Derivative (Or, All Writers Steal)

This past spring, in between terms, I pretty much devoured The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller.

The novel chronicles the events leading up to the Trojan War–and the war itself–from the point of view of Patroclus, Achilles’ friend and companion. However, in Miller’s reimagining, there is no ambiguity regarding the relationship between the two; in fact, she spends a great deal of time establishing the romance of their youth. More than that, it’s a story that humanizes the Greek heroes for modern readers. (I would say good translations of The Iliad also accomplish this, but many still see Achilles as a whiny brat in the poem. It’s hard to after reading Song.)

I have to say, I loved this book. Miller is a classicist, so she handled the material beautifully and sensitively. She does a lovely job with Patroclus’ voice and she gives the story new dimension.

So you can imagine my surprise when, discussing the book with a classmate, I almost immediately heard the word “derivative” uttered with that characteristic sneer.

Sadder still, I found echoes of this in reviews and discussions online (the phrase “glorified fanfiction” in particular comes to mind). Which probably isn’t terribly troubling to Miller–and it shouldn’t be. The woman won the Orange Prize for her debut novel. Most reviewers adored her book. She’ll be fine. But I have to say, it bothered me.

“Derivative,” after all, pops up with relative frequency in MFA workshops and the literary world in general. Moreover, I’ve most often seen it applied to works by women. Whether that’s an empirically consistent pattern, I can’t say–it’s only an impression I have.

But I’m not inclined to argue about how gender affects our impression of writers. (At least not today.) I’m more interested in “derivative” as an objection against contemporary fiction.  For instance, how do we differentiate it from that other oft-bandied (and–forgive me–completely pretentious) word: “homage”?

It’s so often lamented that there’s nothing new under the sun when comes to writing. There are a finite number of stories and a finite number of ways to tell them. We recognize and accept this. And we keep reading new stories.

Also, trade secret: young writers learn about writing from imitating. Anyone’s early efforts are likely pastiches of the authors they enjoy most. And while we develop our own styles, we all retain qualities of those early teachers.

Moreover, we all belong to particular schools of thought, which means we have ideas about language and culture in common with other writers. I.e. There will be similarities among writers from the same school.

And, perhaps most importantly, all writers steal. Whether it’s a turn of phrase or an image or an approach, we steal. Not only from other writers in our genre, but from all the arts and all aspects of our lives. We’re not even cognizant of it most of the time.

When we consider works drawn deliberately from the classics, should we think about them differently? Is it better or worse to reinterpret Homer? Or Dante? Or Shakespeare? Because it is reinterpretation. Unlike in actual fanfic, where writers are deliberately playing in someone else’s playground for the fun of it, reinterpreted fiction shines a new light on neglected characters or themes. Makes us consider a work in a different way. E.g., I would label satire a branch of reinterpretive fiction. The Wind Done Gone doesn’t just pluck up the characters from Gone with the Wind without any significance–it bends and reshapes the story to reflect uncomfortable truths.

We see this perhaps most often with fairy tales. Fantasists and literarians alike seem to have carte blanche with fairy tales. The stepmother is merely misunderstood. So was the wolf, the wicked queen. It’s beneficial for us to see these stories in new ways; it challenges our thinking. Like anything, it can easily be overdone, but fairy tale retellings rarely seem to draw the kind of ire I’ve seen with retellings of other works.

Maybe that’s a victimless crime. Maybe we feel more defensive of Shakespeare than we do the nameless, faceless sources for Grimm’s tales.* Maybe it’s because we still see fairy tales as being for children.

Or maybe it’s because with fairy tales we recognize the nature of our relationship to the narrative. Maybe our pretensions fail us. We’re constantly retelling the same stories to better understand ourselves. So what if the shoe was made of glass or fur–if we keep respinning the tale in new ways, we will continue to learn from it.

*Y’know, unlike the faceless poet behind The Iliad.


4 thoughts on “Derivative (Or, All Writers Steal)

  1. The gender issues comes up a lot in Sherlock Holmes circles – men’s writing is “pastiche” and “homage,” women’s is “derivative” & “fanfiction.”

    • Which is extra weird because so many writers play in that sandbox–mostly in a way that is merely imitative (we want more mysteries!) and not at all reinterpretive. And because one of the most successful Sherlock reimaginings is by a woman (Laurie R. King).

      And then we have a striking exception from the rule in Lovecraftian fiction, which is so pervasive and acceptable that it has its own subgenre. Everybody steals from Lovecraft and no one seems to feel particularly bad about it (maybe because he was so horribly racist and anti-Semitic?). And I don’t think I’ve seen writers much criticized for it.

  2. The book sounds amazing! Derivative? I haven’t read it, but it sounds enlightening, an elucidation of the original. Writing from the POV of Patroclus would lend it an entirely different meaning, I would say. Sort of like John Gardner’s “Grendel”.

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