Phong Nguyen, a short story writer and author of Pages from the Textbook of Alternate History, visited Carroll University to share his book with students and the public. Following his reading, he held a Q&A session regarding his collection of short stories and the art of writing.
One audience member asked Nguyen about his take on originality and if he had ever ceased to write something because it had “already been done.”
As writers, there is often the issue that an idea has already been written and written well. But what if we didn’t always have to be original? What if writing something that has been done before could be done again, perhaps shedding some new light onto the topic or idea?
Nguyen answered the question by pointing to an essay written by Jonathan Lethem, an American novelist, who writes about this idea in “The Ecstasy of Influence: A plagiarism.” On the first page, Lethem poses the argument that “literature has always been a crucible in which familiar themes are continually recast.” He suggests the continual recasting “might be said of all art.” He asks us to “consider the remarkable series of ‘plagiarisms’ that links Ovid’s Pyramus and Thisbe with Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet and Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story.” If these are examples of plagiarism, then we want more plagiarism.
What do you think about Lethem’s assertion? Check out his full work in Harper’s Magazine, and post your comments below.