yet it happened with Nicola Morgan’s Mondays are Red and Tim Bowler’s Starseeker, both published in 2002. My own The Fetch of Mardy Watt, which concerns a girl who finds that her life is gradually being taken over by a supernatural double, or fetch, had its publication delayed for six months when it was discovered that it was due to be released at the same time as Catherine MacPhail’s Another Me - which, again, involves a girl whose life is taken over by a fetch ( and even features a character called Mrs Watt). That my book about mysterious doubles should have a mysterious double of its own seems weirdly appropriate, but it’s not untypical. Ideons are very common particles.
Now, this isn’t to say that writers are never influenced, consciously or otherwise, by other authors. Of course they are. I’m proud to acknowledge my own influences, from Alan Garner to Susan Cooper and Diana Wynne Jones, to name but three. The sense that I’m working within a tradition that pre-exists me is, far from being something I feel detracts from the value of my writing, part of what underwrites it. As for J. K. Rowling, her books only make sense when placed in the context of the genre of the boarding school story, as well as the many folk stories she draws on and adapts. They are the air that her imagination lives and breathes.
Originality is an overrated virtue – if by originality we mean writing as though unaware of the work of previous authors. Of course, that’s not what originality is really about. But how do you set the desire to do something new against the desire to do justice to the tradition you’re a part of? 
That, as they say, is for another post. 

12 comments:

Katherine Langrish said...

OH MY GOD, Charlie! It's weirder than you think. At the the same time as McPhail's 'Another me' was coming out, I was involved in assessing another ms by a completely independent unpublished writer, also about a doppelganger. I saw the review of McPhail's book in the Guardian and had to tell my author that not only the basic plot, but also some of the character names and even events (a school play, Macbeth) had been duplicated by McPhail. And that, very sadly, was the end: my author couldn't wrest her story sufficiently far away for an independent life. SO peculiar. I reckon Terry Pratchett has hit on something. Must read your book now!

Charlie Butler said...

That's weird indeed! And what a disappointment for your other author. I hope she went on to write other stories that weren't caught in an ideon shower.

Katherine Langrish said...

I hope so too, but not so far as I know, unfortunately. And she was very talented.

John Dougherty said...

I went to see Diana Wynne Jones last year at Cheltenham, and afterwards went to talk to her. Our conversation went something like this:

Me: You were saying you have a book coming out in February in which a child goes to visit relatives in Ireland and strange things connected with Irish mythology happen to her...

DWJ: Yes?

Me: Well, I have a book coming out in March,in which a child goes to visit a relative in Ireland and strange things connected with Irish mythology happen to her...

DWJ: Oh, not again! This is always happening!

She was lovely, and very reassuring when I asked how I could explain to my publishers that my book was going to bomb because she'd had the same idea...

Anonymous said...

Weren't you just a little disappointed when it turned out someone had such a similar story coming out at more or less the same time?

But yes, I do think there must be something like ideons floating around--and there's fun to be had in reading different takes on a similar theme.

--Asakiyume (for some reason it doesn't like my open ID address at livejournal today....

Anonymous said...

Mark Twain (yes, he of Huckleberry Finn fame) wrote about ideas hitting people at about the same time, so that letters exploring the same idea would cross in the (much slower then) postal service. I think he called it synchronicity.

What year did you write your doppelganger story, because I wrote one with a similar concept in 2005. Hee. Life is strange. Ideas are stranger.

Lee said...

In science it's called multiples. And it happens all the time.

Charlie Butler said...

Hi John - What was your Irish mythology book? I read and enjoyed DWJ's *The Game*, and it would be fun to compare them. (In a strange way, hers reminded me of *Mythago Wood*...)

Asakiyume - yes, I was a little disappointed, I guess, but those are the breaks. What was rather more annoying was that my publisher put off my book for six months to wait until the MacPhail fuss (if any) had died down - and then, two days before my book was finally to be published, a review of Catherine M's book appeared in the Guardian, praising its originality, freshness, etc.!

Hi Anonymous. I wrote my story in 2000, though it only appeared in early 2004.

John Dougherty said...

Hi, Charlie - it's 'Bansi O'Hara and the Bloodline Prophecy'; and actually - as Diana said when we spoke - I suspect the two are very different. I haven't read 'The Game' yet, but it's on my list!

Candy said...

fascinating discussion ... bordering on the spooky. thanks for a great post!

bookwitch said...

I believe JK had another station in mind, and just got hold of the wrong name. Once she had used Kings Cross it was too late to change, but apparently the physical description is of somewhere else.

Nick Green said...

Rowling was thinking of Euston (where the ticket barriers seem to fit the description better). But weirdly, the ACTUAL platform 9 at Kings Cross now has a sign marked Platform 9 3/4 next to it, by an archway that is filled with solid bricks (so it looks like a bricked-up portal). This is pure coincidence, and was not on Rowling's mind at all, I understand. But now it is a tourist attraction (they've even embedded the handles of a trolley in the wall) and tourists are always taking pictures there. So 'ideons' work even between station architects and authors!