I believe it was Audre Lorde who first expressed the sentiment “There are no new ideas. There are only new ways of making them felt,” but so many other people have made similar statements that I’m not willing to say for sure. But this is a widely held sentiment amongst writers and artists–google it and see.
(Any working scientist or engineer would laugh in your face if you offered that bit of insight to them, but it is almost traditional that we exclude non-artists from the creative class when engaging in such flatulent arguments as this one.)
I am here to tell you that it’s horseshit–and I can prove it mathematically.
(DISCLAIMER: no mathematical proof included, on account of the fact that I want to keep my readership in the double digits.)
First let’s take a look at Lorde’s second clause, which I think amounts to saying that the only thing that counts is execution. This, as far as I’m concerned, amounts to a smaller but no less egregious pile of horseshit that its predecessor. Without execution there is no story. The way that a story is told is very much a part of the story itself. But let us suppose that one can, in fact, remove the telling from the plot. That leaves us with a sequence of causally related actions involving a combination of characters, props and settings. A story, under this logic, is but the sum of its parts.
I can understand where the sentiment that stories are a scarce commodity comes from. Hollywood is presently wallowing in remakes and sequels and re-imaginings and re-adaptations. There have always been plagiarists and ripoffs and pastiches and remixes. Are these ever interesting works of art? Seldom. Can we really consider these to be new stories, just because the writer swapped around some elements around or changed them trivially?
Well, yes, I think we have to, given the horribly reductive definition we have just arrived at. But hey, guess what? Quality is not a necessary component of novelty. Shitty work can be original, too. But the former argument is one of quantity, not quality. If a story is constituted entirely out of its enumerable parts, then, mathematically speaking, the quantity of possible stories is a permutation or a combination of those parts.
You can’t argue with maths–specially if you’re an artist who can’t count the change in his pocket.
The world changes every day. Societies change. Morals change. Technologies change. The environment changes. We gain knew knowledge, which we accept or reject. We discard old beliefs, or rediscover them. Every change in the world provides new components we could permute into make stories. I don’t just mean science fiction stories, either, for those of you who have just turned up your noses at the pong of genre fiction.
Take something as banal as social media. That sudden increase in connectivity and reflexivity has had a massive influence on our society. There is an exponential number of new stories we can extrapolate from just this by itself that we could not have had prior to the ubiquity of this technology. And of course there are plenty more transformative technologies and events to come, since, according to the eggheads we artistes would prefer to exclude from the discussion, the pace of innovation is accelerating.
It doesn’t take a massive plot shift to completely turn out a new story–it just takes one changed outcome.
Of course all of this of course effects storytelling, or execution. New technologies, new media, new cultural dispositions or mental states provide us new tools and techniques for telling stories. These in turn effect, and are effected-by the story elements that the writer chooses and the way in which they are deployed. I guess you can’t separate story from storytelling from the storyteller, after all.
Now instead of following that argument into the world of quantum physics and metafictional magical thinking–it might make me lose my hair–let me return to that original thesis. What are people actually saying, when they claim that all stories have already been written? I think, beneath the rhetoric, they are really trying to say that all stories are about people, about human nature, and that human nature does not change.
Semi-horseshit. Stories do not have to be about people. You can tell a compelling story about the lifespan of a star, for example, without involving a single human being. But in principle I agree with the argument. I do believe that most worthwhile fictive stories, in our culture, are about people.
But here’s the other thing: people do change.
People are born, they grow up, they die. History accrues. Knowledge accumulates. Cultures and societies evolve just as the human species does, and this absolutely carries through to our brains, our minds, our souls, our human nature.
We are all post human. We are each and every one of us something new, something incrementally different, something that has never existed before and never will again. And our stories reflect that, whether we accept it or not.