Homage or Hack Work?

Every reader has quirks.  Some people don’t like graphic sex scenes.  Some people find detailed combat dull.  Some people don’t care how many human characters are killed in the course of a novel, but kill an animal – especially a cat or dog – and the author will be in, well, the dog house…

Hatchet Jobs?

Hatchet Jobs?

My quirk is a little different.  I really dislike books that are recognizably based on someone else’s novels or characters or named setting.

By this I don’t mean collaborations, where the original author is part of the project. I’ve done several of these, most recently Fire Season with David Weber (as well as the forthcoming Treecat Wars) which use Weber’s character, Stephanie Harrington.  I’ve also written several “Honorverse” novellas at Weber’s invitation.    I’ve written a Berserker story with Fred Saberhagen and expanded the history of his Mask of the Sun (in the anthology, Golden Reflections).  I wrote a story for the Jack Williamson tribute anthology, The Williamson Effect.  I also had my go at Larry Niven’s Known Space in a recent Man/Kzin War anthology.

However, what pushes my buttons to the point that I won’t even pick up the novel are those books that are based around highly recognizable fictional characters: the many refurbishments of Sherlock Holmes, the increasingly numerous expansions of cast of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, the Wizard of Oz revamped, Jane Eyre…

As an author, I did step over this line twice.  Once, when invited to do a story for the anthology Fantastic Alice.  However, even then I was very careful to tell my tale “outside” of the Alice in Wonderland canon, not just recycle Alice and the Queen of Hearts or the Walrus and the Carpenter…  My story was from the point of view of the Dormouse and tells what happens when he’s in the teapot.  To tell the truth, if asked today, when the market seems increasingly glutted with novels based on other people’s works, I would probably decline.  The other time was in a Lovecraft anthology.  Since Lovecraft opened up the gates to his uncanny realms during his own lifetime, I didn’t feel I was abusing his property.

Recently, my friend Tori asked me why fiction – especially novels – based on other writer’s works bothers me so much, especially since I’m not bothered by stories that use mythology or folklore as a foundation.

Basically, it’s because while mythology and folklore belong to a culture – to a group of people who share an ethnic or religious background – fictional characters belong to that one author.  I can’t help but feel as if these works – especially on-going series that don’t even bother to file off the serial numbers – are less affectionate homages, than attempts to capitalize on someone else’s works.  Even when it’s legal – as with characters whose original novels have entered the public domain – I just don’t care for it.

The Iliad and the Odyssey or the Aeneid have named authors (in this case Homer and Virgil), but still fall into the “mythology and folklore” category for me, since it’s quite likely that the “authors” were closer to compilers of long-standing oral tradition.  That is, Homer and Virgil took material that was already being told around the fireside and arranged it into what has become the “official” version.

Recently, as we were working on a future Tangent, Alan Robson mentioned how certain fictional elements have become part of our modern “mythology”: Dracula, Tarzan, Sherlock Holmes, Frankenstein, Jack the Ripper (a historical figure, but one who has been fictionalized so often that most people couldn’t sort apart the fiction elements from the non-fictional) and others.  While in the context of our discussion, I saw his point, still…

Frankly, I don’t read the stuff.  If you want me as a reader, don’t ride into the literary arena on someone else’s coattails.  Give me your own people and places.   I’m much more likely to give your works a try.

Where is the line between “homage” – a work written because the writer is deeply attached to a piece – and exploitation?  I’d be interested to know what you think.

15 Responses to “Homage or Hack Work?”

  1. Dominique Says:

    You know, I think that I agree with you Jane. I am trying to think of books that I have read and enjoyed that were re-workings of someone else’s story, and I can only think of a few. For example, I enjoyed Wicked. However, on average I think it is better to come up with your own story, your own characters, your own universe, in an effort to take the reader to someplace that they haven’t been to before.

  2. Paul Says:

    I agree with Dominique–and with Jane. It’s the same with movies these days, so many being rebootings of something already done. I tried a couple of the non-Ian Fleming James Bonds ‘way back when, and found them lacking. Likewise, the many manifestations of Sherlock Holmes, or Dracula, or whoever. “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies” left me cold. I will say Ace Atkins seems to have captured Robert Parker’s voice in continuing the “Spenser” detective stories, but that was an exception. Generally, these taking of someone else’s characters and re-molding them, looking at them from another angle, changing them entirely, or putting your own spin on them, always seems to me to have something lacking. It’s as though authors are reluctant to try their own ideas and want something which already has a track record.

  3. Sally Says:

    I dunno. Perhaps my native scruples are not as developed. I confess to having enjoyed (for example) Laurie King’s The Beekeeper’s Apprentice a great deal; a few of the later ones as well (Locked Rooms). Though tossing Rudyard Kipling’s Kim into the mix in The Game I found a bit much. I mostly want a gripping story, and sometimes writers using others’ characters have too much fun throwing in every damn original element at the readers’ expense. Jill Patton Walsh’s followup Lord Peter Whimsey novels have this problem, approved or not.

    Which leads back to Paul’s final point above.

    • janelindskold Says:

      I’ve heard lots of good things about _The Beekeeper’s Apprentice_. However, probably because I absolutely hated _The Seven Percent Solution_ (which is widely praised by Holmes fans).

      I’ve heard that _Wicked_ explores a variety of social issues using the Oz setting. I’d probably be more tempted by that.

      And, much as I adore Peter Whimsey (I’ve teased Jim that he’s probably lucky I met him before I met Peter), I have been hesitant to try the approved sequels… It might take the shine off.

  4. Rowan Says:

    I keep trying to articulate a comment and failing, because as with a lot of things, I’m of many minds about this. I don’t think it was okay for E.L. James to write alternate universe Twilight fanfiction, then change the names and publish it for profit. But I don’t think that we should crack down on writers of fanfiction, either. I know I’m tired of endless Sherlock Holmes, but I’m paradoxically excited to see the new filmed The Great Gatsby, which I expect will be some Gatsby, and some modern drama, and lose some symbolism.

    I’ve read a metric crap-ton (very scientific sizing here) of essays about how more and more often, we adopt the “re-mix” as our creative mantra. Some argue that this is a death of creativity, some see it as an expansion. And I’m not entirely sure where I stand.

    Honestly, when I’m writing, I sometimes get squicky little feelings about romping around in someone else’s mythology. They’re culturally owned stories, yeah, but most, nearly all of them, are not MY culture. I don’t know if I’m getting it right or if I’m appropriating. I don’t know if I’m being respectful, or if I’m doing something cringe-worthy. Maybe I can find someone to ask, maybe not. Maybe they don’t represent a big enough voice, since culture isn’t monolithic.

    So I yo-yo between being afraid of appropriating anything and wanting to sample like it’s all a buffet. I don’t think they’re easy lines to draw, which is why Fifty Shades of Grey “isn’t” a copyright infringement, but posting a video clip with someone else’s work in the background, however inconsequential, is. The laws are a mess and our conceptions of those laws and rules of respectful behavior towards intellectual properties are a mess.

    Which… I’m afraid, may not answer anything.

    • janelindskold Says:

      I’d need to ask about the copyright infringement that you mentioned regarding the video. I once asked an intellectual property attorney (who is also a photographer) about this. My understanding was that if you tried to sell a photo of a work then you were infringing the copyright of the original artist.

      However, if I wanted to have a promo photo of myself with a favorite piece of sculpture (I was considering Kimo, who currently resides here in Albuquerque outside of the animal shelter) then I wasn’t violating the artist’s copyright — although it would be very nice of me to give the artist credit.

      I’ll ask again because this is interesting.

      As for fan fiction — that’s a whole complicated ball game. Sherlock Homes is — mostly — in the public domain. Stephanie Meyer’s characters from Twilight are not. Big difference.

      • Alice Says:

        Ah, fair use vs. infringement. Pretty much handled on a case by case basis using four factors, which you can probably find on Wikipedia. Making money off of your fair use transformative work is a factor, but making money won’t necessarily make it infringement. See the Daily Show which makes big bucks parodying and playing copyrighted clips from various “news” shows. Clear cut fair use. Or Cracked online magazine which uses copyrighted images and clips in it’s social commentary/parody/comedy articles to make not nearly as much money on their add revenue. Or any critic who makes his living critiquing movies or books and includes clips, pictures, excerpts in his critique.

        Or there’s the Buffy vs. Edward parody which makes no money (but legally probably could, though the creator would likely advise you that it’s risky to try with your amateur Youtube vids) using copyrighted video clips and song snippets. That’s made by an expert in the concept of fair use and he went through and won several battles with the owners who tried to make money off of it – which WAS an infringement of HIS copyright, not to mention a blatant shakedown which is a violation of DMCA. http://www.rebelliouspixels.com/2013/buffy-vs-edward-remix-unfairly-removed-by-lionsgate

        I’m a copyright law geek.

  5. janelindskold Says:

    Mythology and other people’s culture — to touch on something Rowan said — I agree with her about getting it wrong and therefore being disrespectful.

    I research the hell out of whatever myth/folklore I’m using, often going back to first versions.

    I was frankly shocked when a friend mentioned she had an idea for a story using some Greek goddesses and, when I offered her some of my really cool material on the subject her response was a breezy: “Oh, I have Bulfinch. That’s enough.”

    It ain’t. Least not as I see it. It ain’t.

    • Alice Says:

      The problem with this is not reseach though. Making money off someone else’s culture is still appropriation no matter how respectful and still problematic in that sense. Not to mention that unlike the situation with an author who still has copyright, the culture has no way to dictate what constitutes respectful or to defend against use that they find unacceptable. (Exception to prove the rule and nifty aside from a copyright geek. A Native American worked on a film as a consultant providing them with details of well-kept secrets regarding his people’s religion. The tribe sued to stop the film from going to theaters and the court ruled that their cultural ownership and need to protect their culture from appropriation meant that no individual member could reveal what belonged to the culture.)

      Besides when it comes to mythology and folklore there is the issue of what constitutes original. I mean I commend you for getting down to that bedrock, but by it’s nature myth and folklore adapt and evolve so it’s hard for us to sit in judgment on which version people should have to use. Not that I’m defending Bulfinch as sufficient.

      And do we give up our purpose in telling the story for ensuring we are being respectful? Myself, I’ve been toying with telling the story of Lilith, from her point of view, and I have done extensive research, but my purpose is not to repeat a story firmly rooted in patriarchal Judaism. It’s to talk about why she would sacrifice paradise, and that, by necessity, means not respecting the views of the original creators and believers of the Lilith folklore, who view her decision not to submit as the height of villainy. Not to mention that Lilith was appropriated by Judaic folklore from another culture that we don’t have sufficent records of, which raises the appropriation question I might have dodged with my Jewish heritage. And do we get a pass to be disrespectful to culturally owned stories merely because it’s our own culture?

      Appropriation is just very delicate, no matter how respectful we may intend to be.

  6. Heteromeles Says:

    Late to the party, but dare I point out how much of Arthurian “mythology” is essentially Medieval novels? Or how much of current zombie, vampire, and zombie “lore” comes from the movies of the 1930s, and has nothing to do with either Haitian Vodoun or the older issues of lycanthropy or vampirism? (Dare I even note that more birds than bats are vampiric in the real world? Nobody puts feathers on humanoid vampires for some reason).

    How is this different than using Bulfinch again? Not much. Then again, for a while I swapped emails with a Greek pagan who was seriously resurrecting the worship of Zeus based on archeology, mythology, and folklore. All I can say is that it’s quite different than what we think of as “Greek Mythology.” As with vampires, werewolves, and zombies, someone trying to be faithful to the old greek religion would produce a work that would be bizarre to most modern readers brought up with retreads of Bulfinch and old movies.

    Getting strictly to the subject, I do honestly get tired of people doing remixes and retreads and calling them new. Then again, if it’s popular and sells, I can’t blame them for copying, if their goal is to sell books and make a living at it. Originality takes both time and risk.

  7. CBI Says:

    I guess that, absent copyright infringement, I’m more of a “if it’s a good tale, it’s a good tale”, even if it reuses something. The main trouble is when the reuse fails to include something novel or is just not well done (e.g., much post-Conan Doyle Holmes stuff). An example of novelty would be the BBC One modern-day Sherlock Holmes (whose use of contemporary science is about as accurate as Conan Doyle’s was!).

    [Aside on names: Arthur C. Doyle used his middle name along with his surname as a derived double-surname (Conan Doyle), but officially remained a Doyle.]

    I suppose that the same goes for stuff with the ancient Greek gods that aren’t mythologically accurate, at least when its something that I’m not too immersed in. The attitude probably has something to do with familiarity. Something like “Jean took aim, thumbed the safety off of the revolver, and fired” would cause an eye-roll at the minimum. If in the middle of a good tale, it could be overcome, but a series of similar errors could more a fairly good read into the “unreadable” category.

  8. Alice Says:

    I know this is very late, but I’ve got big love of transformative works and I wanted to respond.

    First off, I’m using the term “transformative works” because fanfiction is something of a misnomer. Fanfiction is more of a subset of transformative works which can include parodies, transformations of works in the public domain, and fanworks. But none of them are obligated to be an homage to the original work. Using the term fanfiction kind of implies that they are, but they aren’t and if we want to talk creative value and merit, then we can’t demand that they be homages. Of course, for there to be value in any transformative work, the author of a transformative work has to actually do something creative with the work. So, I do agree with the visceral reaction to someone who can’t even be bothered to put what I think is sufficient creative effort into a story. But it’s very problematic to get into the business of judging sufficient creative effort. In addition, the point of having a limited term of copyright was because we wanted people to take an original work and innovate with it. Just like patent law allows for us to take an invention and improve on that.

    I’m never going to understand the argument that merely drawing from someone else’s work means that it took insufficient creative vision to give it literary or artistic merit. I mean if that’s true, then there is also no artistic value in drawing on things that are culturally owned either, because the author is still relying on something he didn’t create as a prop to his storytelling. It’s not different artistically just because we can identify the original author. We can make this a legal standard, but not an artistic one.

    Compare Anne Rice and Marion Zimmer Bradley. To me it’s pretty clear that Rice used Dracula and other pre-existing vampire works, but not vampire lore, as a jumping off point. Bradley uses Arthurian myth (I’m assuming you equate Monmouth and Troyes to Homer), but she did also write a retelling of Cassandra of Troy that would have a similar critique (though in that case, she’s relying on Euripides who would actually meet the myth standard less than Homer or Monmouth and Troyes). Bradley leans heavily on myth for plot and somewhat for characterization. If I were to judge creative effort (bad idea), I would say Rice put more creative effort into her works. But if we use the myth standard, Bradley has more literary merit because her sources are myth and folklore. Which leads to the question of where the line is for Rice. At what point did her work stop being a fanfiction and become an original? Who determines that and how? What about Joss Whedon’s vampires? What unwritten standard did Stephanie Meyers fail when transforming her fanfiction with the extensive world-building she did (and I hate Twilight)? Which vampire franchise are we giving a pass and what are we basing that on? Do we just go through a work and tick off what’s unique to that author? What’s the magic number that makes the entire thing “original?” Does it stop being fanfiction if she borrowed from multiple sources? Does an author get no credit for combining numerous elements from a wide variety of sources into a cohesive and compelling story? Is there no creativity involved in that?

    And the next question is when does something become part of culture? I think it’s problematic to just say that it’s whether we know who the author is. From a moral standpoint, if it isn’t okay to use something owned by someone else, is it really okay to use it just because we don’t know who the owner is? And then there are the elements that we would now consider part of culture that are in fact traceable to a specific author. So, where does that fit in the standard? Can my vampires be stakeable, how about preternaturally attractive, can their fangs emerge or do they have to be always out since someone else already wrote that idea? Do I get any say in whether I think these are generic ideas? Who do I go to get a final judgment on this? And how does an author know what’s cultural and what’s owned? What if they think it’s part of the culture because it is so prevalent, but it turns out to be definitively traceable to a specific author (see Milton’s interpretation of the Bible in Paradise Lost which is now pretty ubiquitous in Christian culture)? Is that fair game? If it is, how come that author loses protection just because culture has been looting from him? If not, am I obligated to research every idea that seems like it might have come from mythology to be sure it really did in order to ensure my literary cred? What if I forgot that the idea of sparkly vampires is uniquely a Meyers’ creation because I never even read her books and only heard about sparkly vampires in passing once? Do I have to double check all my own ideas to be sure? It’s possible to blank on where ideas come from.

    And a myth/folklore standard completely dismisses the fact that we have a wonderfully rich mythology to draw from because we let people take stories and rework them to tell new stories that were relevant to their circumstances. I think that’s a beautiful thing to see and I’d hate to see it disappear from our storytelling repertoire.

    Look at Euripides’ plays, by example. His works specifically highlight the situations of the disadvantaged in society through retellings of popular myth. He also introduced several theatrical innovations that changed storytelling for the Greeks. They’re well-done transformative works. He relied on something recognizable to his audience in order to showcase his talent (it would have been almost impossible to introduce those innovations with an unknown story) and to make his point, but he also put substantial creative effort into them. There can be no doubt that while he was relying on previous stories, the creation is his own.

    Are we really going to say that people can’t write a compelling story that points out compelling social issues within an original work, because it’s “riding the coattails” of a problematic story that is impacting our culture? Do we really not want to hear those stories? Is it an effective critique of themes and culture if we don’t know what work it is referencing? Do we want to reward dishonesty by giving a pass to people who successfully conceal the origins of their creative endeavor and punish those who are honest? What if I start out with a fanfiction and then rework it to the point that no one could tell it was fanfiction unless I told them? Am I still riding coattails given that I wouldn’t have had the story at all if it didn’t start out as a fanfiction?

    I realize that with the way our culture has changed, there is an incredible investment for an author in writing a story and that competition to make even a minimal living off their works is fierce. It’s impossible to be relaxed about someone possibly making a few million off your work by twisting it up when you’re just getting by on that work that you put your heart and soul into and that you think is perfect as is. So, I realize that I’m really not going to convince authors who hate transformative works of any shape to agree with me. It’s a topic that’s far too emotionally charged, but I’m just not convinced that the answer to people making money off other people’s work is to do away with transformative works. And I don’t know an effective way to police it that doesn’t stifle creative expression, social critique, and innovation in storytelling.

    While I’m not a big fan of someone making big bucks off a pornographic version of someone else’s work or corporations getting away with grabbing up anything in the public domain so they can make big bucks while having no respect for the work and no intent to parody or make a statement with it (or whatever violations of copyright they get away with because they’ve got the money) or someone selling their fanfiction, we long ago decided that we can’t be the arbiters of what constitutes sufficient creative effort (there’s even law on this, to get my copyright law geek on) and I think that it’s another dangerous road to go down.

    • Alice Says:

      Okay. I really didn’t realize how long that was before I posted. I apologize for that.

      • janelindskold Says:

        No worries. I’ve read all your posts here and on my FanFic piece and appreciate your passion and the thought you put into the subject.

        Don’t have time or energy to respond point by point, not if I’m going to have time to write more original fiction!

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