May 8th, 2010

Spain

A Few Last Words

I've just locked the comments section of the previous post. We've had about four hundred comments since the post went up last night, and the whole thing is about to collapse under its own weight. I suspect that someone or other has already said everything that can be said on the subject, so now we're starting to go around in circles.

Also, with this many comments, it's becoming obvious that some of the later commenters aren't actually reading what went before. I'm starting to get asked the same questions over and over again -- what about Suvudu? what about the Vance book? what about fan art? what about role-playing games? All fair enough questions, but I have answered all of them in responses to earlier comments. Some I have answered two or three times by now. I am not going to answer them four, five, six, or twelve times, sorry. So if you've posted a question that has already been asked and answered, your post will likely be ignored or deleted. (Yes, I know it's a pain to have to read four hundred comments. Tough. If I have to read them all, so do you. That's the price of taking part in the discussion).

Some comments haven't been unscreened yet. There have been so many of them coming in so fast that it has been hard to keep up. A few have been buried by now, especially comments on comments on comments. Ty or I will get to all of them eventually, I hope, and everything will either be unscreened or deleted.

I want to thank ninety-five percent of the people who took the time to comment. I appreciate your thoughts, and even more, I appreciate the relative calm and thoughtful tone of this discussion, which never degenerated into the kind of ugliness I've seen (and am still seeing) in the comments over on Diana Gabaldon's blog, where the discussion has long since been derailed. I don't know how many minds were changed here, but all the major issues were thoroughly aired, it seems to me, and I hope this generated more light than heat.

There were a few issues raised during the debate that I'd like to address a bit further.

A number of commenters suggested that I was wrong in my assertion that copyrights need to be defended, and suggested that I was confusing copyrights with trademarks. Perhaps so. This was raised often enough that it is obviously something I need to look into further. There were also posters who agreed with what I wrote, however, including some who identified themselves as lawyers or law students, so I don't think the issue is as clear cut as the "trademark" folks are claiming. I'll investigate this, and if I was wrong about this, I will come back here and say so (eventually, this is not my top priority in life). If I was right, I'll come back and mention that as well.

ERB v HPL. I never said that allowing others to play with the Cthulhu mythos was the ONLY reason Lovecraft died in poverty. Actually, I am a huge Lovecraft fan, and not much of a Burroughs fan at all (though Melinda Snodgrass and I did once work on the screenplay for A PRINCESS OF MARS). I know a lot about HPL. His work has been hugely influential on modern horror. But my point stands. I could write a Cthulhu Mythos novel tomorrow, and I would not have to pay a dime to any Lovecraft estate (if such exists) or get their permission. I would never dare write a Barsoom novel, though surely PRINCESS is in the public domain by now. (The later John Carter and Tarzan novels may still be under copyright).

A few people have quoted or posted links to the other side of the Marion Zimmer Bradley incident, the account of the fan involved. Fine, two sides to every story, check it out. At this point, twenty years after the fact, it all becomes she said/ she said. But the version I posted was hardly "urban legend," as one commenter called it. It was the version given by Marion Zimmer Bradley herself in SFWA FORUM, what she told the rest of the writing community. If you want to believe she lied, well, that's your prerogative.

More thoughts as I have 'em. Just now, I have work to do.
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Spain

A Few More Last Words

And one more thing...

All this debate about fan fiction, here and on Diana Gabaldon's blog and Charlie Stross's blog and ten or twenty or a hundred other places on the internet, has generated (I hope) a certain amount of light and (I know) an enormous amount of heat.

Why is that? I wonder. Why do both sides get so incensed about this issue?

There's a lot been said about copyright and trademark and infringement and fair use and who has the right to make money off what, and all that's well and good, valuable stuff, worth discussing and debating... but the fanfictioneers keep saying that it's all about love, never about money, and as I ponder this, I think they're right.

It is all about love.

On both sides.

Let's forget about all the legal and financial issues here. We've discussed those to death. Let's just talk about the emotions.

Here's the thing. I think the fan fictioneers write about certain characters because they love them. And I think the writers who object to having their characters written about do so because they love them too. Which brings us back to the "my characters are my children" thing, which may be central.

Now, not all writers feel this way, certainly. Some will say, "Do whatever you want with my characters, I don't care, so long as you don't impinge on my ability to make a living. If you start f*cking with my income stream, I'll shut you down. Elsewise, have fun." Which is fine, if you share that view. But y'know, I don't. I'll never say something like that. I DO care what you do with my characters.

Fiction is fiction. It's all made up. Dreams and visions made of word on paper. Every writer who isn't insane knows that. Every reader too. But still...

When I was kid back in the 50s, I read a lot of comic books, including Superman books -- SUPERMAN, ACTION, LOIS LANE, JIMMY OLSEN. At that time, those comics would occasionally publish what they called "Imaginary Stories." Even as a kid, I knew that was a stupid name. I mean, ALL the stories were imaginary, weren't they? Today we'd call them "What If" stories or "Alternate Universe" stories. They were stories outside the usual Superman continuity. "What If Krypton Never Blew Up" and "What If Superman and Lois Got Married," stuff like that. Some of them were pretty good stories. Lots happened in them -- more than ever happened in the "real" Superman stories of the 50s. Even so, they never completely engaged me. Because they weren't REAL.

Of course, Superman himself wasn't real. None of the stories were real. I knew that, even when I was eight years old. But there's a contract between reader and writer. I'm telling you a story, trying to make it all as real as possible. And you, the reader, while you're reading the story, you're going to pretend that these people are real, that the events in the story actually did happen to them. Without that pretense, why would you care?

(Once, at a Milford Conference several decades ago, I got in a long and heated argument with two New Wave writers who put forward the proposition that since fiction is not real, it should not pretend to be real, that good fiction is all about the words, that stories should celebrate their "paperiness" the same way abstract art celebrates its two-dimensionality, as opposed to earlier styles of painting that tried to create the illusion of three dimensions. Maybe that's why I have never liked abstract art. I certainly don't like stories that celebrate their paperiness. I want the illusion. I want the stories and the characters to be as real as they can possibly be, at least during the time it takes me to read them. And maybe afterwards as well).

The imaginary stories were intellectually interesting, as "what if" stories, but they never engaged me on an emotional level. I knew, as I read them, that nothing in them really mattered. If Superman or one of his friends died, well, it was no big thing. They would be back next issue, unchanged. On the other hand, a few years later, when Gwen Stacy died, I was almost as devastated as Peter Parker. Gwen Stacy was real to me.

(Which is also, by the way, why I hate hate hate the retconning that has become so f*cking common in today's comic books and films. It seems to me to be a breach of that unwritten contract between writer and reader. You told me that Peter Parker married Mary Jane, you had me read a decade's worth of stories where they were man and wife, you never said they were imaginary stories, you claimed that this was what was really happening to Spidey in his real life... and now you turn around and tell me, no, not only are they not married, they were NEVER married, none of that actually happened, nyah nyah nyah, but keep buying our comic, now we're going to tell you what really did happen. Sorry, no. Strike up the Who, I won't get fooled again. I say it's spinach and I say the hell with it).

As a reader (books, comics, whatever) and a viewer (television, film), I want characters I can care about, engage with, believe in. If I don't find them in the work, I'm going to lose interest very quickly. If I do find them, though... well, even though I know such creations are just fictions, I will nonetheless begin to care very deeply.

F'rinstance, I have never seen the third ALIENS movie. I loved ALIEN and ALIENS, but when I read the early reviews of ALIENS 3, and learned that the new movie was going to open by killing Newt and... what was his name, the Michael Biehn character?... well, I was f*cking outraged. I never went to the film because I did not want that sh*t in my head. I had come to love Newt in the preceding movie, the whole damn film was about Ripley rescuing her, the end was deeply satisfying... and now some asshole was going to come along and piss all over that just to be shocking. I have never seen the subsequent Aliens films either, since they are all part of a fictional "reality" that I refuse to embrace. Not even the film with Ron Perlman in it, and Ron is a both a friend and an actor I greatly admire.

Thing is, it hasn't worked. Though I've avoided seeing the films, the reviews I read still poisoned the well. I know too much about what happens in ALIENS 3. I know Newt dies. And just that little bit of knowledge has seriously crimped my ability to enjoy ALIENS itself. It's still a fine, exciting film, but now when I get to the end, when Newt is climbing into the tube and asking Ripley if she'll dream, instead of the frisson of emotional satisfaction that I used to get, the little teardrop at the corner of my eye, I remember, "F*ck, Newt has an alien inside her, she's going to die," and I get pissed off and sour all over again.

All over a character who does not exist, has never existed. I know that. It does not make the feelings any less strong.

And if I can feel that strongly about characters created by other people, can you possibly imagine how strongly I feel about my own characters?

That's why I liken them to my children. I can care about Newt and Gwen Stacy and Frodo and Captain Ahab and the Great Gatsby and on and on... but I care about the Turtle and Abner Marsh and Tyrion Lannister and Jon Snow and Haviland Tuf and Daenerys and my own guys a thousand times more. They are my sons and daughters.

There are lots and lots and lots of people like me, I think. And it's that which accounts for the emotional vehemence of these debates on fan fiction, on both sides.

The fan fictioneers fall in love with a character or characters, and want to make things come out right for them... or come out the way they want things to come out. I know that much of the old BEAUTY AND THE BEAST fanfic was posited on the basis of Catherine and Vincent consommating their relationship and living happily ever after, with occasional adventures. There was certainly a ton of it based on wiping away our entire third season; many B&B fans feel about Catherine's death just as strongly as I feel about Newt's. They want to undo it. I would strongly suspect that out there somewhere there must be ALIENS fanfic where Newt does NOT die horribly too. It's love of the characters that prompts people to write these things. Hell, if I was ever hired to write a new ALIENS film, the first thing I would do would be to say, "Hey, remember how at the end of ALIENS Newt asks if she will dream? Well, she will. All the films from that moment have just been her bad dreams. We'll open my new movie with Newt and Ripley waking up..." Which would be a sort of retconning, I know, which I just denounced. So sue me. Consistency is the hobgoblin of small minds. It would also be the most expensive fanfic in history, I guess. Too bad I'll never get the chance.

But let's turn it on its head, and look at the things from the writer's perspective. As much as the fans may love our characters, we love them more. And suddenly we are confronted with stories in which other people are doing all sorts of things with our children... things we never envisioned, never authorized, and may even find stupid and/ or repugnant. Characters we killed come back to life. Living characters are killed. Villains are redeemed. Straight characters become gay. Romeo and Juliet don't commit suicide, they survive and live happily ever after and have seventeen children.

Sure, we could shrug and say, "None of these things really happened. These stories are not canon. They're just imaginary stories. They're not REAL." And I'm sure many writers do this. But I can't. All legal and financial aspects aside, I don't want to read your fanfic where Gatsby and Daisy run off together, and I certainly don't want to read the ones where Gatsby runs off with Tom Buchanan, or the two of them and Daisy have a threesome, or Gatsby rapes and murders Daisy... and I'm pretty sure F. Scott Fitzgerald wouldn't want to read 'em either. Now, plug in Jon Snow and Jay Ackroyd and Haviland Tuf and Daenerys Targaryen, or any of my characters, for Gatsby and Daisy and Tom, and I'm pretty sure that you can figure out my reaction.

It's like with Newt. I don't want those pictures in my head. Even if they're nice pictures, if you love my characters and only do nice, sweet, happy things to them. You're still messing around with my people. I won't use any analogies here, I know how that upsets people... but there is a sense of violation.

It's not rational, perhaps. These are all just made-up people. Words on paper. Who cares what happens to them? Let's just all celebrate their paperiness.

But I'm not wired that way. And neither, I suspect, is Diana Gabaldon.

This has nothing to do with money or copyright or law. It's a gut-level emotional reaction. And it's all about love. On both sides.

Or to put it another way:

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