Reading, Writing, and Sacred Cows
by Lucy Gillam
Drop in on any list, irc channel, or live journal to see what’s buzzing in fan fiction circles these days, and two names are likely to jump out at you: Smallville (the WB television show about the Boy Who Would be Superman) and Lord of the Rings (recent interest prompted by, if not solely based on, the recently released movie). Interestingly enough, the two fandoms have much in common: both involve “new” material based on existing sources. Both existing sources are well-known, well-loved, almost mythic in proportion. Both have really, really pretty men.
Okay, so that last was probably a given.
Under the similarity, however, there’s a deeper difference to how people are talking about the source material – or more precisely, source materials, since both involve an audio-visual (tv or movie) version of a print source. The difference is largely in how the original version is regarded, specifically in opinion of whether fanfic writers should read the source material (I hesitate to use the term “have to read,” because obviously no one is trying to forbid anyone from writing without reading).
The prevailing opinions that I have seen (and I’m getting these from a variety of sources, mainly FCA-L discussions and live journal threads - here would be a good example) are that (1) those who wish to write LoTR fanfic, even if they are primarily inspired by the movie, really ought to read the books (opinion varies on just how much of the available source material is necessary. Few people, for example, seem to be insisting the people read the Silmarillion or every inch of the appendices. OTOH, I have seen insistence on an adherence to details found only in those sources); and (2) those who wish to write Smallville stories really don’t need to read any Superman comics.
As I am wont to do, I’m going to take a minute to explain my own situation in all this, because I’ll freely admit to a bias in this case. I have read LoTR. I very much liked LoTR. I have not re-read it in well over a decade, and post-movie attempts to re-read it have reminded me why: as much as I love the story, the world, and the characters, I’ve never been very fond of ornate, High Romantic language (yes, I know: the very thing that most people read Tolkien for is what turns me off. I expect my English degree to be revoked any day now). At the same time, I am currently very involved in the DC universe, mostly in the Bat Family, as those who have been subjected to merciless pimping in IRC can tell you. The Bat issue will become relevant in a bit.
So in the midst of all this, I’m finding myself puzzled by the fairly righteous indignation with which people are insisting on reading the source in one case and completely dismissing it in another. So I’m doing what I usually do when I’m puzzled: I’m writing about it.
I can actually think of several very good reasons for this disparity, reasons that make perfect sense and are completely, well, reasonable. I’m also not entirely convinced that those are the real reasons. As with many things fannish, I think there are surface reasons, the ones we tell ourselves and others to makes sense of our world, and deeper reasons that are largely lizard-brain, but perhaps closer to the truth.
We’ll start with the surface reasons first. It can certainly be argued that Smallville and the LoTR movie are not actually in analogous relationships to their source materials. The LoTR movie is an adaptation, the aim of which is to translate the original into a new medium as faithfully as possible. What changes exist are largely a result of time compression and medium difference (you could also argue that some changes, such as the enhanced role of Arwen, are a result of changing cultural expectations, but those are minimal). You could argue about how successfully it captures the essence of the books, but I don’t think there’s any question of the intent.
Smallville, OTOH, is a re-imagining of the Superman myth. Just by placing it in the present day, the creators have thrown canon for a loop. While certain elements are clearly drawn from the Superboy comics (yes, there is a canonical basis for Clark and Lex knowing each other as teenagers – okay, so Lex hated Clark, but we won’t go there). Certainly the tone is different than much of what we’ve seen of Supes in the comics. Why, it’s almost Bat-like in its angst.
I’ve also seen the argument that LoTR is a more unified, coherent source than the Superman comics. The Ring books, at least until the Silmarillion, were the product of one writer, and thus stand a greater chance of being internally consistent in terms of detail, tone, and characterization. This, too, I’m willing to more or less accept (although doesn’t it kind of suck that because Siegel and Shuster were young and naïve, they don’t get their props?). Certainly Superman has been through a dozen incarnations, his powers growing, shrinking, changing, etc, his personality changing (albeit subtly) with the times. Most of the fundamentals have remained the same, but trying to figure out comic book canon is often like trying to herd cats. I mean, try getting a straight answer from anyone as to why Dick Grayson stopped being Robin. It’ll give you migraines, really.
The final reason that I’ve seen is simply availability. Yes, reading three novels (four if you decide to throw in The Hobbit) and the related appendices is a tad less difficult than trying to read all the available appearances of Superman. However, I’m a little less convinced when people who would normally have no patience for a writer saying, “Well, the show doesn’t air where I live” as a justification for writing based on scant canon exposure let this argument slide when it comes to buying or borrowing a few trade paperbacks to get at least a basic familiarity. I’d also argue that at the very least information on Superman is extremely readily available on the web.
Still, even dismissing that, the preponderance of evidence seems to weigh for it being eminently reasonable to argue that those wishing to write LoTR fiction should read the books, while Smallville writers really need not read the comics.
Except (and you knew this was coming) … I’m not actually convinced that these reasons are really why people are so vehement about the issue. And I do mean vehemently. The indignation with which I’ve seen people discussing this borders on religious fervor.
Which is where we get to sacred cows.
Tolkien’s books are much-loved, much respected, even much revered. People hold rituals and festivals taken from them. Certainly it’s expected that any literate fantasy reader will have read (and loved) them. Don’t believe me? Try admitting in a room full of relatively educated fantasy/science fiction readers (or worse, on an academic SF/F listserve) that you’d really rather read Stephen King’s Dark Tower series. Trust me: the results aren’t pretty. The books (and the writer) are, in essence, sacred cows, and you tip them over at your peril.
Superman is also a sacred cow in his own right, much loved, much revered, having attained the status of cultural icon. The difference is what circles tend to hold him sacred. I don’t think I’m being particularly stereotypical when I say that comics are a largely male domain (or if I am, it’s a stereotype based on solid statistics). Are there a fair number of fanfic writers who read and love comics? Yes. Are there probably far more who’ve read and loved Tolkien? I’d lay money on it (not much money, but money).
I also suspect it’s a difference between “high art” and “low art,” or more precisely, the respect we give prose writers versus the respect we give writers of, well, everything else. I’ve seen a fair number of discussions recently on “literary slash,” and why it is or is not appropriate to slash books. Interestingly, to the extent that comics enter this discussion at all, they’re usually considered fair game. Again, there are surface reasons that makes sense (direct competition with source material, although that reason doesn’t actually make sense if you look at it too long), and the underneath reason. Prose fiction is, or at least can be, High Art. Comics, television shows, movies: no matter how well these are done, they remain Low Art.
And thus, to switch my metaphors again, we get to the lizard-brain reason for this disparity, and the reason I’m suddenly finding myself at odds with the literati. If Tolkien and his writing are sacred, then daring to suggest that one might (or could) write a story based on someone else’s interpretation of his world, suggesting even that the movie can be considered its own canon and universe, and thus that, say, Aragorn's age in the books is irrelevant in a movie-based story, is profanity.
And this is where we get to why the difference in attitude with Smallville is pissing me off a little.
I’ve never been terribly interested in the Superman of the comic books. I like him when he’s interacting with my favorite characters, but on his own, he’s always seemed a little flat to me. I’ve really enjoyed how Smallville has livened things up a bit (okay, so Clark is still pretty flat, but Lex? Whooboy). So it’s not particularly crucial to me personally that the average Smallville writer be familiar with the comic book character. Okay, the day I see a story about Clark’s origins that messes with the Krypton/Jor-El thing, I’ll probably throw something, but overall, I’m willing to cut some slack.
So where is my sacred cow in all this? Have you perchance noticed all the allusions in this discussion to a certain tall, dark, brooding costumed vigilante? If I have a single overriding fannish obsession right now, it is Batman. Well, actually, Nightwing, but when I say that, people tend to go “huh?” Here. Go look. There is Batslash out there, but not a lot, which means the good stuff is even scantier. So when I saw Bruce Wayne popping up in Smallville stories, especially by writers I know and respect, I was thrilled.
Then I started reading. Among the first that I read was Te’s “Vision Thing” series. There, in the midst of some very well-written stories, I encountered a Bruce Wayne who, upon seeing Lionel Luthor fucking his son, comes to the conclusion that this must be how fathers and sons behave.
Um…no. I almost always love Te’s writing, but … no.
Look, I’ll freely admit that Bruce is deeply messed up: it’s why I love him. I am, for crying out loud, co-writing a story in which he has an actual psychotic break. I’d also be willing to accept that he doesn’t actually care much about many social mores (although you’d have to persuade me that incest is one of them – again, why I love the idea of Bruce/Dick: angst built right in). But he is neither stupid nor ignorant, and I’ve seen nothing in canon that indicates that he doesn’t know how families work. I mean, for crying out loud, he reads, doesn’t he? For that matter, he was raised by Alfred Pennyworth. He is a man who a very few short years after the time in his life that Te’s story is set creates the persona of a social butterfly. He knows and understand social mores.
I’m not going to claim to have read every appearance of Batman ever written. I have, however, read a sizeable chunk of what’s been published post-Dark Knight Returns, which is arguably when the character took his darkest turn. And I’ve seen nothing that would remotely support Bruce as being nearly autistic in his social knowledge and interactions. Nor am I going to claim to know what comics Te has or hasn’t read, although I’d guess from this that it isn’t much. Actually, I might guess that the “talking with fans who know the source material” that she recommends is why her Bruce is off – Batman’s mental stability, or the lack thereof, has always been more emphasized in fannish conversation than in the comics themselves.
I’ve certainly read other stories in which the character was more recognizable. However, I’m getting an overall feeling that because Bruce Wayne has not yet appeared on Smallville (the creators have hinted that he will), he’s being treated much like an Original Character.
And, dammit, he’s NOT. He’s an established character with a long and detailed history who made his first appearance 14 years before Fellowship of the Ring was published. And yet the fannish outcry, the suggestion, let alone insistence, that writers get their hands on two or three of the dozens of trade paperbacks available, is strangely absent. I can accept questions of which incarnation to read (and I’m happy to make suggestions). I can accept that negotiating among those different incarnations might be difficult. But not even trying…
So this is where I am, watching my own sacred cow not only tipped but toppled, even as I read people ranting about fans who don’t read.