License to Slum: The Novel of the Movie of the Game

Sunday, 31 August 2008 — 11:40pm | Literature, Tie-ins and fanfic

Licensed fiction—or “media tie-in” novels, as I believe the accepted term is nowadays—is a touchy subject for me, or at the very least, a source of frustration. I’ve gone on the record as calling it “McFiction” every now and then. My first significant volume of writing on the Internet was probably my extensive participation in the pointless “canon” debates on the film forums at TheForce.net, a wretched hive of scum and villainy that I used to moderate about a decade ago. Don’t bother looking for me—I made my rounds there back in the period when I still ascribed to the adolescent norm of online pseudonymity—though you are quite free to imagine me exactly as I was: out on the patio with a blaster rifle on my lap, keeping the kids who read Star Wars books off my lawn.

To be perfectly fair, my aversion to tie-in novels, be they novelizations of films or spin-off series that seize a life of their own, was admittedly prejudicial in origin: how many, after all, had I actually read? Then again, I don’t need to sample every subspecies of gourmet tofu to verify that I just don’t like tofu; and likewise, I simply have better things to do than spend my precious reading time on something that I am predisposed to think of as systematically bad in the hopes that oh, maybe I’ll like this one.

Does this reduce to an argument from personal taste? Perhaps; but as longtime readers know, with me, nothing is ever just a matter of personal taste, and I take pride in being able to defend everything I enjoy without having to resort to the old standby of, “But it entertains me.” It is never enough to just be entertained: to be satisfied with so little is chiefly how we let society condition us to accept lower standards. We deserve better.

All the same, I am nothing if not open-minded. So if my readers would like to recommend a tie-in novel that they consider to be the pinnacle of the form, I will gladly feature it in a future instalment of the Wednesday Book Club. One rule: don’t pick Timothy Zahn’s Heir to the Empire. (Everybody, for some reason, picks Heir to the Empire.) I’ve read it, and it sucks.

I’d also like to point out three items of interest I read earlier in the week: Forgotten Realms author Erik Scott de Bie’s spirited defence of game fiction, fantasy novelist Jim C. Hines’ confession of a prejudice against tie-ins that he would rather get over (with a follow-up post at SF Novelists), and Wired Magazine’s feature story on Star Wars continuity manager Leland Chee. For those interested, I also recommend this collection of articles (esp. Are Tie-In Writers Hacks?) published by the International Association of Media Tie-In Writers, an advocacy group for, well, whatever it is they do.

In the true spirit of friendly debate, I decided to give the common pro-tie-in arguments serious consideration instead of shooting them from the hip—and then subsequently, shoot them from the hip. The way I see it, if I’m going to promulgate the stereotype that tie-in fiction is second-class, I’d better have a good excuse.

1.

It is probably best to boil things down to essentials, for starters, so those of you who aren’t going to read this whole ruddy thing can at least absorb a brief statement of my position.

There are common criticisms of tie-in novels that I don’t agree with:

  • “Tie-ins are ‘easier’ to write than original properties; ergo, they are inferior as art.”
  • “Many tie-in novelists probably couldn’t get their foot in the door otherwise; they must not be very good.”
  • “Tie-in novels are all the same.”
  • “In the case of spin-offs and series, there is no point to reading tie-in novels when they have no bearing on the continuity (dare I say canon?) of the core product.”
  • “Aside from an official sanction, nothing separates tie-ins from fan fiction.”

And there are criticisms of tie-in novels to which I have yet to see a satisfactory refutation:

  • By the admission of some tie-in authors themselves, tie-in writing does not aspire to art: it is more comparable to copywriting or commercial illustration, produced to deadline, quota, and specification as a form of merchandise. I do not find this to be a satisfactory excuse for holding tie-ins to lower standards. Furthermore, to hold them to lower standards is to concede that the stigma is justified.
  • Tie-in novels have a predefined target market and no incentive to expand it. In most cases, tie-in novels do not exhibit any concern for the finesse and craftsmanship that we expect of literature. This doesn’t mean the authors are necessarily bad: it is just as often the publishers who curtail the authors’ ambitions to pander to the projected behaviour of the established audience.
  • In the case of a series, a shared continuity-by-committee is an undesirable constraint on the creative freedom of individual authors. The oversaturation of the imagined world is an inevitable result.
  • Readers lead finite lives and are going to read a finite number of books. To instill brand loyalty in these readers is to deter them from reading diversely.

Tie-in writers and readers alike may wonder why, and it would be irresponsible to walk away from this topic without touching on the following questions:

  • Why should tie-in novels (or indeed, any commercial fiction) aspire to higher literary accomplishment when they already meet the needs of the market?
  • Tie-in fiction, just like most of the genre fiction that is unfairly dismissed as juvenile, is a source of inspiration and delight to many. Why dissuade readers from exploring it?
  • Short of a tie-in novel beating you up on the playground and taking your lunch money, do they really do any harm?
  • What business does anybody have to tell anybody else that they should read/write X and not read/write Y?

I am sure these concerns are on the minds of tie-in readers and writers alike who wonder why outsiders like myself are so eager to step on their toes. They are serious questions that any self-respecting critic of any literature must be capable of answering.

Naturally, we won’t deal with them first.

2.

Let’s begin with some of the more cogent arguments in defence of tie-in novels, which I am all too happy to concede.

“Tie-in novels are as difficult to write as original properties, if not even harder.”

I like this one, and not for the surface statement of fact that the difficulty of creating anything increases with every pre-existing constraint.

One of the most counterproductive fallacies in all of the arts and humanities is the notion that the harder something is to do, the more artistic it becomes (and vice versa). Or to paraphrase the more popular formulation: “My kid can do that; ergo, it stinks”—which doesn’t say much about our perception of children, let alone Jackson Pollock or John Cage. I’m not one of those all-inclusive, it’s-all-subjective pluralistas when it comes to art, but I do believe that everything deserves serious consideration. We should try to understand what someone is trying to do, even if they fail, and regardless of whether it pleases us.

We are easily impressed by technique because its means of production, so to speak, are limited to a few. I don’t have a problem with technique so long as we see it for what it is: an enabling force that opens the space of possible expression, not to be confused with expression itself. I wager that for most of the literate public, the unsaid belief underlying the stereotype that tie-in novels are hack work—apart from the historical substantiation—is something like this: Halo novels? My kid can do that.

We’ll get into fan fiction later. Not now.

Erik Scott de Bie:

How can one possibly–at least honestly–express the view that shared-world/game fiction is any less worthy than non-shared-world/game fiction?

It has all the same range and suffers all the same faults–it can address the same issues and is free to suck just like any other fiction out there.

The only real difference is that instead of expending the creative juice to *make our own world,* we spend it on *integrating our stories into an existing world* that is steeped in a hundred game supplements, three hundred novels, and forty years of tradition. If anything, that is *harder* than creating your own world, where you can just make up the solution to any problem. In the Realms (or any shared world), it’s research, research, research. Because if you don’t do that, your novel is going to crash and burn.

Consider the flipside: the difficulty of writing within externally imposed constraints does not imply that the presence of constraints is a good thing. I concede that the tie-in writer does not do “less”: if anything, he operates much like the historical novelist, the difference being that the history here is hypothetical (and being filled in by others all the time). But the presence of a challenge does not make a novel better, and an external challenge is not to be confused with the choice of an author (tie-in or not) to challenge him or herself to attend to the finer points of language, structure, and overall polish—and that is on top of the mission they have accepted, the exercise of the imagination in a universe already populated with symbols and rules.

3.

“Established authors choose to write tie-ins of their own volition, not because they aren’t good enough to write their own books.”

Jim C. Hines:

Digging deeper, I find — to my utter disgust — that on some level I feel as though original novels are somehow more artistic, more true to the integrity of the writer, more … whatever. My books are art. Yours are work done for a paycheck. Oh sure, Tobias Buckell might go slumming with his Halo novel, but he’s still a real writer at heart. Holy crap, someone please kick my ass now? This is bullshit, pure and unfiltered. I opened my second book with a nose-picking injury, and I’m judging other people’s writing as not artistic enough? Seriously, someone needs to smack me.

This argument is also known as, “Kingsley Amis and Sebastian Faulks wrote post-Fleming James Bond. They are damn good novelists. Therefore, it is probable that good post-Fleming James Bond exists.”

I’ve never actually read Amis or Faulks, but okay.

For the record: yes, I consider post-Fleming Bond or post-Baum Oz to be tie-in fiction, and the same goes for the emerging trend of advertising a deceased or retired author’s name as a brand in itself (cf. Robert Ludlum, Tom Clancy). I don’t think tie-in writers will argue with me here: they are all too happy to welcome these authors as peers.

It’s worth asking, then, why we (well, I) afford a degree of privilege to the originator of a character or series. Why didn’t I read any Oz after Baum, and what makes me think of Fleming’s Bond as the real Bond, succeeded by a dynasty of tributary imitations (which, I’ll repeat, I haven’t read)? That leads us straight into the complex theoretical quagmire of authorship, and I’m thrilled.

4.

“Every work of fiction steals from its influences; no author invents from scratch. Tie-ins acknowledge their influences openly and with permission.”

Aha, here we go—l’anxiété d’influence! Le morte d’author! Now we’re playing with power.

As I repeat at every opportunity, I have little use for authorial intention, and I am all for the appropriation and reinterpretation of existing texts. I have to be: I specialize in a genre of music where people make entire careers out of improvising a thousand different ways to play Gershwin or Porter or Ellington, and original compositions often step aside to make room for another lap around “Autumn Leaves”.

So I’ll heartily accept that reinterpretation is composition, as is the revitalizing task of expanding something beyond its natural borders. But in tie-in fiction, is there really that much reinvention? Who’s actually reharmonizing the tune and twisting its melody into a variegated knot of loop-de-loops and Möbius strips—and who’s just running the changes?

What I want to see in a spin-off story is a serious challenge to the structural conventions or ethical assumptions of its brand. I haven’t read Gregory Maguire’s Wicked (it’s in the queue), nor am I familiar with the musical by that name, but I’m going to slip it here as an example anyway. Another good example is The Final Solution, Michael Chabon’s 2004 novella about an octogenarian Sherlock Holmes. This is not to argue that every tie-in novel need be an act of defiance or revision, but what they should be is special and unique—not only within the context of their franchise, but as works of fiction that stand proudly on their own merits.

I’m sure enthusiasts of tie-in fiction would be eager to show me where this kind of thing already exists. Please do—and remember, I have very high standards.

The rest of the story

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