In the same interview I cited some posts back, Tobias Wolff scoffs at the idea, sometimes advanced in writing classes, that there are only seven stories, some of which have already been “used up.” There are as many stories, he says, as there are ways to imagine them; these, by implication, being pretty close to infinite.
Ned Beauman at The Millions is not convinced. He suggests new writers can be paralysed not only by old stories, but also by used up ways to tell them. “There’s a remark somewhere by (I think) Martin Amis about how all young writers have to confront the fact that there just aren’t many new ways left to describe an autumn sky or a pretty girl. It’s like peak oil for lyricism.”
I have to disagree with Beauman, and possibly with Amis (if it was him). There are infinite ways to describe an autumn sky or a pretty girl. There will be no peak oil for lyricism because lyricism is another word for poetry and poetry is another word for making. How can there be an end to making? A limit to the number of things made? Lyrics are a resource not external but endemic to the human mind. You might as well say there can be no new inventions, no developments in medicine or physics or genetics. Lyricism springs eternal in the human breast.
In fact what I love most about prose fiction is not the story, whether it's old or new, but the texture and detail of the prose, the ingenuities of language that describe the world in ways I couldn't have. Even a bad book turns up some new phrase, some new way of seeing or being, crystallised in two or three words. The best books do this on every page. It's why, though we know the story back to front, we go back to them.