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An Optimistic Twist

...despite our romantic cult of originality, most artists are themselves gifted creators of variations upon received themes. Even those great writers whom we regard with special awe, and whom we celebrate for their refusal to parrot the cliches of their culture, tend to be particularly brilliant improvisers rather than absolute violaters or pure inventors...Such borrowing is not evidence of imaginative parsimony, still less a symptom of creative exhaustion--I am using Dickens, Shakespeare, and Spenser precisely because they are among the most exuberant, generous, and creative literary imaginations in our language (Greenblatt 439).

Sorry for the long quote, but I felt it necessary. This is a concept I've struggled with, even before the beginning of this class. I think it was during my creative writing class with Dr. Arnzen that I fully realized how much literature repeats itself. There I was, sitting at my computer unable to come up with an idea that was truly original, and it drove me bonkers. Finally, I gave up and gave into the monotony and wrote a modern day version of the good samaritan including a character named...can you guess?...Sam and a bum outside a McDonald's, only in my version, Sam doesn't help the the bum in time and he finds him dead against a dumpster--What do you expect? I was depressed about the lack of originality in the world... But I think Greenblatt has finally helped me escape this depression. I like his term "brilliant improvisers" because it implies that we can still be brilliant and creative, we're just not pulling from nothing when we create that's all. We can still be original in our combinations of old ideas, and, No, we are not telling the same story over and over again, but rather, each good story has a unique twist or innovation to its telling. Also, I feel I need to clarify this point: while I was depressed about the lack of originality in literature, I also have always loved being able to point out similarities between text (I know...I'm a very conflicted person.) Greenblatt's concept of originality allows me to have my cake and eat it too, in a sense. I can still believe in the idea of being an original and creative writer through "brilliant improvisation" as Greenblatt terms it, while at the same time appreciating recurrent themes, structures, etc. in literature. I can appreciate literature as an intertextual critic without banning originality entirely. I can still credit the authors such as Shakespeare, Dickens, and Spenser with brilliance and creativity as they so rightfully deserve.

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Comments (2)


I agree with you, you make a great point and I like how you changed the good samaritan story even though he died at the end. I was thinking about what you said, it's funny how many many ciderella stories are out there, specifically movies, yet we keep watching them and enjoying them because each one has their own spin to it.

Greta Carroll:

Exactly, Ellen! I think you explained that very well. When I first read what Greenblatt was saying about the unoriginality of Shakespeare, I was at first offended. However, the second time I read the article I realized that there was nothing offensive about what Greenblatt was saying. As you pointed out, he is still valuing and appreciating “the brilliant improvisations” that authors do make while still recognizing the “exchange” which is present between all works of literature and between art and culture.


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