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January 8th, 2007


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10:28 am - More on Licensed Settings
There was a lot of discussion on my last post, centered on M. John Harrison's essay, "What it might be like to live in Viriconium".

There was a bit of discussion on my interpretation of the essay, though I think it was mostly agreed. As I see it, the point of the essay was that derivative works "tame" the "wildness" of the original. I mostly concur with the objective points here. A derivative work takes elements of the original, but puts those together in a new work which doesn't have the same message or essence. The derivative creator who borrows those elements is instead putting in his own message and ideas, which will presumably be more familiar to him than the work of another.

Types of Derivative Works

Derivative works include sequels or fan fiction within the world, parodies, sampling, alternate covers of songs, mash-ups, parodies, collages, and so forth as well as role-playing game adaptations. Examples abound of sequels (John Gardner's Grendel, Gregory Maguire's Wicked, John M. Ford's The Final Reflection, etc.), parodies (Corey Yuen's vicious High Risk), sampling (2 Live Crew's Pretty Woman), covers (Joan Jett's punk cover of Ronald Isley's song "Shout"), mash-ups (like the Go Home Productions' "Rapture Riders" or "Love Will Freak Us"), and so forth.

None of these are intended as a replacement for the original, though. They are aimed at people who are already familiar with the original, and derive their power from familiarity with the original. Are they more tame? Well, the creator of a derivative work is taking the material and putting their own stamp on it -- so the material is most likely going to be more familiar to them. However, to a third person, the derivative might well be more wild. (This is often the case with samping and parodies, say, but I think Wicked is no less wild than The Wizard of Oz even though I like the latter better.)

At the same time, these do not generally try to retain the essence of the original. In general, I would say that if you want to represent the essence of a work, you should direct people to read the original. If you are making a derivative work, you should try to distinguish yourself and do something distinctly new. Most of my favorite derivative works are reversals which take the opposite side of the original, which casts all of it in a new light.

Now, I do have some concern about another class of derivative work: remakes and adaptations. The problem with these is that they do supplant the original and often form people's first exposure to the material. For example, the film version of The Wizard of Oz is quite different than the original book -- and in many ways reverses the message. (In the original, Dorothy is the sole light and color of the grey Kansas farm, and everyone else learns from her. In the film, she is being taught to appreciate the dull normal life.) It is a terrific film, but being exposed to the film first actively harms reading of the original. princeofcairo had this complaint about August Derleth supplanting Lovecraft, which I can understand.

Quality

However, all of this is independent of the quality of the derivative. Even if you think that your work is better than the original, that does not excuse supplanting it, in my opinion. Conversely, I do not think that not being able to live up to the original is a reason to not try. The world should have creative works which are unskilled and/or clumsy. (Indeed, I think that having them is required for more skilled works.) No one should refrain from singing a song just because they can listen to a recording of a professional artist singing it. And I consider the fans who write their own stories a step above the fans who pride themselves simply on the literary works they have read. Creativity is not something to be left to only the experts. I might not want to read the fan fiction of some random person in Poland, but I don't want them not to try it.

It's certainly true that the average person will make a hash out of writing fiction or playing an RPG in a literary setting. Most likely, the results will be banal and kitsch -- just like typical singing is painfully off-key or lifeless hitting of notes. However, its not like their other efforts would be any different. Efforts to make original settings are typically dull pastiche, with flavorless listings of lands and races -- only with Chiropti and Ular and Aasimar rather then elves and dwarves.

None of this dissuades me from saying that it is a good idea to try. I can understand that there are purists who don't want to read multiple interpretations of an original work. I see this as a matter of taste in the same sense that some people don't like spicy food or pistachio ice cream. I've had that impulse for some flavors myself. Though often, I find I don't like what the original artists themselves do with later works -- like Lucas' prequels to Star Wars, or Zelazny's later Amber series.

Questions

That said, I do have some questions. So, droog64 suggested that there was something wrong in principle with using a derivative setting that was independent of the idea of ownership. The objection was an aesthetic judgement of that. However, I don't understand what the substance of this is. For example, if someone in 1939 wanted to write an epic in the same setting as The Hobbit, would it matter who the owner is and who the author is?
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From:mcroft
Date:January 8th, 2007 09:37 pm (UTC)
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Even if you think that your work is better than the original, that does not excuse supplanting it, in my opinion.

I'm not sure I understand what you're getting at. How is that the responsibility of the derivative creator? William Shakespeare finds a perfectly serviceable plot, adds a comic gravedigger or drunken gatekeeper, and ends up supplanting the original. Is his appropriation inexcusable?

I tend to describe culture as a conversation, with value in both Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? and Blade Runner. In my (admittedly anecdotal) case, seeing the adaptation sent me looking for the source material. I think it's perfectly appropriate for Sweet Home Alabama to be written in response to Southern Man and if SHA is a better song, it'll probably be remembered longer than most people will know why they talk about "Mr. Young" anyway.

If we can discount issues of unfairly profiting from someone else's labor, I'm all for letting the marketplace of ideas decide. I don't think someone should sell their Star Wars fanfic on Amazon.com without appropriate arrangements with LucasCorp, but I also don't think it'll survive in the marketplace if it is awful.
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From:jhkimrpg
Date:January 8th, 2007 10:41 pm (UTC)
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I'm not an expert on Shakespeare's alleged plagiarism, but to the extent that he took other people's ideas without crediting them and supporting them -- yes, it is a black mark on him. It doesn't mean that his work is bad, but it's a moral failing in my book.

It's not just profit, but credit in my book. So, for example, a rich man may pay a bunch of people to help him with his writing, which he claims that only he wrote. Even if the ghost-writers are well-paid, I feel that this is ethically dodgy.
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From:jhkimrpg
Date:January 9th, 2007 12:33 am (UTC)
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Despite having commented on it with Ken, on second thought I'd like to avoid Derleth because I'm not familiar with him and it seems liable to bring up misinterpretation.

However, I would like to talk here about bad writing. My principle here is very much that bad writing is very much a good thing. It is much safer and more dignified to not write at all, to do as Harrison suggests and lie back and let the experts imagine for you. However, I consider it a good thing for people to make their own attempts. It's easy to mock personal work. In an age when you hear perfect studio recordings all the time, it is easy to look down on someone's singing or playing an instrument. Similarly, people who write out their role-playing game summaries are easy to criticize that their plots are weak, their insights shallow, and so forth. The criticisms might be truthful as far as they go, but I don't think that this means that they shouldn't role-play and should instead lie back and read someone else's imaginings.


To pick a example of bad writing, consider homo-erotic Kirk/Spock fan fiction. This is hardly tamer than the original Star Trek, I claim, nor is it a mistake. It is a deliberate twisting of the tropes that already appear in Star Trek to a different end. It might be far less skillful or insightful than something like Maguire's Wicked, but that's a difference of quality, not of kind. It drives at male bonding, sexuality, gender essentialism -- just not generally very well. I would say the same about, say, male pregnancy Harry Potter stories.

The typical Mary Sue is embarrassingly self-indulgent, but it is also a deliberate twisting of the canon. For example, suppose the beautiful new violet-eyed female officer has Kirk around her finger and through feminine intuition points out something which Spock misses, say. This might be terribly written, but it's not just accidental misreading of what Star Trek is about. The author is deliberately beating down the male icons and elevating an idealized female self. While the author might not use those fancy words, she might say something like "I didn't like how Uhura kept getting sidelined, so I came up with a strong female officer." That's deliberate transformation.

What's most telling is that many critics will attack these stories by claiming about how they fail to live up to the original. Here I feel that the critics make a category error, thinking that the Mary Sue story should instead have the same message or essence as Star Trek.
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From:jhkimrpg
Date:January 9th, 2007 08:33 pm (UTC)
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We might want to continue this under Maguire on Licensed Settings, as that is where I talked more specifically about this issue -- i.e. wondering about the people as people, the places as places, and so forth.
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From:jhkimrpg
Date:January 9th, 2007 08:46 pm (UTC)
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You're right -- it's not a category error. I misused that as a sort of rhetorical gesture of throwing back the term at Harrison. My point was that critics often expect a derivative to have the same essence or message as the original, when often it is not intended to nor in my opinion should it (since I appreciate contrasting, reversing, or satirizing the original).

We're similar about Harrison, though. I believe that though he claims it is not exactly an issue of ownership, his points about not taming and how the reader should lie back and not actively imagine about the setting have a subtext of wanting control as the author. Regardless of we think is behind it, though, we are agreed that it is a silly claim.
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From:lee_os
Date:January 10th, 2007 12:07 am (UTC)
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a subtext of wanting control as the author

Yeah, it's actually pretty clear that Harrison's real issue is the fact that he's a control freak. That's why I frankly see no reason at all to even take him seriously on this. The whole thing reads like a big convoluted rationalization for "mine! mine! mine!" That's usually a pretty big tipoff that there's some shaky logic underneath (when something reads a like a big convoluted rationalization).

In this case, the shaky logic would be his unstated, unexamined assumption that there are proper and improper uses for literature -- and that he knows what the proper uses are.
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From:jhkimrpg
Date:January 8th, 2007 11:19 pm (UTC)
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Arg. I thought I was clear that I wasn't claiming anything about what Shakespeare did. And of course I knew that Shakespeare lived before the modern legal concepts of IP rights.

Dropping the example Shakespeare, I do know that if a hypothetical author were to profit by someone else's work and go down in history as the creator of a story he didn't write -- then I would feel that was unfair even if it was legal at the time. If hypothetically we could later prove that there were another person who came up with most of the good material in the work, then I would feel that it would be ethically right to try to correct that and credit them.
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From:mcroft
Date:January 8th, 2007 11:49 pm (UTC)
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So part of bringing up Shakespeare is that his work does come from a time with the different idea of the cultural commons, as brand_of_amber mentions. I personally feel it was a more creatively free period prior to the Dickensian realization that there was big money in books, which attracted big laws and big lawyers. It's also generally outside the established critical norms to do more than mention in passing the borrowing from and lending to the public domain and identifiable authors that happened in his works.

So, in a more modern vein, Bob Dylan went to London in the early 1960s, spent a good while going to folk clubs as part of the English Folk Revival, and came back to New York (where the folk revival and some of the same English folk revivalists were starting to be part of the New York scene), rewrote half of the songs, and sold a lot of albums. "God on Our Side" derives from Dom Behan's "The Patriot Game", learned by Dylan from the singing of the Clancy Brothers. Half the lyrics are Behan's. The tune, however, was an American one that Behan wrote words to. Behan hated Dylan's version, but it certainly eclipsed his.

I understand Behan's point, but I'm also sympathetic to Dylan making his own art from the tools Behan provided. Art cannot happen in a vacuum, just the artist and his genius. There has to be a common language that comes from the culture and if you start locking that away from creators (no matter how good or bad their creations), then your culture stops expanding.

None of which countenances apropriation that is stealing someone else's work. There's a line, but I can only define in ala Potter Stewart's definition of pornography.
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From:jhkimrpg
Date:January 9th, 2007 12:36 am (UTC)
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I'm totally down with Dylan making his own version. I just think he should give Behan some acknowledgement and credit when he does so. The whole thrust of my posts here has been in favor of derivative works.
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From:mcroft
Date:January 9th, 2007 01:59 am (UTC)
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I see that, and may have gotten overly hung up over the phrase "doesn't excuse supplanting it", which I thought suggested that the derivative author had transgressed if his work surpassed the original in popularity. I am addressing this point, which seems to me to be something of a minefield, rather than the whole of your posts, with which I largely agree.

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From:princeofcairo
Date:January 8th, 2007 10:09 pm (UTC)
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Now, I do have some concern about another class of derivative work: remakes and adaptations. The problem with these is that they do supplant the original and often form people's first exposure to the material.... princeofcairo had this complaint about August Derleth supplanting Lovecraft, which I can understand.

And Derleth was, I reiterate, writing "mashups" or "fan-fiction" or "collage" or whatever term you use for the "good" kind of derivative work. (He also wrote some "remakes" and "adaptations," which contra your statement above, are also intended to derive power from reader familiarity with the original material.) It was just (mostly) antithetical to the original intent of HPL's work, specifically intended to colonize, deform, and tame the original to suit Derleth's personal belief system.

Again, it's not a case of "mashup good" vs. "remake bad." It's a case of intent and yes, aesthetic judgement. A Fistful of Dollars is a superb and informative remake of Yojimbo, regardless of which order you see them in; both are superb "mashups" of the original Hammett story "Red Harvest."

Derleth's work -- and I really hate to bang on him like a piñata, because I have a lot of respect for the guy, and I actually agree with his philosophy and reject HPL's -- is domestication, and taming, and all those other bad things, whether it's a "remake" or a "mashup." And the general "domestication" of Cthulhu in plush and twee and fanfic that he (not entirely unwittingly) began is likewise a response and not a remake. It's just a nigh-uniformly damaging one, and usually sucky to boot.
[User Picture]
From:jhkimrpg
Date:January 8th, 2007 11:37 pm (UTC)
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Hm. Again, sorry, I'm not very familiar with Derleth. I heard some bad things about him (probably from you among others), and never bothered reading him or other later authors.

So, I'm only working from your description and a quick browsing of Wikipedia, but based on what you say, I don't have a problem with Derleth in principle. He was making stories which expressed his own belief system while taking material from Lovecraft. As I understand from Wikipedia, this was even done with Lovecraft's permission and friendship. Going to stuff which I am familiar with... having a plush-toy Cthulhu doll might be damaging to readings of Lovecraft, but it is clearly parody which I consider to be fair game.

It is bad that people will judge authors without having read their work. But I don't think this means there is a problem with the principle of derivative work -- even of making a derivative work with an antithetical message. By comparison, a review may do great damage to an author and give people the wrong idea about her. However, I don't think that this means there is a problem with the principle of negative reviews.

Also note that I'm not saying that remakes are bad, just that I have more ethical concerns about them -- whereas I have few about mashups, fan fiction. and so forth. I certainly agree that mashups and fan fiction can be aesthetically terrible, but so can original works.
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From:princeofcairo
Date:January 9th, 2007 11:24 am (UTC)
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I suppose to clarify my position in general terms, with nary a reference to the Spirit of Sauk City, who also wrote some extraordinarily lame Sherlock Holmes pastiches (which I also own) that thankfully did far less damage to later perceptions of the source material:

a) I don't believe there is a useful distinction between "remakes" and "mashups" that preserves one as ethically distinct from another. Both can be morally (or artistically) dodgy, both can be morally (or artistically) transcendant. Some of each intend colonization; some of each depend on familiarity with the source material.

b) In Kentopia, there would not be Faceless Clone Robots going about killing people who wrote crappy Star Trek fanfic or warbled off-key versions of "Forever Young." Let a million flowers bloom, say I.

c) But understand that every one of those flowers, good, bad, or otherwise, runs the risk of choking off the ground cover it used to grow in the first place. With some things -- me singing Bob Dylan in the shower -- the risk is minimal. With some things -- Shakespeare's remake of Greene's King Leir, to pick the obvious example -- it's no great loss. But either way, it pretty clearly happens to works both deserving and un.

And I haven't even mentioned cases like Bram Stoker, whose own terrible, terrible stage adaptation did more to damage later readings of his masterpiece novel than any other mashup-remake, even including Francis Ford Coppola's.
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From:jhkimrpg
Date:January 9th, 2007 07:54 pm (UTC)
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I guess there's a general issue that sometimes lower-quality stuff may be more influential than what you consider to be the better stuff. However, as far as I'm concerned, that's just life. It's the same way that what was once a brilliant, innovative twist decades later becomes a tired cliche. Or just in general people fail to appreciate what I consider to be a great work.

I think a derivative creator should credit and support the work that they're deriving from, but past that I don't think there's anything that can or should be done. There is stuff to be done outside the creator -- people should recommend good books to each other, and reviewers should do their jobs. For example, this worked to some degree in my case, in that I never read Derleth.

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