Original Sin

July 27, 2011 | 8 4 min read

Zoltán Abádi-Nagy: The Faustian pact with the devil is nothing but giving up originality, isn’t it? And vice versa, a painter, Wyatt, manipulated into selling his soul, giving up originality, is bound to be Faustian, besides being emblematic of the artist’s position in a corrupt, manipulative, counterfeit world. Is this a correct interpretation of Wyatt’s central function as a Faust figure?

William Gaddis: It is, yes, originality also being Satan’s “original sin” if you like. I think also, further, I tried to make clear that Wyatt was the very height of a talent but not a genius — quite a different thing. Which is why he shrinks from going ahead in, say, works of originality. He shrinks from this and takes refuge in what is already there, which he can handle, manipulate. He can do quite perfect forgeries, because the parameters of perfection are already there.

—“The Art of Fiction No. 101,” The Paris Review, Winter 1987

Writers, if you can call them that, are cowards. They are afraid of being too different from one another. Easily the most pernicious lie they tell themselves is that they have a calling — that they belong to a metaphysical caste with others like them in some ineffable way. This quality may not be something within their powers to describe, as they’d be the first to admit, but that won’t stop them, for they are writers. They will find the words. By an irritating logic, writers may be accidentally correct in this belief of a species-wide likeness, the likeness being that silly belief.

When there is no writing out there to speak for itself, the writer talks about writing. Maybe they write a story about it. Or an essay. Or they read a story/essay about writing, which is an elegant way of avoiding writing, because it provides a writerly fog that nearly simulates writing itself. It’s all very tiresome, because of course you can’t properly write about writing — you just drone on about “the process,” or your close attention to the texture of this world, or your drinking problem, or whether MFA programs destroyed the craft (as if there was anything to destroy). Leaving aside the obvious benefits of a good writing workshop — deadlines, clashing viewpoints, sex — it’s clear they feed the fantasy that writers can coexist at a single set of coordinates. They allow a frivolous, narrow habit to resemble a vocation.

coverThis has already been written about, exhaustively, and writing about it further will only encourage more of that same writing. When a writer writes what we’ll call a book, that book is pitched and sold as a book in the model of other books that came before, and the writer is identified as a writer happily related to several successful writers. This is utilitarian shorthand after a fashion, but it also reinforces the fear of originality. The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis blurbs its author as both “heir to the shredding wit and poignancy of Dorothy Parker and the shrewd surrealism of Donald Barthelme” (Donna Seaman, Booklist) and a writer whom there is “no one like” (Catherine Holmes, The Post and Courier). Well, which is it?

Admitting that language succeeds through contagion and mutability, it seems redundant to insist that no writer is truly original. But in despairing at that unattainable, likely unpublishable ideal, writers retreat too hastily into the traditional romans-á-clef, the same stunt journalism that a cycling of taste demands. The reasoning appears to be: if you can’t be a unique writer, have the markings of a generic. Glamorize your squalid room in the bohemian part of a bright metropolis. Peddle opinions on the books you read (if you read). Consort with other writers.

Except how friendly can two writers be? They are jealous of each other’s luck, scornful of each other’s methods. Slander flies thick behind backs. And because writers can focus on the business of books while overlooking books themselves, there is little need to have arguments about what has actually been written. Instead of Nabokov gleefully demolishing Dostoyevsky’s idea of the psyche, or David Markson noting mystic “bullshit” in the margins of DeLillo’s novels, it’s an unpacking of a critique of the hyperbole around Jonathan Franzen. This would be writing, not feeling.

What dark, original feelings writers have — and suppress in the interest of community — are purged as the calculated outbursts of token enfants terribles and bitter old cranks (the former smoothly becoming the latter, as Martin Amis can attest). To parse a book’s account of reality, consciousness, and time is to fly too close to the sun; the stakes are simply too high. Better to pigeonhole the prose style. To fetishize the small, lovely sentence. To address the writer’s eccentricities off the page, which he or she is transparently eager to name. Writers, assigned to write about other writing, skip over the gut reaction to nitpick, evading the biggest questions posed. Frightened of their problematic voices, they adopt synthetic tones, stripped of all that troublesome bias but saddled with its outcomes regardless. A century after William James, no one will confess to having a temperament.

You could have ignored the remarks above, and no harm would have befallen you. They are not especially provocative, in that there is nothing to provoke. It is unclear who should actually care what they mean. None of them are meant to suggest that things used to be different, or will soon change, because who knows how things used to or will be. Writing is just what some people do, whenever they stop writing about it. It is an art, as Gaddis had it, for which we can set the parameters of perfection. Why we should want to is, for the moment, beyond answering.

Image credit: design.mein/Flickr

lives in New York and, unfortunately, writes.


  1. That second to last paragraph is killer. And, yes, it is rather agonizing how many writers perpetuate a fixed formula under the guise of “originality.”

  2. Writers. They different. lie they themselves they have — they others like them way. This something they’d them they writers. They words. writers belief likeness likeness being belief.

    there writing there speak itself writer talks writing. they write story. essay. they read story/essay writing way writing writerly writing itself. write about writing “process” texture drinking MFA craft destroy. writing workshop sex fantasy writers. narrow vocation.

    already been written about writing about same writing. writer writes book book pitched sold book books writer writer happily writers. originality. author heir shredding Dorothy Parker Booklist writer no one like Courier. which

    language redundant writer original. despairing unpublishable writers stunt journalism taste. reasoning unique writer generic. bohemian opinions books read. Consort writers.

    two writers luck methods. because writers books books themselves, arguments written. idea of the mystic “bullshit” hyperbole around writing, not feeling.

    dark, original enfants attest). account of sun stakes. Better prose. fetishize transparently. Writers write about gut evading. problematic synthetic outcomes. century after temperament.

    remarks above harm. provocative nothing. It is unclear who mean. things used used to be. Writing people whenever. It is an parameters. moment, beyond

  3. I don’t know how you did that, Brad, but that’s exactly the way my stumbling eyes read this article too.

  4. I’d like to think originality had something to say for surplus orgasms, but if any generic can accumulate bedfellows, I give up now. I’ll weather my MFA and then slide into informatics or the clergy.

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