So carving off characters can be a way to comment on the original work—to expand on its themes, to examine what it erased, to update it, to teach folks about it, or just to enjoy it (and surely enjoyment is an important goal of lots of literature, not excluding the Sherlock Holmes stories). Interacting with literature and appreciating literature means, in no small part, talking back to literature. And a big way in which people talk back to literature is by dissecting it, reassembling it, and making it their own.
Again, that deconstruction can sometimes be ugly. Not every use of Sherlock Holmes is going to be pretty, or make the Doyle Estate happy. No doubt there’s X-rated Sherlock/Watson slash fiction out there that would make Conan Doyle rise from his grave, if he could manage it. But to say that it’s a crime against literature to reuse Sherlock Holmes is like saying that Doyle committed a crime against literature by turning Dupin into Holmes. Artists and writers always engage with and respond to other writers. That’s how art gets made. And that’s why it’s a good thing for culture, for literature, and for Doyle himself that it looks like Holmes will finally be completely free to be used, abused, and celebrated by everybody, free of charge.
Currently browsing tag
This is not a review of The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, but I’ll share some impressions for context. Though it kept me entertained, I didn’t think it was very good. The story felt padded; the implausible action scenes lacked tension; the moralizing was often forced. But for all that, I’m glad the movie was made because it means that the narrative of Middle-earth is still alive.
Storytelling belongs to the public consciousness. All the copyright laws in the world cannot stop that being true. It is human nature to imitate: it is how we learn to talk, to dress, to be polite, to live in society. It is embedded in human nature to take in stories and breathe them out again. This is not to say there is no place for copyright. As long as we live in a nominally free market society, artists must be able to make money from their work for art to flourish, and copyright (ideally) gives them control over distribution of their work to prevent market saturation and grant them remuneration. But if copying must be restricted, the creation of art itself is naturally free: the mind flies to it as it flies to love, and no prison nor prison sentence can stop it.
One common complaint about derivative works is that they are often bad quality. And this is true. (It’s true of original works just as much.) I would argue that The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, despite a great deal of talent and effort, is bad quality in many ways. It’s a legal, licensed work, but aside from giving it a big budget, that doesn’t affect whether it’s good or bad art. Likewise, some still claim fan fiction has dubious legality, but that has no bearing on whether it is brilliant or painful to read. Art is speech, and democratic society has long understood that respecting freedom of speech exposes us to reams of stupid speech. That is a very small price to pay for the freedom to share thought and learn and grow as individuals and cultures.
I don’t doubt that Tolkien would be rolling over in his grave at the excesses of the Jacksonverse. In this particular movie, I suspect he’d find the Elf-Dwarf romance ridiculous, the sex joke appallingly inappropriate, the fight scenes mostly absurd and undercutting of the quieter narrative of Bilbo’s clever heroism—and that’s just for a start. I wouldn’t be surprised if his heirs have similar feelings. I have many of the same feelings myself.
Who cares? We don’t really deserve any say in how others choose to retell a tale. I mean this as a statement about natural rights rather than gracious conduct. A gracious standard of conduct might well choose to consult with a respected original author or their heirs, might make an effort not to bruise their feelings, might listen to critiques and revise accordingly. But a narrative belongs to the mind of every person it has touched. And no one has a right (regardless of the current law of the land) to tell any person not to re-envision that narrative however they wish.
Without such re-envisioning, The Hobbit is just a novel, a good novel, written in the 1930s in Britain, growing slowly more remote from the language, tastes, and customs of the new century. Without this re-envisioning, one day it will die. And so we create new versions, and they have women and more action and additional tie-ins to The Lord of the Rings and sex jokes and a younger, sexier Thorin and a scarier Ring. And out of what might be considered the mess of this particular version, out of the sloppy, poorly paced, bad taste et cetera comes a new perspective on an old story.
I liked the scarier Ring, the almost-heavy handedness in showing its immediate hold on Bilbo, the changes in his behavior when he fears he’ll lose it. I liked the general tone of foreboding, the sense of social breakdown among the Wood Elves and the Lake Men that presages the cataclysmic War to come in The Lord of the Rings. Tolkien could not have done this for the simple reason that he hadn’t yet written The Lord of the Rings when he wrote The Hobbit. Whether or not he would have done it if he had already developed the full history of the War of the Ring is moot (as an Ent would say). The story left Tolkien years ago. It is our story now. It is Peter Jackson’s. It is mine. It is yours. And as the years pass and its iterations continue to ripple out—a cartoon here, a CGI-heavy trilogy there, a radio drama, a few thousand fan fics, and who knows what—it will be reshaped by the minds it meets, often badly but perhaps one day with hammer-blow of genius that will truly reinvent it. Perhaps Tolkien has yet to meet his Shakespeare. But the tale will always be reshaped to meet the changing world it continues to speak in. And it will keep living, as art has to if the human spirit is to thrive.
Submission by Arwen Spicer
One of the weirder bits of news sailing through the Internet this week is Amazon’s acquisition, from the Vonnegut Trust, of the right to publish fan-fiction based on the, uh, Kurt Vonnegut universe. (…) Setting aside the question of whether or not anyone will actually make use of these rights, though, the very fact that this kind of licensing is becoming standard practice should raise eyebrows. The Vampire Diaries, Gossip Girl: those are clearly commercial literary properties. They were designed for merchandising and licensing and spinoffs. Vonnegut: eh, not so much. And the thing is, literary novelists have a long tradition of being, ahem, “inspired” by each other’s work. (…) Do we want “serious writing” to be a place where people must license characters from each other? Does that do a disservice to the way in which literature is, for a lot of writers, an ongoing conversation with their predecessors? How would postmodernist novelists, for example, be curtailed by such rules, since they often incorporate commentary on the characters of others? Forcing everyone to get a license would send chills down the spine of any novelist thinking of writing, say, a feminist novel from the perspective of, say, Holden’s girlfriend Sally Hayes, not just anyone who wants to engineer a meeting between Holden Caulfield and Serena van der Woodsen. Michelle Dean, Why You Should Worry About Amazon Buying the Right to Publish Kurt Vonnegut Fan-Fiction
In Dickens’s own time, however, serialized novels were hugely controversial. Novels themselves were only beginning to find acceptance in polite society; for upper-class commentators, serialization was entirely too much. From our perspective, Dickens is a literary master, an icon of a now threatened culture. From theirs, he represented the threat of something coming.
Worse, the format seemed dangerously immersive. In 1845, a critic for the patrician North British Review decried it as an unhealthy alternative to conversation or to games like cricket or backgammon. Anticipating Huxley and Bradbury by a century, he railed against the multiplying effects of serialization on the already hallucinatory powers of the novel.
Toward the end of the nineteenth century, as further advances in technology continued to bring down the costs of printing and distribution, books and periodicals evolved into separate businesses and book publishers gradually moved away from serialization. The threat of immersiveness moved with them, first to motion pictures, then to television. Books, movies, TV—all were mass media, and mass media had no mechanism for audience participation. But the reader’s impulse to have a voice in the story didn’t vanish. It went underground and took a new form: fan fiction.
Frank Rose, The Art of Immersion: How the Digital Generation Is Remaking Hollywood, Madison Avenue, and the Way We Tell Stories, location 1308-1321
The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction is currently in its third edition and encompasses over 4 million words about all things SF. It is published online in collaboration with Gollancz and the SF Gateway.
This new version follows thirty-five years of work (on and off), and is heavily expanded from previous editions. The first being under the GeneralEditorship of Peter Nicholls in 1979; and the 1993 Second Edition, being edited by John Clute (the most prolific contributor to date) and Peter Nicholls. The third edition is based on the 1995 CD-Rom “printing” and it has David Langford as the primary technical editor as well as a contributor.
As a resource for fan studies, the encyclopedia is useful because it includes a whole section titled “Culture” including separate categories/tags for “Publication”, “Fan”, “Award”, and “International”. It is by no means comprehensive but it does offer information not always found elsewhere, especially regarding SF fanzines and Big Name Fans (of literature especially).
Fanfiction sits at the margins of mainstream creative endeavour, and interrogates established views of what it means to be a writer; the meaning of intellectual property, creativity, originality, ‘ownership;’ and traditional boundaries surrounding these concepts, as well as the whole vexed issue of international rights. As a publishing person and daughter of an artist, I have an uneasy relationship with how fanfiction steps on these well-established fences, particularly with regards to the fanfiction based on novels, rather than TV or films. (The latter seems more ‘legitimate,’ but that might just be justification for my own interest.)
In many ways, fanfiction is, and has been for many years, ahead of its time in terms of its embrace of the possibilities and potential of digital technology, of community and niche interests, its very questioning of established domains of knowledge and ‘right/s,’ and its acknowledgement of the role reading plays in writing. As Saul Bellow said, “A writer is a reader moved to emulation.” The leaching of boundaries described above is exemplified by the infinite trail of hyperlinks on the web (Derrida anyone?). It is therefore apt that fanfiction should exist online, and make use of the technology that allows deferment of meaning and certainty; a metaphorical and literal leaking of content from the container (…).
Anna von Veh, What Can Trade Publishers Learn from Fanfiction?
This is the second in a series of posts by Emma England on fannish issues surrounding Worldcon, the longest running science fiction and fantasy convention in the world. Emma is the 2014 Worldcon academic track organizer and is currently researching the history of conventions. The first post introduced Worldcon; this post debunks the myth that “traditional” conventions are only about literature.
Fan history is a disparate venture, with fans and scholars often limiting their explorations to that which interests them, as everyone does. A result of this is that many (but by no means all) people believe that media fans have never been welcome at Worldcon and that media was never a part of it as a traditional con. There may be a predominance of literature Guests of Honor, but the historical records prove that film and TV are part of Worldcon history (with comics getting their first dedicated panel in 1966). Worldcon is part of media fandom history. Some significant examples demonstrate this:
- There was a screening of The Lost World followed by a Masquerade Party (costuming, early cosplay) at Denvention I, the 3rd Worldcon, in Denver, 1941.
The Day The Earth Stood Still had an advanced screening for attendees of Nolacon I, the 9th Worldcon in New Orleans, 1951.
Star Trek screenings were included on the Tricon program at the 24th Worldcon in Cleveland, 1966.
Gene Roddenberry, creator of Star Trek, gave a talk entitled “To Boldly Go Where No Man Has Gone Before” at Baycon, the 26th Worldcon in Oakland, 1968. In the program book there is a full-page ad “from Roddenberry” thanking Worldcon attendees for their support of Star Trek. Amusingly, there is also a quarter-page ad claiming “SPOCK is a bad lay.” With the words: “This ad was sponsored by the committee to nominate Patrick McGoohan and ‘The Prisoner’ for a HUGO.”
Ray Harryhausen, the groundbreaking Visual Effects Designer, was a Guest of Honor at Conspiracy ’87, the 45th Worldcon at Brighton, England, 1987.
Roger Corman, the famous horror movie director, was a Guest of Honor at L.A. Con III, Anaheim, 1996.
J. Michael Straczynski, the creator of Babylon 5, was Special Guest at Bucconeer, the 56th Worldcon in Baltimore, 1998 and the following Worldcon, Aussiecon Three in 1999 in Melbourne, Australia.
Frankie Thomas, the actor in the early science fiction series Space Cadet, was Special Guest at L.A. Con IV, Anaheim 2006.
Additionally, the Hugo Awards have given awards for Best Dramatic Presentation, in various formats, every year since 1958 (except 1964 and 1966). Winners have included episodes of The Twilight Zone, Doctor Who and Battlestar Galactica (reimagining) and movies such as A Clockwork Orange, Star Wars, and Inception.
It is also worth noting that Worldcon has, in most programs throughout its history, included plays, ballets, bands, and numerous other art forms based around science fiction and fantasy.
If Worldcon has historically included media, why is there an apparent separation in contemporary fandoms and fan analysis? Why did Star Trek fans start their own conventions, with many claiming that they no longer felt welcome at Worldcon and other traditional cons and club meetings? A common answer is “gender and snobbery,” but there are alternative answers, although these are not mutually exclusive. Reasons for the separation may include the idea that types of fannish activities are valued differently; a critical mass of fans for one specific show/author/medium leads to a separation (as well as Star Trek conventions, Tolkien, comics etc had their own meetings and events) to maintain pre-existing diversity of the original event while enabling more focused activities around the new fandom; and some fans are more interested in going to conventions only of their specific subject.
Whatever the reasons are for the seeming separation of fandoms, it is true today that it is possible to be in a fandom for one specific TV show, book series, comics franchise, and so on without having much, if anything, to do with other fandoms. In reality, however, it is rare that fans only enjoy one text, or even type of work. Few fans are only interested in reading books or watching movies.
A challenge for Worldcon today is what direction to take the convention in: should organizers expand and overtly reach out to fans who would not normally attend a traditional con and who may bring their own “non-traditional” fan practices and (fan-)demographics; should Worldcon stick with the current attendees and format, thereby maintaining traditions; or is there a middle way that encourages media fan attendance by acknowledging the traditions of Worldcon and, perhaps, media’s place within it?
Currently, site-selection is in progress for Worldcon 2015 and the three options could be seen as representing different approaches to the challenge of identity and the marketing of Worldcon. This challenge will be discussed in the next post in this series.
This is the first in a series of posts on fannish issues surrounding Worldcon, the longest running science fiction and fantasy convention in the world, by the 2014 Worldcon academic track organizer Emma England. First up is an intro to Worldcon and its fans.
The World Science Fiction Convention is the longest running SF convention in the world. The first Worldcon, retrospectively known as Nycon I, was held in New York in 1939 with an attendance of 200 people. The Guest of Honour was Frank R. Paul. The convention has taken place every year except during the Second World War, usually around American Labour Day weekend. By the mid-1970s attendance rose to about 4,000-5,000 fans, with more or less attendees depending on the host city.
Traditionally, Worldcon is a space for fans of literary science fiction, although in recent years media in all its forms has been popular. Chicon 7, the 2012 Worldcon in Chicago, had panels on The Walking Dead, Firefly and Torchwood to name but a few. Increasingly, there are panels, talks, and workshops on Anime/Manga, costuming (barely, if at all, distinguishable from cosplay), academic criticism, the history of fandom, gaming, and most other topics of interest to the wider “geek” communities.
There are only three essential requirements of a Worldcon:
(1) administering the Hugo Awards,
(2) administering any future Worldcon site selection (and if Worldcon is being held outside of North America, NASFIC, the North American Science Fiction Convention), and
(3) holding a World Science Fiction Society Business Meeting.
In reality, Worldcon has developed many traditions which fans expect to see. These include a Hugo Awards Ceremony, the Masquerade, Opening and Closing Ceremonies, a Regency Dance, signings, readings, the art show, exhibits, dealer’s room, guests of honour speeches, 15 tracks of programming (all running parallel to the permanent exhibits, hospitality suites, signings, readings and other activities), children’s activities, many parties every day and more.
The events are all included in the membership fee. This also includes the souvenir programme book, which has been known to be a hardcover and slipcased tome, as well as the Hugo voting pack. Members of each Worldcon get to vote for the Hugo Awards, the world’s most prestigious science fiction award, which has been held every year since 1955. People who cannot attend Worldcon can still vote by buying a supporting membership which entitles them to all of the publications including the Hugo Awards voting pack. This pack is an electronic collection of all of the nominated works and is worth considerably more than the price of membership (attending or supporting).
The location of Worldcon changes every year and with it so to does the name. In 2013 Worldcon is called Lonestar 3 (Texas, USA) and in 2014 it is Loncon 3 (London, UK). The site for each Worldcon is voted for at the convention two years prior. At Lonestar 3, the site selection for 2015 will be made and the choices are between Spokane (Washington, USA), Orlando (Florida, USA), and Helsinki (Finland). All Worldcons are organised on a not-for-profit basis by volunteers. Although there is some continuity as people volunteer for many Worldcons, each convention is organised by different people. The staff alone, without onsite volunteers acting as gophers and stewards, can number 200 people.
Fans who attend Worldcon can be broadly categorised in three ways. They are:
1) the regulars, people who go most years and who may have been going for sixty years already,
2) the irregulars, people who consider themselves part of fandom and who may go to other events and happen to go to a particular Worldcon because of the location, the guest of honours, the cost etc., and
3) the walk-ins, people who go because it is local to them, they may only go for the day to visit the dealer’s room and get some books signed.
All of these groups of fans are important to the continuing success of Worldcon. The event has a unique place in fan history and for scholars of fans and fandom, or fans who just want to try something different or meet a specific guest, Worldcon is an institution not to be missed.