License to Slum, pt. 5

Sunday, 31 August 2008 — 11:44pm | Literature, Tie-ins and fanfic

This is the fifth and final part of “License to Slum: The Novel of the Movie of the Game”, a pentapartite polemic about media tie-in fiction in which I investigate whether my prejudice against them is just a prejudice. I recommend that you start at the beginning.

In this instalment, I turn my attention to the distinction of art from craft, the social responsibility of readers and critics, and why it is appropriate to express concern about the proliferation of tie-in novels irrespective of their success as works of entertainment.

17.

A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, I asked myself 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?

Is it at all fair to expect licensed fiction, written for hire, to display an air of independent spirit? Perhaps it isn’t. Steve Perry:

Two, a lot of writers who do only original material consider themselves more artist than craftsman — the different between a fine arts painter, say, and a commercial artist. They can produce a great novel, but at their own speed and without any editorial direction until after they are done. I’ve had writers tell me they can’t conceive of writing to somebody else’s outline, or fleshing out a script, because it is too mechanical for them.

[…]

I know writers who are adept and professional at the biz, but who cannot write to order. I liken good tie-ins to good commercial illustration. There are some wonderful fine artists out there who can paint terrific pictures, but who, if you asked them to draw a horse in front of a firehouse, couldn’t do it to save their lives.

The suggestion is that we are to think of tie-in fiction as copywriting: a contracted quantity of textual output produced to specification, no more or less demanding or respectable than advertisements, instruction manuals, and press releases. It is manufactured to specification, and anything beyond that is a luxury for the author to be proud of and for the rights-holder to enjoy.

And let’s not deny it: by their very presence on bookstore shelves, tie-in novels are an advertisement for the label they bear, on top of their double life as the rearguard of the revenue stream. Well, either you are satisfied with the tie-in novel as exactly that—a commercial, and something to fill the pages, which the writers enjoy writing and some readers enjoy reading… or you’re not.

My impression is that writers who choose to do tie-in work have already accepted this, absorbed it even. Fair enough. It takes a specific skill set to produce copy to spec, and I have no problem with them promoting greater public awareness of what they do and setting up awards to pat each other on the back.

If you are comfortable with tie-ins serving a function—as a tendril of marketing—then don’t complain about the stigma. You can’t have it both ways.

I must emphasize that this is not to say that something intended to advertise cannot also be art. In some cases, even advertising has become an art form in itself. Flip through some magazines, and you will find some genuine eye-poppers of print design, maybe even a spot of surrealist photography. Advertising agencies have come to dominate the format of the sub-minute cartoon: cinemas show award-winning ad reels to packed houses, and the animation is often worlds better than the narrative cartoons on television. I attribute it in part to the fact that agencies have an incentive to compete for lucrative contracts, and that narrative continuity is not a factor as it is in fiction. I also attribute it to the insight that the quality and polish of a production can make it very memorable, even in the space of a thirty-second clip or a glance over a page from a magazine. Finesse captures your attention.

So I understand that tie-in novelists do invest in fine-tuning what they produce, not only as a point of personal pride but also because that is what is required to survive in a competitive market.

All the same, writers of any genre or subgenre do themselves a gross disservice by happily accepting a sub-literary status as craftsmen, not artists. And rights-holders do their own property a disservice by keeping things that way.

Many have rightly pointed out the parallel between the perception of tie-in novels among genre writers and the mercifully receding stigma against genre in highbrow literary circles.

History tells us that genre earned its legitimacy because it aspired to be great. So, too, did the comic book in the format of the “graphic novel”, in the hands of extraordinary gentlemen like Alan Moore and Art Spiegelman. If tie-in novels demand respect, they must transcend their tie-in-ness. That is what Adams managed to do with The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, what Clarke did with 2001. It is true that Clarke and Adams were the creators of their respective IPs, but you can cover up their names and the novels would still speak for themselves.

Tie-ins need to be unique in the face of the sameness that brand names suggest—not just unique within their franchise, but in the context of all fiction. No doubt some will say they already have, and no doubt they will corroborate it with something they’ve read that I haven’t. As I’ve said from the outset, show it to me. I’d be glad to take a peek.

18.

Readers buy tie-ins. They buy lots of them, actually. Isn’t it enough that tie-in books entertain?

I have no problem with literature that entertains as its first priority. No, really! The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay is perhaps my favourite American novel, and you can’t enjoy it as much as I did if its impassioned defence of escapism leaves you unconvinced.

However—and it is essential to understand this—books that entertain are not diametrically opposed to books of intricate architecture. The polarization of literature into two camps, separated by the line of unfounded assertion that entertainment should be easy and sophistication opaque, is a trend that hurts everyone.

You may have noticed that I place a great deal of emphasis on form—on a writer’s acuity for the nuances of sentences and words. There are some who think that attention to style is something pretentious for professors to marvel at, a disguise for the plotlessness of “character-driven” fiction with no relevance to the popular taste. This is dangerous and wrong. An attention to language as more than just a vessel of plot points and character traits is not just a genre convention of “serious” literature. It is essential to every book.

Fiction is not like policymaking: form is not an accessory to content, nor is style an epiphenomenon of substance. If you choose to deliver a story in words, you must attend to the words. You must use the medium. Professional filmmakers don’t use store-bought camcorders, nor do we give them a free pass if they demonstrate no facility for angles and lights. Writers, even copywriters, must be prose stylists. They must prove to me they are fit for the novel, and that their ideas wouldn’t be better off as story proposals or essays.

I don’t mind entertainment—in fact, I relish it—but great entertainment justifies its own existence with a sense of uniqueness and mastery: it makes you think about entertainment itself, and invites you to dive back in again and again to plumb its depths for hidden connections and patterns. Entertainment is not antithetical to making you think. Entertainment should make you think about why you had fun. That is the essence of memorability.

19.

Of course, I realize that there are enough readers out there that have been conditioned into not caring to sustain the tie-in market no matter what I say. “Leave us alone,” they say. “We like our plain-spoken stories; go play with your metaphors somewhere else. We don’t need your respect.”

I have discovered, over the years, the readers who only read within genre are as ignorant of what goes on in “literary fiction” as those who naïvely refuse to touch science fiction and fantasy are of the genres they eschew.

Expanding the audience of any literary subculture is not something we do, or should do, to ingratiate establishment types (whoever they are) that had hitherto thumbed their noses at our genre of choice. It is something we should do for the betterment of all literature.

Fiction can only benefit from the cross-pollination of ideas. Genre fiction underwent an overwhelming process of transformation and diversification once authors realized that their ideas could reach more readers, and take on more weight, if the delivery of those ideas exercised modes of communication that were not purely literal: that metaphor, symbolism, and wordplay added colour and revealed connections we might not have seen before.

Similarly, in recent years, the most encouraging trend in “literary” fiction—whether its practitioners admit it or not—has taken place in the absorption of the serious intellectual conversations and culturally embedded tropes that genre works have been playing with all along. Storytelling acumen has returned in force to a market that was starting to get buried in its own words (not to mention the grossest excesses of post-1970s, identity-oriented literary theory).

What, then, is the obstacle in the way of the tie-in? Why is it still a maligned subgenre despite its artists’, sorry, craftsmen’s best efforts?

20.

It’s simple. The tie-in is not a genre. The tie-in is a mode of production, and it contends with a more established, proven, and reliable mode of production: the auteur.

Before anyone calls me out on contradicting my own squawks and squeals of “Intentional fallacy! Intentional fallacy!”: I must clarify that my usual dismissal of authorial intention pertains to the interpretation, not construction, of texts. That is, I believe that we are free to assess works of literature as morsels of evidence that speak for themselves, regardless of the conscious testimony of the creator. We are free to read Shakespeare as an instructive comment on our own times, even though he clearly couldn’t have intended that, having been dead some four hundred years.

That is not the same thing as saying that authors don’t matter. Authors matter a great deal. It is no contradiction on my part to advance the thesis that authors are, in fact, the most reliable of all brands. Sturgeon’s Law doesn’t apply to individuals. Good authors produce more than one good book in ten: their books may vary tremendously, but the author brings to each work the same evolving history of influences, the same developing facility for language, and the same individual nucleus of fused cultural memory.

For whatever reason, shared universes and narratives by committee have never measured up to the touch of the individual. When we think of the Bach and Beethoven of the newspaper comic strip, we think of Charles M. Schulz and Bill Watterson, who drew every strip themselves and never farmed out their work, even though Schulz licensed a merchandising empire that rivals those of Disney and Lucas. When we think of films, we think of the great directors, the Hitchcocks and Leans and Spielbergs. They don’t do it alone, obviously, but there is a reliable consistency to their work because of the control they exercise over their productions in service of an individual style.

We can account for the recent resurgence of genre pictures, especially films adapted from existing brands and under-explored folk traditions, to the director-driven visions of filmmakers from fiercely independent backgrounds: Peter Jackson, Christopher Nolan, Ang Lee, Alfonso Cuarón, Guillermo del Toro, Sam Mendes—the list goes on and on. They each brought with them a fine-tuned sensitivity to film language. And let us not forget that Star Wars began as something fresh and different, a film that had the gumption to leave its actors out of the opening credits, because it came from a real outside-the-box thinker who gave us titles as disparate as THX-1138 and American Graffiti.

In comic books—the template for the business model of tie-in series—the standout works are the individual visions, the contributions that Alan Moore, Frank Miller and others have made to everything from Batman to Daredevil. And those are just the pieces that play with existing properties and rethink them. The graphic novels that have reached out to readers who don’t ordinarily read comics, the titles that get optioned for films, are original properties with a unique and personal edge.

In prose fiction, the debate between producer-driven and auteur-driven creativity has never been as visible, because until the rise of the tie-in, it was never an issue. The auteur had dominated for centuries. Authors have always had to play ball with the market, of course—piles upon piles of rejection slips amass solely because the demand graph is unfavourable in select, unlucky climes—but the norm, outside the tie-in business, is for the writers to query the agents and publishers. The writers take the initiative. And their works need to be unique to sell.

In the service of art, the auteur-driven model just works.

21.

“Literature is subjective. Stop being critical; read and let read.”

All too frequently, I see people confuse subjectivity with the total, nihilistic abandonment of all aesthetics.

These are the same apologists who, when pressed on the subject of music, no doubt believe that the latest pollutants of Britney Spears and 50 Cent can peacefully coexist with the resilient traditions of Mozart, Verdi, and Ellington, even as the machine of entertainment-as-instant-gratification continues to make its war on the whole of our civilization’s accomplishment in the audible arts, stripping away the delicate layers of melody, harmony, and rhythm until nothing is left but noise.

To say that taste is subjective (true) is not equivalent to saying that criticism should be ignored (false).

Literary taste is subjective because no theory of what we ought to value is a statement of universal, objective truth. No honest critic pretends that what he says about a work of art is a statement of fact. It is, however, a statement of reasoned judgment, a form of persuasive discourse that lives and dies by the quality of its argumentation.

Like all ideals about how we ought to organize ourselves politically, or what we ought to consider the most desirable solution to a moral dilemma, the fact that something is subjective and perspective-dependent does not imply that nobody should persuade anybody else of the soundness of their perspective. In fact, subjectivity is precisely what makes a dialogue of values an absolute necessity.

The unsaid premise beneath all entertainment criticism is this: we should understand, and be able to defend, everything we like. We should be able to explain why we like it. “Because I like it?” That, ladies and gentlemen, is what we call a tautology.

The responsibility of every critic—and by “critic”, I mean every reader who releases a reasoned opinion into the public sphere—is to preserve and promote the belief that we, as an intelligent and self-aware species, should think about why we consume what we consume.

If we believe, and can defend our belief, that certain values we hold about literature are worth promoting, we will (and should) do what we can to affect the market. That fundamentally involves public gestures of persuasion. Opinions, kept to oneself, are powerless.

To let our friends and peers enjoy consumer entertainment without thinking about it is to leave them open to commercial exploitation.

That is why we recommend books through word of mouth: because we believe that others can derive value from them just as we did. We cultivate the literary tastes of fellow readers because, consciously or not, we have an ideal picture of what literature is all about, and we want there to be a readership to keep those ideals alive.

That is why, after suffering a half-century of slings and arrows from the highest battlements of tenured academia as well as the quicksand of declining popular taste, the Western Canon endures in the stewardship of readers who believe that our civilization’s cultural conversation remains relevant today.

All fiction competes with all other fiction: for shelf space, for attention, and most crucially, for time. It is unfortunate, but the game is often zero-sum. The promotion of certain literary ideals inevitably comes at the expense of others.

That is what we do when we tell anyone to read X instead of Y. That is how we reshape our environment in the image of our own ideals and pursue our dream of a better society.

We do it when we vote. I don’t see why we can’t also do it when we read.

22.

I think tie-in fiction has great potential. It is perfectly situated to initiate a dialogue about our modern multimedia milieu. And to do so, the tie-in novel must earn its place as more than just a piece of copywriting, but as fiction that presents itself as significant and unique.

“I hadn’t thought of it that way, but that’s how it is.” (Apologies to whomever it is I’m stealing from here.) As with all writing, that’s the reaction that even the most deadline-pressed tie-in novels should provoke. They should all exist as implicit critiques of their world, as all successful fiction is an implicit critique of ours. And by critique, I do not mean to say that they need to be adversarial; however, I do mean that they should invite the reader to think about a different aspect of the source material—not to fill in every last gap like a crude paint-by-numbers, mind you, but to look at the ambiguities from a challenging plurality of heretofore unimagined angles.

However, I remain concerned that it is simply not in the interest of rights-holding licensors to commission tie-ins that truly excel. If the tie-in excels, it is an ancillary effect of the author’s initiative, a bonus. The publishers have no interest in the future of literary accomplishment at large. The tie-in is the renewable money farm; it is precisely where the business does not take risks. I almost think tie-ins are, by their very design, vertically shallow but horizontally extensible. They are not meant to be re-read, though you can certainly do that if you wish. They are meant to sell the brand—the core product as well as the next book.

Even were we to think of textual production as a form of engineering, licensor-driven writing-for-hire is simply not best practice. Individual authors produce the best work because they have an incentive to invent.

So, when tie-ins compete with original works for shelf space and reading man-hours, I will take the original work any day. I will also recommend that others do the same. There is already too much great literature out there, and life is short.

It may be a stigma, and it may be a prejudice—but it is the authors’ and publishers’ responsibility to disprove it, not mine. Build it, and I’ll come.

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