It has been said that there is nothing new under the sun, that everything is a copy or an extension of the original. Guess what?
Every note the Beatles wrote had already been written by Bach. All seven Harry Potter books use the very same words that Dr Johnson brain-dumped into his dictionary (well, apart from the obvious wizardly names and mock-latin spells, that is). Jack Vettriano uses the same basic colours that Rubens painted with. The same applies to every creative endeavour to some degree.
It is a testament to the human brain that just 12 musical notes or 26 letters (in English, at least) can produce such masterpieces as wonderful, yet diverse, as Tosca and Trout Mask Replica or Anna Karenina and Finnegan’s Wake. Of course, those same building blocks in other hands can just as easily, if not more easily, produce an overwhelming amount of truly awful, or just plain mediocre, work. Nobody has successfully attempted the infinite monkeys at infinite typewriters experiment, but the internet is already showing potential for coming as close to it as we are likely to get. The good news is that this means the internet WILL produce the equivalent of a Shakespeare or Mozart. The bad news is that we’ll probably never see it because it will be sitting on an unloved MySpace page, swamped by the billions of other would-be-bards.
Where the skill, the real artistic talent, comes into the equation is in putting these various little creative building blocks into some sort of order and sticking it in an appropriate ‘frame’ that states its artistic intent. The statistical likelihood of two pieces of art (by which I refer to art, music, literature, architecture, cuisine and any other such creative activity) replicating each other seems like it should be miniscule. For example, even the first line of the song “Three Blind Mice” has 7^12 = 13,841 million different possible combinations of those seven simple notes, but just one of those permutations is the one we remember. Completely random music, painting and writing has been tried and usually fails pretty convincingly, except in those cases where true randomness presents something the human mind can latch onto: a string of words that seem to make sense, a set of coloured blobs that could be a face or a sequence of notes that follows a snippet of a favourite melody. Our brains are simply not built for appreciating randomness, we need at least a degree of familiarity or we fall asleep or get aggravated.
So, there is a simplification process to help us cope. We form letters into words that we recognise and can associate with some object or mood; notes become combined into scales and recognisable harmonic intervals. Even these more complicated, yet more recognisable forms need to be formed into meaningful sentences or melodic phrases, but at this point the artist’s influence starts to show through, perhaps in rhyme or a fondness for excessively and tirelessly using adverbs. Yet still these structures need to follow on from each other in a logical and recognisable manner or we are faced with a list of random statements or melodies that seem to meander all over the place. At this point, indeed, many creators part company with their potential audience, as their work can, to the unprepared, seem like this, even if there is a purpose to it all. Not many inexperienced readers could get too far through Joyce’s “Finnegan’s Wake”, or listeners through Dolphy’s “Out To Lunch”, without giving up, but the apparent departure from existing forms that artists such as those create can actually (over time) redefine the basic rules by which we internally grade all creativity.
At the next level, the writer follows a narrative path that the reader is familiar with. It may be a crime novel, where a body is found, a series of clues are unearthed and the culprit apprehended or a fantasy where the orphan child departs to seek a lost parent or friend, only to get embroiled in some world-threatening plot which only they can prevent using some item from their journey. It might seem ridiculous to try and summarise a novel of hundreds of pages, thousands of words, into a single sentence, but such categorisations are important for a number of reasons, no matter how restrictive they may seem. From the author’s perspective, such patterns can help ensure that the characters in the story are fully developed, that the reader is shown how they deal with death/poverty/dragons/budget cuts or whatever is thrown at them. There has been much said about the current glut of ‘dark romance’ on the market, but really, in comparison to historical romances, spy thrillers or whodunits, they are only a drop in the ocean. Yes, in a few years time there will doubtless be a new trend, but there will also be a continuing group of readers who still enjoy vampire love stories and will ensure that the genre keeps shelf space for a good few years to come. Just like those other, longer established genres, a good author still has to be entertaining and tell a good story within the rules of the genre. Literary genres allow readers to find more stories in a style they enjoy, in the same way that musical genres provide a buffer of comfort and expectation that the music will not depart too much from what the listener expects.
The genre, like the language itself, is merely a framework for the creator to structure their art, whatever it may be. Genres can be altered, subverted or stuck to rigidly, in the same way that language or musical theory can, but a truly creative artist can use these to entice the reader or listener, to lull them into a false sense of ease or to play with what they expect. The audience may not even recognise such techniques, but they can often be the defining factors of what makes a work stand out from its peers. The artist still needs to learn the rules before breaking them, however, lest the work collapse into nonsense.
Every artist takes their own path, starting with those basic blocks, building them up into something grand and chiseling away at the rough edges to make something unique and identifiable as theirs. Not all are successful, as the range of possibilities is vast, overwhelming even, but armed with the right tools and a sense of taste, it is far from impossible.