31 March 2010

Derivative Works—Revisited

Back in December, I wrote about our artistic culture’s valuing of originality:

our literary and artistic culture has, probably since the Romantic period in literature and for over a century in the visual arts, valued originality more than highly competent reworkings. If we look back on the art and literature of previous centuries, we see artists and writers unabashedly exploring the same topics and tales. The competition among artists over the same ground fueled both technique and creativity.
I used the example of the Trojan War as a subject that storytellers and artists reworked for centuries until the modern age, and asked:
So how are storytellers exploring the Trojan War legend today? Not in “literary fiction”; most novels about it are published as genre fiction.
Just in time for the publication of three books that Eric Mendelsohn reviews in this week’s New Yorker:
  • John Banville’s The Infinities, “a more or less contemporary tale over which the Greek gods Zeus and Hermes rather startlingly preside.”
  • David Malouf’s Ransom, “a riff on the twenty-fourth (and final) book of the Iliad” in the form of a serious novel that happens to be about Priam.
  • Zachary Mason’s The Lost Books of the Odyssey, which seems to be a more typically postmodernist arch manipulation of older texts.
So I guess there’s some literary life in that old war story after all.


ericshanower said...

Har de har.

J. L. Bell said...

Hey, I name-checked Age of Bronze in the December post. You get awed praise only once a week around here.

But really I’m talking about a difference between the “high” art of literary fiction, fine art, and serious theater and more popular art forms such as movies, genre fiction, musical theater, and comics. I’ve perceived practitioners of the latter arts not worrying so much about appearing original as long as their stories move their audiences, while the former group has largely shied away from retellings except with arch, postmodern approaches.

Now books like Ransom might undercut my hypothesis just when it was getting good.