Is Any New Literature Actually New?

With the recent cinderellaresurgence in popularity of Cinderella, I’ve been thinking of the original tale that I remember reading and watching in my youth. From the classic Walt Disney version, to the Rodgers and Hammerstein version with its skewed view of how interracial couples produce children, I remember the hope I used to feel, that one-day, I too would find my Prince Charming and become the princess I thought my name entitled me to one day be. To be fair, at this point in my life I don’t think I quite realized that other people could also have a name that meant princess. But now, as I think of the fairytale from my childhood the feminist in me sees another side of the tale and the literature lover within me sees patterns.

When I think of Cinderella, I think of the fact that women are separated into innocent princesses and evil stepmothers. I think of how it instills the idea of the makeover being necessary for a woman to catch the eye of a man. I think of the fact that the entire goal of the heroine of this tale is to meet a man who can save her by marrying her. But ultimately, when I think of this fairytale, I also think of how it, and famous fairytales like it, has influenced much of the literature that has come after it. There may be strong, independent women who came before this fairytale princess, the Wife of Bath from Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales and the Biblical Judith, but it is not these women that young girls grow up idealizing. Little girls worship princesses and this does not stop when these women stop being children, it continues as the fairytales they grew up with follow them into adulthood.

cinderella fifty shadesWhen I think of books like Pride and Prejudice or even the hot topic book of the last few years, Fifty Shades of Grey, there are still fairytale undertones in each of them, Cinderella undertones specifically since I’ve been discussing that fairytale in particular in this blog. When considering all three of these tales it is readily visible that all three depict females in less well off financial situations who meet wealthy men who eventually help them in some way (either by saving them from evil stepmothers, helping save their sisters from reputational ruin, and helping save them from the monotonous life of postgrad). The only major differences that can be seen between these three tales are setting, familiar circumstances, a glass slipper, and a few whips and chains.

Though I was interested in seeing the similarities and minute differences between novels and many of my favorite fairytales, I was more interested in how I struggled to come up with novels that were in no way impacted by fairytales. I could think of horror novels and short stories, but many of these can been seen as takes on the original versions of fairytales. In the original fairytales there was rape in Sleeping Beauty, cannibalism in Little Red Riding Hood, women cutting off parts of their feet like something out of a Saw movie in Cinderella, and undertones of necrophilia in Snow White. So even these types of stories take bits from the tales that came before them.

But this process is cyclical. Even if I could think of stories that aren’t based on other stories I’ve read before, I haven’t read everything the world has to offer and never could. Even if I found some obscure novel or even piece of nonfiction, there is probably someone who has written a story just like it before or who has lived through similar experiences and written about it. This brings me my real overarching question, however. If recent literature all has some basis in the books and stories that came before them, can any new books actually be considered new? Is there any such thing as a new piece of literature?

Samuel Clemens, known as Mark Twain to most of the world, has been quoted as saying, “There is no such thing as a new idea. It is impossible. We simply take a lot of old ideas and put them into a sort of mental kaleidoscope. We give them a turn and they make new and curious ideas We keep on turning and making new combinations indefinitely; but they are the same old pieces of colored glass that have been in use through all the ages.” If Clemens is correct, then everything that has ever been thought, seen, or written has been thought, seen, or been written before. While I agree with Clemens in part of his argument, I also have a little rebuttal. Indeed, I agree with Clemens when he says that everything is just the “same old pieces or colored glass” and they are all just being turned “and making new combinations indefinitely,” but doesn’t this undermine the concept that there are no new ideas? Isn’t the idea to rearrange the pieces of glass into new formations new in and of itself? So even if new books take ideas from old fairytales or biblical stories, aren’t they new in the inventive execution of these old ideas? I think they are. I think that the ability of authors to piece old storylines together into new tales is what makes literature a creative art form. Even if parts of the story have been written before, they are still new in how those bits and pieces fit together. They are still new to the world in some way or another and that is one of the reasons why I continue writing and reading. I hope that some day I can write or read something that is exorbitantly different than what has come before it.

About Sara Korash-Schiff

Sara Korash-Schiff is a senior English and journalism and mass communications major at Washington and Lee.  She has served as  an intern for Hachette Book Group in Nashville and a reporting intern for The Springfield Republican.  After graduation, she plans to travel throughout Europe and attend a graduate creative writing program in fiction.

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4 Responses to Is Any New Literature Actually New?

  1. scottr15 says:

    I read an interesting book recently called “Steal Like an Artist” by Austin Kleon. The basic premise of the book is to acknowledge that every artist, whether they know it or not, is taking aspects they like of previous art and constructing their own creations out of those pieces. Kleon says that the only way to address this is to acknowledge what we’re doing and to be clever about the art from which we “borrow” elements. He specifically uses the phrase “remix” to describe the process of creating new art in all mediums, which seems to me to be the best descriptor of this process.

    On another note entirely, the inimitable Kurt Vonnegut once described Cinderella as the most popular story of all time. In fact, he gave entire lectures on why every story has the same basic structure as Cinderella, which can be found here:

  2. Emily Flippo says:

    While reading this post, particularly when I got to Mark Twain’s quote towards the end, I had the exact same response as you. Maybe plot lines of stories are all part of a formula, but are new characters, new settings, and subtle changes and twists to the formulas not considered new ideas? Yes, I can’t imagine someone developing an entire new genre or plot formula, but even though writers seem to just be manipulating stories that have already been written, how can that manipulation not be something creative that they’ve discovered on their own?

  3. Griffin Cook says:

    In this era of perpetual Hollywood movie reboots, remakes, and reinventions, it’s easy to believe that the same assumption may hold true for literature, and that few, if any, recent releases are actually new or especially original in any meaningful way. Perhaps with further development, certain social acceptance movements and other progressive agendas, we will begin to see more literature and art in general that at least provide a fresh perspective on an old story (what if this beloved character were a woman or transgender instead of a man, and vice-versa? What if this character had to decide between a man and a woman that he or she has fallen in love with instead of two people of the same gender?). Looking back even past the days of Shakespeare, it’s true that a fairly limited number of essential plot structures have proven to be sufficiently interesting or effective story-telling methods, but by disguising enough of the details or adding a few interesting twists, even rehashed plots can seem fresh. Ultimately, I do agree that a new, never-before-seen arrangement using the same pieces that have been around for centuries still yields a new picture in the end. Besides, given the vast amount of literature, plays, television, film, etc., one could scarcely find the time to experience every story ever told. If something is presented in such a way that it seems brand new to a certain generation, then so be it.

  4. Katie Nell Taylor says:

    I really appreciate your point in this post, and as well have noticed the overlaps between misogyny in older stories and the new. I have constantly found myself asking, what, if anything has changed? The birth of feminism and new ideas regarding gender certainly exist, yet why do so many books today suggest otherwise? While many old ideas certainly do reoccur in new literature, I believe that literature is always expressing new ideas as well. Many recent books, such as Fifty Shades of Grey, do express old ideas, it is impossible to argue the non-existence of recent literature reflecting an entirely new combination ideas. Considering novels that present a story contrary to that of the fairy-tail, The Hunger Games comes to mind. Katniss certainly does not resemble the Cinderella-like character that is seemingly weak and reliant upon men. Instead she is strong, independent, and the central heroine of the entire story—showing a shift from the fairy-tail idea of women and gender.

    The recent surge in feminist focused non-fiction also illustrates this shift. Upon publication of Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead by Sheryl Sanberg, the book immediately went viral. Only a few years ago, it would have seemed highly implausible that a book focusing on feminism made it onto the New York Times best sellers list. She certainly questions the traditional fairy-tale narrative, and her book offers solutions to achieve a simplistic idea of feminism—women gaining equal rights with men. Her work proves that new ideas do exist in literature, particularly in the form of non-fiction and/or memoir, and based on the number of sales, it is clear that these types of ideas were certainly well received. I value the optimism of this post’s conclusion, as I also appreciate the ability of writers to make new and innovative combinations of ideas out of the old.

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