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Rhetoretician -- Fiction etc.

Definitional Debate No. 361

Definitional Debate No. 361

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Here we go, philosophers, writers and curmudgeons:

  1. I provide a link to Robert Reed's cute little story, A Woman's Best Friend, in Clarkesworld magazine.
  2. Robert Reed is among most prolific and successful living writers of short-form science fiction. He publishes quite a lot.
  3. Clarkesworld is a professional market by the standards of the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA). While it is not yet as prominent (in terms of awards, etc.) as some other magazines, it pays very well ($0.10 / word) and is attracting high-quality writers like Reed.
  4. Interestingly, while many magazines (especially SF & fantasy magazines) now specifically forbid fan fiction in their submission guidelines, Clarkesworld isn't one of them.

So, you know what's coming, right, boys & girls?

Is this story fan fiction or not


  • I almost didn't respond because I wasn't sure what this story was based on. So I'll take a wild guess to this being based on Its A Wonderful Life (which I have never seen)...and no, I did not google this, though I was tempted. So if I'm totally wrong, don't embarrase me.

    I deducted that because her name is Mary not Marion even though she is a librarian. :) (I'm more familar with that librarian). The little bits I picked up from people talking about the film. But of the actual plot, I'm not sure.

    I loved that character George. He seemed so...normal. He was such a contrast compared to Mary. He's an innocent froma small town. She's from other worlds. But she could have been his one time wife. Even their names see archaic One part of the story must have been from the film. The part where he was.

    So if this is based on the movie, I would imagine this to be fan fiction. So how far off the mark was I?
    • Well, it was supposed to be a debate, so I won't venture an opinion on whether you're right or wrong in calling it fan fiction. But it was, indeed, It's a Wonderful Life about which I was thinking. The reference is clear, so that's not the question. The question (if you'd seen the movie, that is) is whether this fits into the definition of "fan fiction" -- which is meant to raise the question, what is that definition? (A good movie, by the way ; you really should see it.)

      • Did he try to kill himself? I know this is an old 1940's movie and I can't imagine them showing an attempted suicide. So he either thought he was saving somone and got saved himself or he really was trying to kill himself?

        If this is a retelling of the story in a subtle way, seeing his wife if he died or was never there, then it would be fan fiction. On the other hand, didn't Charles Dickens already do that? But then there must be people like me who never saw the movie, so that would not be fan fiction. To me fan fiction is using popular characters (not your own) in different ways, but retelling the popular story.

        Isn't the HP stories just that?
        • In the original story, George Bailey, beside himself with despair, comes close to killing himself when an angel (Clarence) throws himself into the river instead. George dives in to save Clarence. Clarence, to convince George of the value of his life, allows him to see the world as it would have been without him. That world is much, much worse than the world George knows. My favorite line from that scene is when George sees the tombstone of his brother Harry, who (in George's memory) was a war hero:

          Your brother Harry fell through the ice and was drowned at the age of eight.

          This is a lie! Harry Bailey went to war; he saved the life of every man on that transport!

          "Every man on that transport" died. Harry wasn't there to save them, because you weren't there to save Harry.

          Sends shivers down my spine even to quote it.

          George also sees that his beloved wife Mary grows up to be a frightened old maid, the town librarian in a town that doesn't use the library.

          You're right about Dickens. One of the fascinating things about IaWL is the way it parallels but also differs from A Christmas Carol.

  • I think it's fan fiction.

    I only saw "It's a Wonderful Life" once, and that was a long time ago, but it seems that this work isn't even an AU ... it's canon compliant! Mary makes the point of suggesting that George's 'angel' "took the effort to duplicate you" - which I thought jarred with the overall idea of infinite earths and death being a means by which one travelled between them, by the way - so this story leaves the real George intact and the original movie unaltered.
    • I wonder what the editor of Clarkesworld, or Reed himself, would say about that, though. I wonder if they'd make a distinction between "fan fiction" and this.

      And I also wonder how solid that distincton would be.
      • And I also wonder how solid that distincton would be.

        Dunno. But, when it comes down to the quality of a story ... or its ability to entertain ... it's a distinction that makes no difference, in my opinion, and I dare say you agree? Fan fiction isn't inferior to original works, just ... not original in its foundation. :-)
  • Yes, clearly. What's to discuss?
    • Oh, you're no fun.

      I think that Reed would be surprised to hear it called that. I wonder what the reaction would be.

      See, I think that fanfic written by a "professional" author, in a professional vanue, somehow has an imprimatur that it's "different" in some meaningful way.
  • Now this was way cool, but I have no clue whether it's fan fiction or not. Haven't seen "A Wonderful Life" and doubt I ever will (there're too many films on that "should see" list already), but I really enjoyed this piece. Is it fanfiction when you don't need to know the original to enjoy the story? I'm not sure knowing the story would increase the joy I got from reading this, possibly not, because I might have my own ideas regarding that universe that were opposed to this. Possibly. Or maybe not. Inspiration can come from several sources, and so this guy was inspired by that film. Did he base all his descriptions on what that particular film showed, or are they original? Is it the same world that's portrayed in the film, or a different one, working under the same principles? If it is the same, I guess you could argue that it's fan fiction, but that would be more out of legal interest than creative, wouldn't it? I mean, this story is great on it's own.

    Take a lot of HP fanfic, you need to have read the books to make any sense of them. Some fanfics are wonderful and stand quite well on their own feet, but can't be published because they use Rowling's characters, but if the names were changed they'd be great pieces of original work.

    So - have you submitted to this mag?
    • Hi, Berte!

      Reed's a great writer, that's for sure.

      Your definitional question about fan fiction interests me. On the one hand, if needing to know the original story in order to enjoy the derivative piece is one of the definitions of fan fiction, then it's possible that some of my HP ff isn't fan fic.

      The areas of overlap are described in my reply to Rachel, above. The story is clearly Reed's, and he could clearly have written it, with almost as much punch, without referencing George, Mary or the "world without George" trope. But there's no question that knowing the source made the story more meaningful for me. For one thing, the mousy librarian Mary Hatch found by George when he sees the world without him in the movie would never have propositioned a man the way Mary does in this story, and the contrast is resonant.

      I submitted one story to Clarkesworld, but they're temporarily closed to submissions right now.

  • (no subject) - mariarosereader
    • Hi! How did you find me?

      So you'd ascribe to the assertion that Wicked, for example, is fan fic? Wide Sargasso Sea?

      How about the three or four different versions of the Phaedra-Hippolytus-Theseus myths? Is each of of these fan fic because it references the others? Would this mean that practically all literature is fan fic?
      • Now you're mixing categories. Wicked and Wide Sargasso Sea are absolutely and indubitably fanfic. Good fanfic, obviously, but the only difference between them and the stuff you and I write is that these are printed on a page and people pay good money for them. There are actual characters belonging to someone else that they have used.

        Versions of myths fall into quite a different category, imo. Who 'owns' the myth in the first place? Was there ever an 'original' version? By their very nature, myths belong to communities and are retold to each generation in the community. There's no borrowing, because the myth belongs to each teller as much as any other.

        And literature which plays off myths isn't fanfic either. Characters and worlds are not imported, only universal themes and tropes. Plots, as you well know, don't belong to anyone. Nor does Cinderella. Or Theseus. Or the Minotaur, come to that.

        Though, of course, one could write fanfic based on a particular version of any one of these stories. Someone has asked for Slipper and the Rose fanfic in Yuletide, for instance. But that is a completely different thing from writing your own telling of a Cinderella story.

        • That's more like it. :)

          If we push on the definition a bit, though, the analysis becomes foggier. Mark Twain once pointed out that there's very little writing that can be called truly "original;" it's all derived, at least in part, from antecedent sources and references. (Indeed, that's part of what makes some literature work. T. S. Eliot's "The Wasteland" derives much of its power from its deliberate referencing of other canonical works.)

          We can say that some things, like very old myths, part of the collective consciousness, belonging, as you say, to communities. And I suppose, at the other extreme, that something that I write in my diary and don't show to anyone else is clearly not part of a community or a collective consciousness.

          But there are newer myths, and there are pieces of individual authorship that have attained the collective significance of myths. Shakespeare borrowed from specific texts, some of which were not all that well-known at the time, but Shakespeare's own work has achieved the sort of near-universal recognition that allows it to be referenced as a shorthand for other things. (There's an episode of STNG in which Deanna Troi suggests that a person might say simply, "Juliet at her balcony" as a way of referring to a particular type of romantic love.) You might argue that Romeo and Juliet now belongs to the colective consciousness in such a way that works based on it are not "fan fiction" at all, but simply retellings of a shared text.

          But if we go that far, then it looks like there's a continuum: as soon as the work is seen by one person, it becomes part of a wider consciousness. Eventually the work may be sufficiently popular that it has "fans," such that works based on it would be "fan fiction." After that the work takes on wider cultural significance, such that works based on it are no longer "fan fiction," but "retellings of myths." But are all these distinctions artificial?
          • Twain's point is interesting. It's a bit like the classic distinction between plagiarism (stealing from one person) and research (stealing from 20 people). But I still think you can maintain a much clearer distinction than you seem to be pushing for. If your fiction contains characters and/or world building that are recognisably the same as someone else's, that's fanfic. If it contains similar character traits, ideas, plot elements, and allusions to one or more earlier sources, I really don't think that's fanfic - that's creative reimagination or something. It's usually not that hard to tell the difference, is it?

            Let's take the Shakespeare example (which you're right, does have some mythical status but also still refers to specific literary texts). That source material can be used in a number of distinct ways: literary allusion (as in 'Juliet at her balcony'); reappropriating the myth (as in West Side Story); and fanfic (giving us Shakespeare's story from Juliet's POV, say, or filling in some missing moments). They strike me as quite easy to distinguish.

            I don't know the source texts Shakespeare used so I couldn't say whether his work could be called fanfic or not. My guess is not. Because even where he's borrowed plots and names, those characters feel fresh and original and recognisably his. But I could be wrong about that.

            In the It's a Wonderful Life story you linked to, the point is not 'here's another story which also looks at the possibilities of what might have been using a character who is feeling miserable at Christmas'. It's that it is George and Mary and she is a librarian and he was throwing himself off the bridge. Those are specific characters (not mere names or ciphers) who exist in a specific fictional universe which the reader recognises.

            I think the myths are different. I don't believe that they ever belonged to one person or one form. I think they arose within communities and always had multiple ownership and multiple forms. I don't think that Shakespeare's work, say, will ever have the same mythic status as, for instance, fairy tales. Because what makes Shakespeare Shakespeare is the specificity of the work: these words, this characterisation, this way of telling the story. Whereas myths can be told in a thousand different ways and still have their mythic quality.
            • Ah, now, the question of how myths arise, and what myths even are, is even more fascinating.

              Richard Slotkin has written a number of interesting books about American literary mythology. (His first book, Regerneration Through Violence, is a classic in the field of American Studies, and well worth reading.) Somewhere in there he defines a myth as a text that distills experiences that existed before it, and which is used as a way of explaining or understanding experiences that come after it. (So, e.g., the Prometheus myth provided a way of understanding how humans, who are so like animals, can possess and control something so apparently godlike as intelligence (i.e., fire). But it now serves serves as a metaphor for the inventor/transgressor, the person who risks self-destruction and condemnation to bring new things into the world and/or better the lives of others.)

              In this sense, it seems to me that what is unique/special/important about a myth is not how the narrative came into existence, but how it functions within the culture once it does exist. (The American myth of which Slotkin speaks is the myth of the white frontiersman in a "savage" native world, a man with one foot in civilization and another foot in the "wild," who pushes back the frontier at the same time he cannot bear to live with his "own" kind." Natty Bumpo, Hawkeye, Han Solo.)

              Although I agree that myths, by the time they reach the status of myths, have collective ownership and authorship, it seems to me that sometime, somewhere, there must have been one person who told the story the first time.

              It is true that what makes Shakespeare special is his language. But the situations and narratives he imagines exist independent of the languge, even if it's the language that catpults them to that status. Hamlet stands for the emblem of the moral person faced with a morally impossible situation (you might say that he's just like Orestes in this sense, but I don't think so).
  • Yup. Definitely fic--using your patented Taxonomy of Derivative Fiction, it falls under what I seem to rememer was Type Ii: set in the original world only because it served the derivative author's purpose, which seems to have been to deliver some Existentialist ideas with a sci-do spin.

    It's funny for me of all people to say this, but I think I prefer my philosophical sidelights to be more in service of the narrative. Mind, I liked the story, but...

    But I know the PoV character's middle name.

    And it is Sue.

    • Say more about this "philosophical sidelights in service of the narrative" thingy. If you mean that the story had too much theoretical exposition, I tend to agree.
      • (Digging through my personal slush pile, and have to answer this...)

        Yes. That's what I meant.

        The story seemed to be—as you've pointed out recently is often the case with speculative fiction—a pair of clever ideas (multiple realities PLUS! what if George came back to a different Mary who wasn't dowdy and miserable?) wrapped in a story that barely deserves the name. (I'm being a bit harsh, but hey? I'm a middle-aged writer-of-sorts! I'm supposed to be bitter!)

        The best philosophical fiction I've read either drops the pretense of character and narrative (Borges, say) or ties it so integrally in to the characters and plot that you may not even realize that you're being exposed to ideas and not just plot points.

        In the last chapter of Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (not my favorite book), Joyce said that there were two kinds of Art: improper and proper. Of the improper type, there were two further subcategories: pornographic art, which excites desire (he includes commercial writing and graphics in this category); and didactic art, which incites loathing or fear. Both kinds are kinetic in nature—they want to change where, how and who you are. This story falls into both categories, I think.

        True, or proper art, so Joyce says, appeals to something enduring in us, to something static and eternal rather than kinetic and temporal....

        And then he goes on and on and on at great length (creating in his own novel a perfect example of diadactic, improper art), which I won't do, except insofar as to say that if a story explores human nature, and in so doing happens to turn over some gems of understanding, that's art. But to seed the story with nuggets of Truth and then build the story around that... that's a shuck.

        It's why Shakespeare's characters—though their words and experiences express and explore deep, enduring conflicts and truths—are still compelling, while Ben Jonson's—who regularly spout then-fashionable truisms—are less so. Except possibly when those truisms are being lampooned. (Not that Jonson wasn't a wonderful playwright. But he was no William Shakespeare.)

        And now I shut up again. :-p
        • I'm not a big fan of Joyce, nor of his theories on art, but I do agree that the art that gets me where I live is the art that accesses some fundamental, undeniable truth. I agree with you about Shakespeare vs. Jonson, too.

          The story doesn't go very far as a story, it's true. I'd have to look at it again to see whether the interaction between the characters creates something like drama, or plot. But I doubt it. It's interesting primarily for the characters themselves, especially the character of Mary. But the philosophical part of it, which I can barely remember now, wasn't very interesting at all.

          Sometimes you get two ideas, and you try to play them out together. Sometimes it makes a good story. But sometimes it doesn't.

          But boyoboy, does this highlight the hierarchical nature of the fiction writing field! If I had written a story like that, it wouldn't have made it past the slush pile. But I'm not Robert Reed.
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