Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Fanfiction and "Real" Fiction

Between the Lori Jareo kerfuffle and the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction going to Geraldine Brooks's March (which tells the story of the Civil War experience of the father of the March girls of Little Women), fanfiction and "tie-in work" have been debated a lot online over the past week or two.

I guess I can't stand to be left out, so here I go as well.

I started thinking about this when Keith R.A. DeCandido talked about March last week, and called it a "tie-in novel." There was a discussion that flowered from there, but I can't remember exactly where right now (probably at either Whatever or Making Light). Calling March a tie-in didn't seem quite right, because "tie-in" isn't a term of art but of commerce. A novel is not a tie-in due to anything intrinsic in the work; it's a tie-in because it's related to some other event or product. A novel can be a tie-in, yes -- but so can beach towels, squashed fruitoid pseudo-food, or chess sets. What makes any of those things a tie-in is the commercial relationship; they were licensed or approved by some third party and, because of that, they have something owned by that third party attached to them. Being a tie-in is a legal status rather than a literary one, and so it's up to the owner of the thing being tied into to decide which tie-ins are approved and which are not. (Subject to arcane and convoluted laws, of course.)

So, to me, March isn't a tie-in novel, but -- as I think someone else said -- there was a tie-in edition of Little Women (the original Louisa May Alcott novel) at the time of the early '90s movie. What made it a tie-in was that it had movie art on the cover, and that it was explicitly linked to that movie. Tie-in-ness isn't a quality inherent in a book, I think -- sure, a book can be commissioned specifically to be a tie-in (as most of the things we think of as tie-ins are), and it would then be legally unpublishable outside of that framework (for a good ninety-five years or so, at this point), but that's roughly analogous to writing, for example, a romance novel for a specific line, with very rigid plot, character and length requirements. Over a long enough period of time, all artistic works eventually enter the public domain, and so are no longer available to have other artistic works tied into them -- in other words, they're not controlled by a third party anymore, and are free to be used by anyone who wants to.

I like the word "pastiche" for any work of art that contains identifiable borrowings from previous work. It's not the most positive term, true -- it does have a slight negative connotation -- but I don't know of any other term that covers the right area and isn't more negatively perceived. A pastiche can be good or bad -- Another Hope is a pastiche, but so was The Aeneid. All of the things we usually think of as tie-in novels (movie novelizations, books based on TV shows or comics or RPGs) are pastiches -- and, in two hundred years, they will still be pastiches but (I fervently hope) will no longer be tie-ins.

So the real denigration of "tie-ins" is not because they're pastiches; as Keith pointed out, critics and award bodies have often loved pastiches, from Joyce's Ulysses to March. The problem, as is common in the literary world, is that nexus of commerce and art. What is objected to is the tie-in-ness; books that are commissioned and published to extend a brand or drain some extra cash out of the pockets of fanatic followers of whatever-it-is are expected to be trash, and treated as such. The literary world wants to believe that true literary worth comes out of the writer's own head and nowhere else; if the impetus for any part of a book seems to come from elsewhere (witness Fay Weldon's tie-in novel The Bulgari Connection, which was deplored because she essentially accepted money for advertising in the book).

And, of course, most of the pastiches being written today are yardgoods: work-for-hire tie-in novels, written and published quickly to fill up the lower and middle rungs of a publishing schedule. That doesn't mean that none of them are any good, but that their literary qualities are mostly beside the point. Given the strikes already against them, a SFF tie-in novel these days can hope to aspire to the quality of "a good book" or, rarely, "a really good book," but I haven't seen or heard of a tie-in novel (written to order) that was actually a great novel. Other pastiches, though -- those that don't have some third party peering over the writer's shoulder and demanding things be done its way -- can be great novels. John Gardner's Grendel, for example, is one of the great fantasy novels of the 20th century.

I don't have much of an opinion about fanfiction (the kind that can't be published legally); I haven't spent any time reading it, and don't have much interest in it. But I don't much care about authorized novels set in TV/movie worlds, being a Big Ol' Book Snob. And I do have the possibly-unwarranted conviction that any half-decent writer can -- and probably will want to -- change things enough that the resulting work will be publishable as an original work. So my opinion of fanficcers -- the kind of people who spend lots of time writing stories that they'll never be able to distribute outside of clandestine channels -- is the same as of people who knit dragon-themed tea cozies or attempt to see how many pieces of metal can be attached to their own genitals: it's nice to have a hobby, but please don't do it in public and scare the horses.

1 comment:

Doug said...

Maybe the problem with the authorized novels in existing settings is what in the RPG world we used to call TV plots vs Movie plots. The gist was that at the end of a TV episode, none of the basic premises of the show had changed. Minor conflict was resolved, basic set-up was left unchanged. (Obvsly different from time-to-time [death of Col. Blake on M*A*S*H, e.g.] or in shows with season-long or longer story arcs.) In movie plots, the basic premises of the set-up had to change. The whole point of the plot was to end up somewhere different from where one began.

Thus most authorized books are required to be TV plots, which can be good, but have structural limitations that may make them less satisfying. I can think of two exceptions, both of which came very early in the history of authorized novels for their respective originals: Splinter of the Mind's Eye, by Alan Dean Foster, and Spock Must Die, by James Blish.

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