labingi: (Default)
[personal profile] labingi
With the heightened visibility of fan fiction in recent years, conceptions of what constitutes professional-caliber fiction have been in flux, and derviative fiction (based on pre-existing works) has been slowly regaining legitimacy. I want to share my new enthusiasm for the richer, truer world that opens up for all participants in narrative when we accept the artistic legitimacy of retelling stories.

The Copyright Model

Our culture's dominant view of what constitutes quality narrative still draws its lines based on copyright. Under this model, professional writers write “original fiction”; i.e. works dissimilar enough from preexisting copyrighted works that the writer (or publisher) can claim copyright over them. Published writers who extrapolate stories in public domain are sometimes highly respected but sometimes placed on a lower tier than "original" writers. At a lower status, but still professionals, are authorized writers of works within others' copyrighted universes, such as official tie-in novels. Low status and traditionally derided are fan fiction writers, who write unauthorized derivative works.

The dividing line for professionalism in this model is how much the writer gets paid. Original and authorized authors make money through traditional publishing (and, more rarely, self-publishing); unauthorized fan fic writers are legally barred from profiting on copyrighted works.

From an economic perspective, this distinction is important. In order to have a flourishing artistic culture, we need a lot of people to spend a lot of energy creating works of art. This energy is severely restricted if artists must work forty hours per week at a "day job" to pay the bills. Now, many do create excellent art for free and many always will. But our pool of top-notch art will shrink if artists cannot make a living at their art. To protect social structures that allow artists to make money should be a social priority. Copyright was created for this purpose: to generate artificial scarcity so that creators can make money through supply and demand.

We all know this model is crashing in 21st century due to a) the unfeasibility of maintaining artificial scarcity of copies in the digital age and b) information glut, which increases competition and, thus, reduces sales for most works. These are huge problems, which need solutions, but they raise questions about economics more than the quality of art. To reclaim a richer, more inclusive cultural space for art and artists, we need to decouple profitability from quality.

The Myth That Original Art Is Superior

One of the most damaging consequences of the copyright model of art is the assumption that original art is better than derivative art. The chain of reasoning goes something like this: professionals are, by definition, better than amateurs. Professionals, by definition, get paid and amateurs don’t. Therefore, art that results in pay is better than art that doesn’t. However, to be legally paid for a work, one must have copyright permission. Authors (or publishers) generally hold copyright only over their original works. So by and large, they get paid for original works while authors of unauthorized derivative works are unpaid. Therefore, at least as a generalization, since paid is better, original works must be better than derivative works.

The problem is that, even as a generalization, this is wantonly untrue. We have thousands of years of literary evidence that original narratives are not superior to derivative narratives. In fact, most famous narratives of more than a few hundred years old are extrapolations of older traditions. Let’s take a few examples from the good, old Western canon (because this is the canon I know): [1]

* The Epic of Gilgamesh
* The Iliad and Odyssey
* The Oedipus plays
* Prometheus Bound
* The Trojan Women
* The Aeneid
* Ovid’s Metamorphoses
* Ovid’s Heroïdes
* Dante’s Divine Comedy
* Everything about King Arthur
* Various tales of Robin Hood
* Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde and much of The Canterbury Tales
* The vast majority of Shakespeare’s plays
* Milton’s Paradise Lost
* Shelley’s Prometheus Unbound
* Byron’s Don Juan
* Grimm’s Fairytales
* Andersen’s Fairytales
* Tennyson’s Ulysses
* Joyce’s Ulysses

Moreover, we have many very well paid, unambiguously professional writers today much of whose work is derivative. A few examples:

Joss Whedon (The Avengers)
Russell T. Davies (Doctor Who)
Steven Moffat (Doctor Who and Sherlock)
Neil Gaiman (much of the source material of The Sandman) [2]

So unless we’re going to argue that Homer, Vergil, Ovid, Shakespeare, and Milton just weren’t that good, we have to face the reality that there is nothing inherently inferior about writing a story based on a pre-existing story.

But Those Stories Aren’t Fan Fiction (Or...?)

Modern "fan fiction" originated (or gained a community) around the 1970s when writers, mostly women, began sharing stories that were take-offs on other stories, often TV shows and quintessentially Star Trek. Then and now, fan fiction had tendencies that came to define the “fan fiction” stereotype:

* It was based on copyrighted works and written without permission.
* It was written by women, most of whom were not published authors.
* It focused on interpersonal relationships (vs. plot).
* It was often romantic and/or sexual.
* It did not stand alone as an independent work: for example, it didn’t describe the story's universe or generate a self-contained plot.
* Much of it wasn’t well written.

These characteristics are still widely used to belittle fan fiction as “wannabe” art. But let’s unpack them:

* Fic lacks copyright permission: I’ve argued above that this is not relevant to quality, besides which a lot of works posted as “fan fic” are based on public domain works, such as the novels of Jane Austen or Les Misérables.

* It's written by unpublished women: this is a (sexist) ad hominem attack irrelevant to a particular work’s quality.

* It focuses on relationships over plot. Aristotle would say this is a bad sign. For me (and many others) relationship drama is more interesting than plot. Moreover, there are fics with strong plots.

* It is often romantic/sexual. Yes, but so is a lot of good writing, and a great deal of fic does not focus on these areas; indeed, there is an old and established category called “gen” for non-romantic/non-sexual fic.

* It doesn’t stand alone. This is often true, but then, it doesn’t have to: its intended audience already knows the broader story. By the same token, the Iliad and the Odyssey both begin in medias res. Indeed, starting in the middle of a story the audience already knows is a defining characteristic of traditional epic.

* Much of it isn’t well written: This is true; it’s equally true of original fic, but poorly written original fic gets fewer readers and is less visible. Yet much fan fic is every bit as well written as much of traditionally published fiction and better than some.

Though what we commonly think of as “fan fiction” is, indeed, a different sort of writing from, say, the poetry of Shelley or Milton, the difference is in cultural tendency, not essential characteristics. Every factor for which fan fic is commonly derided is not true (or not relevant to the quality) of a good number of fics. We come back to this reality: there is nothing inherently inferior about derivative works, classic or on An Archive of Our Own.

So Maybe All Those Reboots Aren’t a Bad Thing

Derivative works are becoming more prominent, not only in low-budget contexts. Many lament that large percentage of blockbuster genre movies today are remakes, reboots, or extensions of existing franchises. They worry that original voices are drowned out. I have been among those critics and agree that refusal to take a risk on an unknown work can impede artistic creativity.

But overall my thinking has shifted, and right now, I'm not too worried. In fact, in this historical moment, a cultural emphasis on reclaiming and retelling old stories may be salutary. New stories will always be with us. Humans make them up naturally, recounting an anecdote of how we saved a lost kitten behind a dumpster, for example. But the vast majority of stories that endure across the centuries, the ones that form a continuity of myth, legend, and insight about human life, are repeatedly reimagined: they pass through many hands. This is true of biblical accounts, myths, fairytales, etc.

One can argue that these stories are retold because they're good. But they are also good because they're retold. As any fan fic writer knows, when you have a "canon" story to build from, you are free to focus on your strengths as a writer to create the effect you want. When hundreds or thousands of storytellers get their hands on a story, they often butcher it... but they also refine and evolve it: versions emerge that express the best strengths of those diverse minds. One version may establish a strong plot, another delve into character, a third add beauty to the language, a fourth subvert cultural assumptions. Hamlet, for example, has antecedents in multiple medieval texts; the story was refined into a psychologically incisive and eloquent tragedy by Shakespeare, but the First Folio version (1623), with many textual differences from the Second Quarto (1604), appeared after his death. Retelling gives us some of our most powerful, beautiful stories.

It also gives us cultural continuity. Generations in Western Civilization, for example, have shared common stories to make meaning out of life: Paul seeing the light on the road to Damascus, Odysseus returning to his family, King Arthur sending his knights in search of the Grail. These stories allow us to understand each other across the generations, to access the wisdom of earlier people and cultures so that we don't constantly have to reinvent the wheel in discovering how to live.

In the 21st century, however, technological revolutions in the dissemination of information are inundating us with new texts. This is not all bad by any means. These technologies democratize art, empower marginalized voices, allow access to a phenomenal array of stories from around the world, bolster multicultural literacy, and are creating a new commons for collaborative and derivative art. As an original writer, fic writer, and fan, I've benefitted from all this; I wouldn't lose it for the world. But one side effect is a drowning out of common stories that form cultural literacies and a historical continuities with our foremothers and forefathers. I can understand (in translation) Aristotle's commentary on the Iliad from 2300 years ago, but I have no idea what my own friends are talking about when they discuss playing Mass Effect. Now, it's no problem for different people to enjoy different stories, but when we reach a critical fragmentation in which we don't share enough to form a cultural databank of common metaphors and learning, we've lost one of the most important stabilizing factors in human society.

I don't think we've reached that point. I don't know if we ever will. I do know we don't want to; we don't want a civilization in which we cannot meaningfully reach each other across time through common stories. And, therefore, we must retell stories, because a single iteration of a story will get worn out and die. Conversely, if a story is alive, we retell it. By definition. That's what happens when a story excites the human mind. Whether it is an ancient tale, like the life of Buddha, or a body of work spanning a couple of generations, like The X-Men, building and sharing stories over time strengthens the stories and, therefore, us.

Hollywood's current tendency to revisit existing franchises is a sign of financial caution (or cowardice, if you will). But the reason such stories are a relatively safe bet is that people are attracted to stories they already know. I see this in myself when I reflect on movies I've seen in the theater in the past year or so:

Les Misérables
Star Trek: Into Darkness
Ender's Game
The Hunger Games: Catching Fire
The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

This covers a majority of my recent moviegoing, and only two of these films, Oblivion and Gravity, are not based on pre-existing stories I have watched or read. I am excited about and comforted by stories I already have a relationship with. They have a deeper meaning because they are part of my history, my knowledge base. Moreover, in an age in which I have my choice of thousands of new stories, most of which, by Sturgeon's Law, are not very good, these known stories are safer. I can guess they will be at least a moderately good use of my limited time.

A cultural return to retelling known stories (whether by Hollywood or fan fic writers) may be an impulse to counteract information overload. It may be a healthy rebalancing of our cultural scales to place more weight on fewer, better known stories that we can share. This emphasis makes it harder for original writers to break in; as an original novelist, I assure you I feel this. The good news is that it also signals a return to a freer, more participatory reader-writer relationship. Regardless of the impositions of copyright law, when we share a narrative culturally, we own it collectively. The more widely it is known and the more times it is retold (in authorized or unauthorized forms), the more it becomes folklore that we can all take a hand in shaping.

Disclaimer: I was a beta reader for the fic, "The Body," linked above as an example of excellent fic.


[1] My examples in this essay are almost exclusively from Western canon. I'm using this canon because it is my native culture and the focus of my academic study and, thus, I have some authority to speak to it. As far as I can tell, my statements generally apply across world cultures, and, of course, diverse cultures have enormously rich narrative traditions, but I am not qualified to speak to them in any depth.

[2] If you're noticing that every single writer I’ve mentioned is a man--and mostly, probably white, yes. Yes, they are. And, yes, that is highly relevant to what’s considered legitimate and professional, but it’s also another essay.


labingi: (Default)

October 2017

89 1011121314

Most Popular Tags

Style Credit

Expand Cut Tags

No cut tags
Page generated Oct. 21st, 2017 08:19 am
Powered by Dreamwidth Studios