this is gonna be weird

minnow at belfry.org.uk minnow at belfry.org.uk
Sat Nov 20 19:22:41 EST 2004


deborah reversed the order of these questions.  :)

>On Wed, 17 Nov 2004 minnow at belfry.org.uk wrote:
>|Seems to me that either it's derivative, which I suppose it's fair to give
>|warning about so those of us who like our fiction a bit original can be
>|warned and avoid it, or it isn't, in which case why not let us know that it
>|isn't a hack re-write of something we enjoyed before it was regurgitated?
>|Either way I wouldn't have thought it was to the author's advantage to call
>|it a story about someone already known.  Like the "sequel" to *Kim*, which
>|wasn't (apart from a coincidence of name); or the telly series of *Coral
>|Island*, in which the names of the three boys were the same and nothing
>|else, not even their parentage or character or station in life, was left
>|intact... Why not just call it something else, and claim originality?
>
>Well, it's a tough call what's derivative and what's not.  Why on earth
>bring the Norse gods into a story, when poor [spoiler] could merely be
>hanging out in Walsall with some powerful superbeings?  What's
>Prometheus got to do with Them?

Derivative is a boo-word like plagiarism, and I apologise for both that and
"hack" when I failed to define either one.

Having Norse gods or Prometheus in a story, or come to that Shakespeare as
a secondary character in a book set near the end of Elizabeth's reign, or,
oh, I dunno, any famous or mythical character as part of a setting,
probably doesn't count as derivative, to me, whereas a book in which a
child was helping the Norse gods to re-locate the missing [spoiler] with
the help of [spoiler] whilst at the same time having trouble with a
frightful collection of aunts and uncles in whose nominal care he lived
would be; as you say, it's hard to define, but I sure's heck know it when I
meet it.

>An excellent and worthy argument can be made in those cases about mythic
>weight, the power of eons, etc.  But 50% of everything Neil Gaiman's
>ever written could be called professional fanfiction, notwithstanding
>his disparaging remarks on the genre, and it's all splendid.

Has he really disparaged professional fanfiction, or has he disparaged
fanfiction?  Isn't "professional fanfiction" a bit strange as a term?  I'd
say that the two are mutually exclusive.  If it is published and paid for
it isn't fanfiction, if it isn't published and paid for it's not
professional.

(His work *could* be called anything one wanted, but I suspect I wouldn't
call it something I felt to be self-contradictory.)

>Whereas
>this book I am currently reviewing has a plot I've never seen before,
>and I'd take Sandman, American Gods, the Books of Magic, or 1602 over a
>piece of crap original fic any day.

The skill of the quilt is in the shape of the patches, and the people in
them, and the words he uses to stitch the patches together, isn't it?

(it occurs to me that this metaphor may not be familiar to all: it's a
simile originally, a little old lady who said "Life is like a patchwork
quilt: God provides the materials but the pattern is my own business" or
words to that effect.  "Books may be like a patchwork quilt: the Sea of
Story provides the materials...")

>Diane Duane's _Spock's World_ is absolutely brilliant, and it's a
>tie-in novel, which is just the way of saying "professional and
>sanctioned fanfiction".  In my opinion say it's substantially better
>than all original and most modern Trek.  She took an existing universe
>and used it as a starting point, and went somewhere powerful and
>personal with it.

Yup.  Not derivative, because it's new in its use of things.  Otherwise any
book set in the Real World (TM) could be said to be "derivative" of any
previous book set in the Real World (TM).

>Whether of not my work was inspired by someone else, perhaps even to the
>point of needing to credit them, is no indicator of quality.

Yes; for that possible slur I apologise.  In any case, "hack" is generally
used for work that is churned out for money, and therefore should not apply
to fan-fiction: my error.

The quality *does* have a lot to do with it.  If the person using the ideas
writes badly, then in some subtle way it feels like an insult to the thing
that person presumably loves and is trying to imitate.

Does this start to be a look at the difference between "emulation" and
"imitation", perhaps?

>As for the next question which is frequently asked, "why do good writers
>do this?  They can be original!" Well, why should they be?  I think
>Diana Duane has written equally strong -- and equally weak! -- books in
>derivative and original settings.  Eight Days of Luke is no weaker a
>book than Time of the Ghost, in my opinion.

There's no reason why it should be unless the Norse gods are a case of
derivativity whereas other gods are not, and to derive is always to be
weak.  I mean, Monigan is really quite like many of the nasty goddesses one
has encountered elsewhere...

One of the most original books written in the twentieth century that I've
ever read is Greer Gilman's *Moonwise*, and everything in it is derived
from English folk-song, near as makes no odds.  It's the way she has mixed
it that makes the magic, and makes it unlike anything else.

>I, personally, don't find
>derivative works to be necessarily a weakness.  only when done poorly.
>:)

That  was the thing I was meaning, except that I think your definition of
"derivative" is a great deal more far-ranging than mine.  C'mon, I was
talking from the basis of the fanfiction text you and Kyra quoted, which is
*not* very good.

But I do still feel that if it's good, it shouldn't really need the leg-up
from association with some other, familiar work: it can be an homage, and
people who've read the original work that gave the springboard can grin
happily when they encounter something that tells them the author is
deliberately refering to another author, without that having to be writ in
large spangled letters on the front, surely?

"Hey, this author has read Kipling!  Yippee!" is a different reaction from
"oh gawd, this fool couldn't write as well as Kipling in a hundred years,
what a damn' cheek for him to pretend this cardboard dwerpie is meant to be
Kim!"

>It's all a matter of taste, but also of definition.  The sad "golly gee
>gosh Sophie" piece from ff.net is certainly not a representative of
>what's best in the genre.  On the other hand, I've read what were
>effectively X-Files or Angel episodes written by fans, better than many
>of the episodes that aired.

Not having a telly, I'm handicapped in judging the fanfic of a tv series; I
can see no reason why someone shouldn't write as well as a scriptwriter for
a series.  Or as a group of scriptwriters.  But then the reason I don't
have a telly is that I don't find much on the haunted fishtank of any
interest, so I'm biased in that I probably wouldn't have much of an opinion
of the original.  :-)

>|So whyeveronearth say it is to do with Buffy?  Why not just call it a story
>|about a vampire slayer in 4th century Norway?  (Not that there is that much
>|evidence for vampires there/then, I don't suppose, but no matter.)  One
>|might as well say that a story about Robin Hood was "Simon Templar fanfic",
>|I'd've thought.
>There's several possible reasons, some artistic, some practical.
>
>- Automatic audience of fanfiction readers who won't read your original
>  fiction.

Is that worth it?  I mean, isn't it better to be judged on your own merits,
rather than made allowance for because you're writing about characters the
reader already likes?  (And isn't there the risk that they may dislike your
interpretation and think you have got it wrong?) (And as a writer would I
want only an audience who won't read anything they aren't already familiar
with, anyhow?)

>- You like the universe and use its rules, so you want to credit the
>  creators of that world.

That's entirely valid, as far as I am concerned.  A paragraph of
acknowledgement, having first asked the original author if still alive for
permission (hey, one can end up with a friend that way!  I once wanted to
nick a character, change his name and use him, so I asked the author in a
polite letter, and as a direct result I have had a friend for twenty years
*and* I got given copies of the three of his books I hadn't run to earth!)
is simply polite.

>- Your thoughts about the world are focused on your ideas of what it
>  will eventually become in the source material's canon, even if that
>  doesn't come through in the story.

That's more complicated: you mean fanfic as what would happen in say the
Vorkosigen universe three or four hundred years down the line, like Angela
Thirkell writing in Barsetshire a hundred or so years after Trollope's
novels set there?  I don't think that's a mistake: I might disagree with
the conclusions, but it's valid.  It wouldn't be Vorkosigen fanfic to me,
though, I don't think.

Hey, maybe that's why Norse gods or Prometheus don't affront me: it's long
enough after the originals for it to be possible that's how things went.
Not to mention that during the intervening millennia they must have been
doing *something*.

>- You could be using the artistic conventions of your fandom's genre,
>  which are subtly different, probably, from the artistic conventions
>  used in standard published fiction.  *Not* worse, just different.
>  (The way thoughts are portrayed, for example, is completely different
>  and very ritualized in high quality fanfiction.  Or the sentence
>  structure for shocking moments.  If I were a linguist, I would love to
>  study those writing conventions of what's a highly literate and
>  educated audience, at least in Buffy fandom.  There's a thesis for ya;
>  when a community invents its own writing style by consensus.)

That seems to me to be a limiting of one's writing, though; in-crowd
writing is by its nature not going anywhere much except the in-crowd, I
would've thought.  Like stories that end "well, you had to be there, I
guess".

>- Habit.

Eh?  You mean one can only think in the Doctor Who universe, or something?
That's *terrifying*!

>There's places where I ask the same question you're asking.  Why write a
>story in which Howl is a Barbary Pirate and Sophie is a French teacher
>from a girl's prep school, and then call it "fanfiction"?

Boggle.  Is that a real example?

>Actually I know the answer to that one.  It gives you a shorthand way to
>describe the characters.  You don't have to convince people to like or
>know your hero or heroine, if they already know who they are.  Doesn't
>mean I approve.  :)

It seems to me to be lazy and limiting.  Like the Companions being chosen
from the cast provided by the Management in the Tough Guide, and just being
those same old cardboard.  However good the original character, either s/he
won't grow, or s/he will, and if s/he does then one might as well give him
or her a different name.

Oh well.  I'm not going to *do* it, and I can after all easily avoid having
to read any of it, particularly since the temptation to sample is lessened
by my not having access to the web.

Only it does occur to me that publishers do have a reputation for wanting
always to have more of the same only a bit different, and if fanfiction
fulfils those requirements (which it sounds to me as if it does, often) and
gets taken up by the publishers and uses up the budget, and as a result
such writers as DWJ and Philip Pullman and Neil Gaiman who are doing stuff
that is *not* more of the same have more difficulty getting published, then
we are all a bit poorer for that.

Short pause whilst I contemplate "Dragonlance" or whatever it was called.
Nothing actively *wrong* with it, it was quite fun, I didn't want to scream
and throw it at the wall when I was having to review one,  but

but

but

Is that where fanfic ends up?  And what may have been left unpublished in
order for that to come out?

Minnow


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