24 December 2009

Derivative Works—the Sequel

Yesterday I noted how the American comics world treats adaptations of retold stories with more apparent respect than the world of literary fiction does.

In that regard, children’s literature is more like comics than like adult literature. We celebrate picture books illustrating old tales like Snow White. We enjoy reinterpretations of those stories, as in Donna Jo Napoli’s Beast, and modernizations, such as Sarah Beth Durst’s Into the Wild. Those books get treated as serious work, not postmodernist play or slumming.

That may apply only to very old stories, however. Sequels and rewrites of works published in the past century or so, and linked to a particular originator, still seem a bit iffy. I’m thinking of the latter-day sequels and rewrites of J. M. Barrie’s Peter Pan (which was itself derived from his play, of course), A. A. Milne’s Winnie the Pooh, Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House books, and Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland. They can be entertaining, but they rarely win awards. I suppose that’s a variation on the rule that ”If you steal from one person, it’s plagiarism; if you steal from many, it’s research.”

In that respect, children’s literature reflects adult literature’s preference for the entirely new over the reworked. Critics and critical readers value originality for its own sake. In some fields, the dominant artistic values elevate a half-baked story we’ve never heard before over an old story executed in a completely entertaining way.

For the past century in the visual arts, the presentation of a new concept has gotten more respect than illustrations that bring a literary or historical moment to life because the concept is more original, even if that concept is “a square on a rectangle.” For much of the twentieth century, in fact, illustrations were seen as so derivative that their copyrights remained with the words unless the artist had an explicit agreement otherwise.

But in cogitating about the history of various arts, I’ve come to this conclusion:

Originality is overrated.

Or, rather, 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.

Consider how many centuries people have been entertained by stories of the Trojan War. The tradition of retelling that legend is older than literature itself. It takes in Dante and Shakespeare and and all them other high-falutin’ Greeks. Dryden and Pope took translating Homer’s epics as the best way to demonstrate their prowess as English poets.

The rediscovery of the “Laocoön and His Sons” marble in 1506 inspired El Greco a century later to paint the same subject (shown above, courtesy of the National Gallery in London). Two and a half centuries later, sculptors were still borrowing from it. But in the early 20th century, critics like Irving Babbitt and Clement Greenberg used the Laocoön as a metaphor for an outdated standard artists should leave behind.

So how are storytellers exploring the Trojan War legend today? Not in “literary fiction”; most novels about it are published as genre fiction. The most publicized recent retelling has been the movie Troy, and the most critically acclaimed is Eric Shanower’s comics saga, Age of Bronze.

No comments: