Four days to go! So here's a new essay on a complex topic, one which hopefully won't draw too many trolls. I guess we'll see.
A new piece from Alyssa Rosenberg, here (http://thinkprogress.org/alyssa/2012/05/10/480506/does-fan-fiction-really-make-us-more-creative/), got me thinking about the role of fanfiction in the Hexslinger Series' development. Or actually, more accurately, it was the juxtaposition of this article—just one more in roughly a million ruminations on the potential impact of 50 Shades of Grey and its success—and the fact that while I was searching under the tag-term “hexslinger” on Tumblr, I cam across this (http://macarism.tumblr.com/post/22069296125/cheeessss-paaarrrrgeterrrr).
In case you're wondering (or are too chicken to click), it's a screen-grab from the “Making Of” feature on James Mangold's 3:10 to Yuma remake which highlights the part of Charlie Prince (Ben Foster)'s outfit you almost never get to see, ie the lavender shirt, royal purple brocaded waistcoat, purple, gold and lavender-patterned neckerchief, plus a nice watch and chain—probably the one he took from that dead Pinkerton after the stagecoach robbery—and some sort of double-strand necklace of silver and little jet beads that sort of looks like somebody's stolen rosary put to bad usage. Underneath it, the poster (http://macarism.tumblr.com) has written: “CHEEESSSS PAAARRRRGETERRRR.”
Which is hilarious on the face of it, and beautifully apt, and generally makes my heart soar with squee, just like the couple or so times I've run across Hexslinger series fan-art, or every time I Google my name and get somebody raving about how much they like the story/Chess in particular. That frilly little sociopath really seems to have connected with a lot of people, which makes me vey happy indeed. But it does open up an interesting line of inquiry, one which never really goes away.
When A Book of Tongues was first going to press, I had to make a quick tactical decision about whether or not I would publicly “own up” to A) having written fanfiction in the past, B) still writing it now and then and C) the fact that if I'd never become obsessed enough with 3:10 to Yuma to write fanfiction for it, the Hexslinger Series probably wouldn't exist. In fact, it goes even deeper than that, because when I first started work on the novel, I was integrating a bunch of magic-system notes I'd previously made for a series which would have taken place in 1870s New York, a la my then-obsession du jour, Martin Scorsese's Gangs of New York. So there would always have been a fanfiction-based influence on the series no matter what, because frankly, that's the way my magpie mind tends to operate: I find something I like, I fixate on it, figure out what the draw is, boil it down for parts and start over, effing with it until it's hopefully not that thing anymore, not really.
So the decision was easy, in a way. As I told Torontoist, in one of my first interviews on A Book...: “I’ve never made any attempt to conceal that the originating template for Chess Pargeter was definitely Ben Foster’s performance as Charlie Prince, Ben Wade (Russell Crowe)’s ambiguously gay sidekick. But as I went further, Chess started to change, along with the narrative—I mean, just making him aware of his own motivations makes him very much not Charlie…”
In other words, I've never seen much point in lying about this process, not least because I've always been quote-quote “stupid” enough to post my fanfiction under my own name rather than making up a pseud, like everybody else and their sister. I mean, the most rudimentary Internet search turns up an archive a friend constructed for me as...third on the list, I think. As secrets go, it's not exactly a closed one, though since my interests tend to be pretty non-mainstream—I think the most juggernaut fandom I've ever written for was X-Men: The Movie, and that was only twice—I tend to get a flattering mixture of small yet extremely positive response. In retrospect, I've been told that I was apparently a “BNF” of HBO's OZ fandom, for example, and while I don't quite remember it the same way, I certainly had a hell of a lot of fun while I was in it.
Possibly, it's the fact that I was already a published author—making my living from nonfiction, placing short fiction in various venues, seeing my stories adapted for TV by Telescene's The Hunger—when I first started posting fanfiction and interacting with Internet fandom which keeps me from completely coming down on either part of the amateur/professional divide that you constantly observe at work in articles like Rosenberg's. The notion that fanfiction is a phase you outgrown or a place to practice your craft until you're ready to “graduate” to the heady heights of paying work is one which some people believe devoutly, while other people find it reductionist and insulting. Why should somebody like Joss Whedon be more respected than I am, they ask, just because he played with the Powers That Be's toys under contract, in their sandbox, and made the exploitative hegemony which keeps information unfree $200 million dollars over a single weekend doing it? Aren't I doing exactly the same thing, in far less tethered ways, and then making the result available to anybody with an Internet connection?
And then there are the authors who believe that fanfiction is injuring them somehow—either personally, by violating the characters and worlds they consider their “children” (ick), or simply by devaluing their brand and/or opening them up to potential legal action. (Which works both ways, of course; fanartists everywhere still live in vague fear of a Cease and Desist order from any given iteration of “...the TV show I cannot name, for fear of legal action...”, as the writer-director of William Shatner Leant Me His Hairpiece puts it, and rightly so; copyright can be a harsh mistress, at least in theory. Though there are plenty of acafen and fen with genuine legal experience around who can spend literal hours demonstrating the many ways in which “transformative work” not only hearkens back to a long line of historical precedents—Shakespeare, mythology, satire, homage, etc., from The Wind Done Gone to March—but also falls into cracks which make it remarkably difficult to do anything about, even when money actually does start changing hands.)
My position is personal rather than philosophical, however; I don't believe moral force automatically rests with either side, generators or samplers, not least because the balance of who exactly qualifies as what tends to shift back and forth so erratically. We're all creators, after all. But I also grew up in a freelance culture (both my parents are actors whose ability to make a living “from their art” has ebbed and flowed with the currents of two extremely volatile forty-year periods), so the idea that wanting to get paid for what you produce makes you some sort of whore for The Man is one I will never be exactly down with. There has to be some way to reduce the polarization effect, if only so we can go five minutes without somehow damaging each other's ego-integrity.
What I do know is that without fanfiction as an outlet, a form of writing I didn't feel I needed to monetarize, I wouldn't have been able to explore some of the currents which lead me, eventually, to where I am now. I wouldn't have eventually become familiar and comfortable with the idea of writing a long-form narrative in chunks, of not constantly checking and re-tooling things until they were “perfect”, of simple having the confidence to write End Chapter Whatever/Begin Chapter Next, and move the eff on. So my involvement in fanfiction was utterly integral to my process, in terms of bringing the Hexslinger Series to birth—and in a lot of ways, it remains integral to my process: Obsession, inspiration, alchemical combination, numbers-filing, brave new content, ta dah! Something fresh, something alive. Something “mine”.
And as should probably go without saying, I look totally forward to the day I trip across evidence of someone playing in my sandbox, for a change. I may not be able to acknowledge it directly, but that's what Creative Commons is for, man—it's flattery, not damage. It means, essentially, that somebody fell in love—however indirectly—with “me”. How can that ever be bad?