In The Realm Of The Novel – 3 December 2012
I’ve been thinking a lot about the idea of novelty for a few days now, tossing it around, trying to wrap my head around what makes an idea, an object, a person, novel at some basic sense. Certainly, to refer to some one or some thing as ‘novel’ could have pejorative connotations, but the very idea of taking some idea or object and appropriating it in some unforeseen or unheard of way – what’s so bad about that? I suppose much of what’s perceived as negatively novel is seen as being of little importance to anyone, but only that which has a much wider reach and immediate use is what’s seen as positively novel – regardless of how outlandish or downright strange said idea or object may be.
In other words, novelty shouldn’t be relegated to the realm of the goofy accessory or the erotic bakery.
Take mass transit, for instance. In the US, between the World Wars, the advent of the automobile became the cornerstone of American culture, American economy, American wealth. Having a car made you an important person, to a massive degree, so everybody had to have one. Of course this led to massive overcrowding and urban sprawl in cities, and a huge spike in the level of airborne pollutants, and of course the automobile conglomerates and gasoline companies wanted to keep their finger in the honeypot. So when people began asking for their city governments to consider installing mass transit projects these conglomerates sent lobbyists into cities like Los Angeles and Cleveland and St. Louis to kill those projects immediately, citing them as being “novel” and “passing fads.” It is precisely this sort of thinking that killed the trolley car in Los Angeles and led to a colossal overdependence on car ownership in America in general, and why many people would rather hitchhike with Satan himself than rely on Amtrak to get them where they need to be in a reasonable amount of time.
I suppose what I’m getting at is, though most people in power – political, artistic, or otherwise – are horrifically shortsighted, why do we rely on them to decide what is or isn’t positively novel? Is it because we really believe they know what’s best, or are we apprehensive at taking that first step ourselves because we think we don’t? Perhaps this answer lies in the gray area between novelty and creativity. To be sure, novelty and creativity are two sides of the same coin but because people tend to lump the two together ‘mere’ novelty is seen as the weaker of the two – although I believe innovation bridges the gap between them. Creative things seem to overflow with innovation, while novel things do not. Novelty is the work of the weirdo in his mother’s basement, the tinkerer that doesn’t really seem to get anywhere. It’s the maverick fashion student who decides to cut a few holes in a shirt, glue it back together again, and term it haute couture. It’s the artist who covers the canvas in black paint, then throws pig’s blood on top of it and says he’s taken the next logical step in the history of high art. While these may not agree with a wide range of people’s accepted notions of the standard in particular areas, what’s to say they’re any less valid than the accepted ‘standard?’ Why do we have to be told what’s innovative and what isn’t? Until someone comes along with the right kind of pull and says “this has it”, what’s novel remains that way – merely novel.
Still, that’s what the fringe is for, I think. There are some who would prefer that their own ideas remain cutting edge and new, away from the influence of those that would shape it to meet their own ends and means. It’s here where positive novelty reigns, where it’s allowed to flourish, and why a city like London allows a skyscraper shaped like a striped pickle to dominate its skyline. Outside of creative endeavors, the only place where something novel is seen as positive is where said novelty stands a chance to make someone lots and lots of money. While I agree that money indeed has a hand in world affairs from the highest of governmental echelons to the bottom of the nearest gutter, why is it that what is perceived as ‘different’ automatically has little to no inherent cultural value, at least where those with power are concerned? Why is positive novelty restricted to art galleries and automobile developers, while the emo kid with the garage band who’s trying to develop a place for himself is termed weird?
I suppose that one reason novelty is seen as such a negative thing is because human beings are horrified by change, and are unwilling to accept it until someone tells them it’s okay to do so. And even then, it’s only when novelty amasses the potential to disrupt the status quo profoundly that those with sway convert the novel into the standard, assimilate and acclimatize it into mainstream thought – and no one ever seems (or cares) to remember that the latter was once the former.
As I write this post, I’m reminded of something a favorite teacher of mine in high school once told me. He said, Everyone wants to break the rules. But before you can break them, you have to be able to bend them first. Perhaps this very statement is at the core of why novelty is seen as such a bad thing, because we’re inundated with so many ideas from so many people who think that coming up with something weird is the same as being novel. And so what if it is? Novel things may be out of the ordinary, sure, but they aren’t odd for odd’s sake. They may not be up to the ‘standard’ that has been set by others, but never forget that what has become standard had its genesis in the realm of the novel. Someone bent those rules of what was expected, and broke them – accidentally, or otherwise – and they became something suddenly of use to all of us.
Merely novel? Not by a long shot.