Licensed Fiction and the Expansion of Fictional Worlds
By David Sweeney
David Sweeney is a graduate of Glasgow University and Glasgow School of Art, where he is currently studying for a PhD researching the production of fictional worlds.
At this year’s San Diego Comic-Con I attended a panel entitled ‘Licensed to Thrill’ in which authors of ‘media tie-in’ fiction – novelisations and other writing using characters and situations established in film and television franchises – discussed their work. These writers opened their discussion by referring, ironically but also defensively as if preempting criticism, to themselves as ‘whores’ and ‘hacks’. While they were all clearly proud of their professional achievements, their use of these terms acknowledged the perception of ‘tie-in’ or licensed fiction as a minor form of writing, even amongst the fans who attend comic book conventions.
This struck me as odd, particularly given the context: among the main attractions at Comic-Con and events like it are the writers and artists who produce superhero comics for the publishers DC and Marvel. These creators also participate in licensed fiction; the superheroes they write and draw are owned by the publishers who hire them. Nevertheless, the very fact that they are permitted to become involved with these characters, that, in other words, they are trusted with valuable company property, affords them star status amongst the fan community.
A similar sense of worth does not seem to apply to tie-in writers, even when they are involved with the same superhero characters, as is the case with author Keith R A DeCandido’s novel Down These Mean Streets (2005) featuring Marvel’s Spider-Man. Of course, the obvious difference between the tie-in writers and their comic book counterparts is that the latter work in the primary medium for these characters and the former respond to their work. Similarly, the writers of television of franchise film series, who also work for hire on a company owned property, provide the source material for tie-in fiction.
The issue here seems to be one of originality, a problematic concept to apply not only to licensed fiction but, as TS Eliot has demonstrated in ‘Tradition and the Individual Talent’, Roland Barthes with ‘The Death of the Author’ and The Pleasure of the Text, and Harold Bloom in ‘The Anxiety of Influence’, to any form of writing. Writers working in a primary medium may generate the source material but they are nevertheless obliged to ‘tie-in’ to the continuity of an established fictional world. Their work, then, can only ever be ‘original’ within this context.
With this in mind, we can look at the production of tie-in fiction of the type that DeCandido has written for the Star Trek franchise or Nancy Holder for Buffy the Vampire Slayer, as equally original contributions to a fictional world and its history. Lubomir Dolezel describes this kind of production, which generates ‘pre and post histories’ for a ‘proto-world’, as expansion (13), a term that seems particularly appropriate in the discussion of commercial fiction because of the connotations it has of the free market and of territorialism; franchised fictional worlds are territories, which their owners develop and exploit, and in which writers like DeCandido and Holder are licensed to work. Using terms from Deleuze and Guattari, the creation of a fictional world under modern copyright laws can be understood is an act of territorialisation and the entry of this world into circulation, where it becomes open to interpretation, as one of deterritorialastion in the sense that the text is no longer under the creator’s direct control. The ‘ancillary apparatus’ (34) of copyright law, which asserts and protects the author’s rights, serve to reterritorialise the text.
While clearly a job of work, there also appears to be great pleasure in writing licensed fiction: all the writers on the Comic-Con panel described themselves as being fans of the properties they have worked on prior to their participation with them, and see this participation as a more active form of engagement with the property. However, they also acknowledged that their contributions to the fictive history of these worlds may, in fact almost definitely will, be contradicted in the continuity established in the primary medium. While the writers accept this tendency for contradiction as a condition of their employment, it also marks out their status as producers of secondary texts. It is perhaps this sense of status within a hierarchy of texts that informs the notion of writers like DeCandido and Holder as ‘hacks’: it is not only their fiction that is ‘tied-in’ but also the writers themselves. This jars with the established cultural image of the author as artistically free. Again, we return to the concept of originality which is associated with this notion of artistic freedom and which a writer working for hire does not satisfy.
Other obligations prevented me from interviewing any of the writers at the San Diego panel; however I managed to interview DeCandido three weeks later at the WorldCon science fiction convention in Glasgow. I began our conversation by mentioning Dolezel’s concept of expansion and DeCandido accepted the term as a description of his work. I then suggested that the term did not apply to novelisations of film or television scripts and that these might be better described as adaptations. DeCandido disagreed, stating that ‘novelisations are also expansions because you can do things in a novel that you just can’t get into a movie’. (Interview)
Specifically, DeCandido mentioned the production of ‘backstory’ or life histories for characters, and the inclusion of multiple points of view, including internal monologues and descriptions of thought processes, which he considers to be original features of the novelisation. Moreover, he informed me that because they are adapted from early drafts of screenplays which tend to be longer than the final cut, novelisations include scenes which will be deleted to ensure a commercially viable running time for the finished film. In this way, novelisations resemble DVD versions of films, the marketing of which emphasizes the inclusion of deleted scenes as part of a package of ‘extras’ or a ‘special features’. With a novelisation, however, these scenes are present as part of the main body of the text, making it a kind of extended, or, indeed expanded, ‘cut’.
Tie-in novels pre-date both DVD and video. Therin of Andor, a contributor to the message boards on the Star Trek website, Trekbbs.com recalls how ‘in the pre video days’ novelisations were like ‘a little copy of the movie or the TV show that you could hold in your hands and enjoy over and over’ (‘Are licensed books killing “real” fiction?’). A Henry Jenkins has observed (67-75), video recordings and repeat broadcasts of television series allow viewers to participate in rereading. Jenkins is writing before the advent of DVD technology which has provided viewers with greater controllability than video, including the breaking down of scenes into ‘chapters’. In this DVD resembles the format of the novel, the controllability of which – it lies, literally, ‘in your hands’ – makes it conducive towards rereading. The novelisation, then, provides both an expansion of the protoworld, particularly in the production of backstory, and also an ease of rereading. In rereading, ‘the desire to resolve narrative mysteries loses its grip on the reader’ because the reader already knows how the narrative is resolved, with the result that ‘[i]nterest shifts elsewhere, onto character relations, onto thematic meanings, onto the social knowledge assumed by the narrator’ (67). Rereading can be understood as a kind of return to, and lingering in, the fictional world and the rereader, who no longer needs to follow the story to its conclusion, is free to drift and dally over what interests them – the details of the fictional world, its texture – to become a flaneur rather than a pedestrian. Barthes has described rereading as ‘no longer consumption but play’ (qtd in Jenkins, 1992, p.67) in which, like Therin of Andor whose novelisations allow him to return to and ‘enjoy’ the proto-world ‘over and over’, the reader is able to maximize the pleasure of the text.
Expansion and Multiplicity
Michel Foucault writes that the function of the author figure in bourgeois culture is to ‘reduce the great peril, the great danger with which fiction threatens the world’ (118). Fiction is threatening because it relativises reality and in doing so reveals the contingency of the world as it is. The author’s social purpose, then, is to contain fiction within an established economy of ‘discourses and their significations’
He is a certain functional principle by which, in our culture, one limits, excludes and chooses; in short by which one impedes the free circulation, the free manipulation, the free composition, decomposition and recomposition of fiction. (119)
The identification of a work with its author arose, initially, to ensure that the author would be ‘subject to punishment’ should the discourses he produced be considered to be ‘transgressive’ (108). Today, however, copyright law privileges the author as the creator and owner of his work, even after it has entered into circulation. In the production of entertainment franchises like Star Trek or Buffy this circulation includes not only the presentation to the audience but also to the involvement of a writing staff who develop and expand the proto-world envisioned by the franchise creator. (I deliberately say nothing here, for reasons of space and to focus my argument on forms of writing, about other collaborators such as directors, editors or cinematographers).
In addition to licensed fiction, both the Star Trek and Buffy franchises have generated a vast amount of fan fiction that is, un–licensed production which ‘recomposes’ characters and situations from the source text, violating copyright law in the process. The ‘slash’ sub-genre of fan fiction produces erotic stories featuring homosexual relationships between characters who are not identified as such in the source text. Star Trek’s Captain Kirk is frequently represented in the series as aggressively heterosexual and his transformation in the numerous slash fictions that represent him as homosexual seems to contradict the source text. However, as Elyce Rae Helford has convincingly argued, while still acknowledging the overt sexism of the original Star Trek series, rather than being simply the ‘oppressive patriarch’ that some feminist criticism has labeled him, Kirk is instead ‘made up of multiple masculinities’ and is ‘a figure who reveals masculine and feminine as constructs that bear no relationship to the biological male or female other than that which we ascribe for sociopolitical reasons’ (in Harrison et al 1-2). With this in mind, slash fiction featuring Kirk appears less a deviation from the official portrayal of the character than a continuation of the approach already practiced in the authorized texts, but without the constraints of ‘decency’ demanded by broadcasting companies and the advertisers who fund them. We might consider the production of slash fiction, then as an emancipatory project, not only for the producer and consumer of slash, but also for the character who is freely reinterpreted (I will return to this concept of characters ‘escaping’ their authorial source in my discussion, below, of Philip Jose Farmer and Kim Newman). Moreover, it is an instance of deterritorialisation: the creator’s rights are superseded by the reader’s desire.
For Foucault, the concept of the author ‘constitutes the privileged moment of individualization in the history of ideas, knowledge, literature, philosophy, and the sciences’ (101). Even in a collaborative environment such as the franchise, the creator’s individuality is asserted in the recognition that all subsequent work, all expansion, proceeds from him and the proto-world he has created. Both fan fiction and tie-ins – which although authorized by the creator, are not supervised by him; as the tie-in writer Jeff Mariotte has observed ‘in the world of licensing there is a difference between “approval” and “input”‘ (qtd by Naso, ‘Jeff Mariotte’) – represent a multiplicity of voices responding to this singular voice.
While their legal status and conditions of production differ, licensed and slash are similar in their ‘recomposition’ of the creator’s characters, as Will Brooker has observed in his study of Star Wars slash fiction:
[…] apart from their different positions in the hierarchy of “authorized” Star Wars texts, I am suggesting that slash and genfic [non-erotic fan fiction] have the same formal relationship to the canon as EU [Expanded Universe: the suitably Dolezelian brand title for Star Wars tie-in fiction apart from the film novelisations] fiction does: a balance between respecting the established rules of the mythos and providing creative variations, based on personal interpretation. (134)
For Deleuze and Guattari, capitalism ‘through its process of production, produces an awesome schizophrenic accumulation of energy or charge, against which it brings all its vast powers of repression to bear’ (34). The producer of slash fiction is stimulated to deterritorialise by the ‘process of production’ of the franchise territory which places it into circulation and makes it open to interpretation, the expression of which is then subject to repression.
‘[E]verything is production’, Deleuze and Guattari write (4), including desire which they understand not in terms of lack (which is instead a ‘contereffect of desire’ (27)) but as an aspect of a ‘machinic’ unconscious which is ‘constantly whirring, grinding away, churning stuff out’ (Deleuze 1997, 16). The unconscious is ‘machinic’ because all reality is; desire, therefore, is a machine, and ‘the object of its desire is another machine connected to it’ (Deleuze and Guattari, 1984, 26).
This description of desire elegantly expresses the relationship between authorized and unauthorized texts, and between canon and ‘speculation’: each is a form of production, each is an action of desire, and all are connected as ‘a machine of a machine’ (26).
Canons, Continuity and Consistency
The nature of the Star Wars ‘canon’ – that is the of the ‘official’ history or continuity of the franchise – is the subject of much debate amongst fans on internet message boards such as The Force.net, with some fans rejecting anything other than the events depicted in the films (101-15) as canonical. The matter is so controversial, in fact, that Lucasfilm have posted a statement of canonicity which attempts to include all of Star Wars vast range of expansions, much to the chagrin of the ‘purists’. A similar situation exists with Star Trek and, to a lesser extent, with Buffy and when I raised the subject of canons with DeCandido he winced before offering this explanation for his discomfort with the term
First of all, people use it wrong. Canon is only a descriptor of work emerging from one source not a value judgment, so to use it to dismiss tie-in fiction is to miss the point. We’re not trying to write canon; it’s not our job. That’s the job of the guys writing the TV show or the film, and even then in Trek you get people contradicting each other – and, by the way, those contradictions quite often get resolved by tie-in writers – so the notion that its all canon in the sense that it’s all consistent is just wrong. (Interview, original emphases)
The dismissal of tie-in fiction as ‘non-canonical’ can be seen as a rejection of voices other than the creator’s (indeed, some Star Wars fans refer to the canon as the ‘gospel’, suggesting that anything outside it is heresy) and a focusing on the individual rather than the multitude. There is a sense, then, that these other voices – authorized or not – somehow diminish the source text. Brooker quotes Chydren, who posts ‘regularly and authoritatively’ on TheForce.net and who claims, without offering any proof, that Star Trek tie-in fiction was introduced in response to the proliferation of ‘fanfic’, including slash, which ‘served to reflect badly on the franchise’, and that the Star Wars EU was introduced because ‘Lucasfilm learned from the mistakes of the Trek franchise’ (130). Chydren sees licensed fiction, then, as a preventative measure, an act of reterritorialisation by the franchise holder, although the vast amount of unauthorized fan writing still available for both franchises (and for Buffy) suggests that it has not been effective. Moreover, as Brooker points out, EU fiction frequently provides the source for slash (130).
A recent thread, ‘Are licensed books killing “real” fiction?’ (July 31st, 2005) on the Star Trek website Trekbbs.com started in response to an essay entitled ‘Canon or Cannot?’ on a Dr. Who fan site which dismissed all tie-in fiction as worthless. The author of the essay referred to writers of tie-in fiction as ‘hacks’ and claimed that they, and their editors, display a ‘flagrant disregard for the intentions and spirit of the original show’. The various posters on TrekBBS who contributed to the thread, including DeCandido, all defend licensed fiction and challenge the Dr. Who fan’s allegation that ‘real’, i.e. non-licensed or ‘original’ fiction was being denied shelf space in bookshops because of it. In his first post, DeCandido addresses the ‘notion that tie-in books aren’t “real”‘ by referring to the history of cross-media adaptation:
Entertainment has changed media for as long as there’s been entertainment. When Frankenstein was made into a stage play, nobody said that the story “required” prose; when Spider-Man was made into a movie […] nobody said that the story “required” word balloons.
DeCandido cleverly inverts the usual hierarchy of ‘tie-in’ fiction here by pointing out how the primary medium can be less popular, in terms of audience size, than that of the adaptation. By using Frankenstein and Spider-Man together he also ignores the hierarchy of fiction – Frankenstein being part of the literary canon – and presents both equally, as the source for other media.
Another poster, Captcalhoun then comments that ‘the B5 [Babylon 5] and SW [Star Wars] books are seen as canonical’ and that ‘the whole point of B5 comics and novels and comics was that they ARE canon and that JMS [Babylon Five creator J. Michael Straczynski] had creative control on them for that VERY purpose!!!’. This leads DeCandido to respond:
Actually, the B5 and Star Wars books aren’t canonical, for all that JMS and Lucasfilm insists that they are. For starters, most of the Dell B5 novels were “decanonized” by JMS himself after he initially said they would be [I suspect this is a typo and DeCandido meant to say ‘wouldn’t be’]. And there have been several occasions – the history of the Fett family [from Star Wars], e.g. – where stuff established in SW novels has been superseded.
For DeCandido, a franchise’s canon refers to the continuity of the events represented in the primary medium which can ‘supersede’ expansions in other media. That a creator like Straczynski can ‘decanonize’ tie-ins in what seems to be an attempt (and a rather clumsy one) to maintain this continuity supports DeCandido’s position.
A poster named James Swallow then addresses the Dr. Who fan’s dismissal of licensed fiction but simultaneous defense of Dr. Who audio dramas which frequently ‘share the same authors’ as tie-in novels. The Dr. Who fan’s position now seems contradictory and indefensible, but this is because it is constructed around the primacy of performance – as s/he states ’90 per cent of the appeal of Dr Who lies in the portrayals and personae of the actors playing the part’ (‘Canon’) – and the continuity of this performance between media. Indeed, for the Dr. Who fan, the actor appears to have assumed the role of canonical guarantor that other fans ascribe to the franchise creator. (One can imagine this must be particularly galling for writers, particularly as a key aspect of Dr. Who is that he regularly ‘regenerates’, requiring a new actor to take on the role.)
As Brooker notes regarding the Star Wars Holiday Special TV show which featured most of the cast from the original film (102-4) the actor playing a role can contribute to an understanding of canonical status (although, as he admits, few, if any, fans consider the show to be canonical). Similarly, scenes from the Buffy the Vampire Slayer feature film (Fran Rubel Kuzu, 1992) were recreated in the television series; the events depicted in these scenes had been referred to in the series and thus had become part of its continuity; the recreated scenes replaced the Buffy of the film, Kirsty Swanson, with the series’ star, Sarah Michelle Gellar, thus establishing a continuity of performance which canonizes the events of the film, but not the film itself.
The Dr. Who fan’s argument does not seem to apply across different media, unless we accept his/her position that there should be no non-performative tie-ins at all. If so, it is not clear what the status of an audio book, particularly if read by an actor who played Dr. Who, might be; similarly 23skidoo wonders ‘what this guy would think if [Who actors] Tom Baker or Chris Eccleston ever sat down and wrote a Doctor Who novel a la [Captain Kirk actor William] Shatner?’. Presumably, the non-performative nature of the novel would automatically disqualify it. (But what if the actor was to read the text aloud for an audio book?)
The user 23skidoo, who began the thread and posted the link to the Dr. Who site, comments in his first post that ‘I personally think the Who and Trek franchises would be poorer without [tie-ins], especially during years when the televised versions of these franchises produced no new product’ which indicates another role that licensed fiction fulfills for a franchise: it provides a continuity of consumption, albeit for a small (but presumably profitable for the publishing licensee) proportion of the overall audience.
Licensed fiction also frequently continues ‘dead franchises’ i.e. film or television series which have ended or been cancelled, as was the case with Dr. Who until its recent revival (which has, of course, spawned a new line of tie-in novels, the events of which are directly referred to in the series, allowing for the creation of a new Who canon the existence of which has incensed some long time fans of the franchise) and Star Wars until the release of the first ‘prequel’ Episode I: The Phantom Menace (George Lucas) in 1999, 16 years after Return of the Jedi (Richard Marquand, 1983). The Star Trek spin-off series Deep Space 9 which was cancelled in 1999 continues in a series of ‘post finale novels’ (see Kaiser, ‘Listmania’), while Buffy, which ended in 2003 is continued in Holder’s novel Queen of the Slayers (2005) which begins immediately after the last scene in the final episode of the series.
The Buffy spin-off series Angel, which was cancelled in 2004, is being continued, at the time of writing, in a five-part comic book mini-series Angel: The Curse. The writer of The Curse, Jeff Marriotte (who has written eight tie-in novels to the series and, with Holder, a viewing companion, Angel: The Casefiles (2002) and who also joked about being a ‘whore’ on the San Diego panel) shares DeCandido’s view of canonicity: “The rule in licensed fiction is that what’s on the screen is canon, and the rest is not’. As the Angel franchise is of-screen, however, and looks likely to remain so, he describes his work ‘non-canonical as it might be’ as ‘the closest thing there is to canon’ (‘Cursed’) unless, or until, Angel is revived by its creator; similarly the cover of Queen of the Slayers identifies it as an ‘original novel based on the hit TV series created by Joss Whedon’ (NP, my emphasis) rather than as a sequel. Despite being the only authorized continuations of these franchises in circulation, neither Holder and Mariotte’s work is nor can be canonical because it originates outside the primary medium; rather it is their version of how the narrative could continue, their speculation.
The non-canonical status of licensed fiction does not seem to detract from the pleasure it provides to its readers. Indeed, for 23skidoo, its main value – along with its capacity, as he puts it, to ‘tak[e] characters and ideas into realms simply not allowed on TV either due to budgets or political reasons’, or, in other words, to free the franchise from the constraints of the primary medium, just as slash fiction does – is in its continuation of a favourite franchise. Or, as another poster, Scot Butler, puts it (after the cancellation of Enterprise the franchise’s most recent TV series): ‘Trek isn’t dead. Read a book.’
Philip Jose Farmer, the Wold Newton Family, and Kim Newman
For Foucault, writing, despite the limiting power of the author/creator, ‘unfolds like a game (jeu) that invariably goes beyond its own rules and transgresses its own limits’ (102). These’ rules’ and ‘limits’ are enforced by copyright laws which privilege the author as the originator and owner of the fiction he produces. Once fiction enters circulation, however, once it is read, it becomes open to interpretation, as we have seen with both licensed and fan fiction. However, these are not the only forms of ‘recomposition’.
In the novels Tarzan Alive: A Definitive Biography of Lord Greystoke (1972) and Doc Savage: His Apocalyptic Life (1973), the American science fiction writer Philip Jose Farmer advanced the theory that both of these, and numerous other heroes from pulp fiction, were the result of a radioactive meteor having fallen on the English town of Wold Newton in the late 18th century, altering the genetic material of the occupants of a passing coach and, subsequently, their progeny which would include the following fictional characters:
Solomon Kane; Captain Blood; The Scarlet Pimpernel; Harry Flashman; Sherlock Holmes and his nemesis Professor Moriarty (aka Captain Nemo); Phileas Fogg; The Time Traveler; Allan Quatermain; Tarzan and his son Korak; A.J. Raffles; Professor Challenger; Richard Hannay; Bulldog Drummond; the evil Fu Manchu and his adversary, Sir Denis Nayland Smith; G-8; The Shadow; Sam Spade; Doc Savage, his cousin Pat Savage, and one of his five assistants, Monk Mayfair; The Spider; Nero Wolfe; Mr. Moto; The Avenger; Philip Marlowe; James Bond; Lew Archer; and Travis McGee. (‘Wold Newton’)
Farmer’s theory has inspired other ‘literary archeologists’ to expand the Wold Newton ‘family’ to encompass the history of fiction regardless of the medium of origin. The Star Trek franchise has been assimilated into the ‘Newtonverse’ as they have deduced that Spock is a descendant of Sherlock Holmes because he uses, in Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (Nicholas Meyer, 1991), a maxim commonly associated with Holmes (‘If you eliminate the impossible whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth’) which he attributes to an ‘ancestor’. Spock is also related to the DC superhero, Robin aka Dick Grayson who shares a surname with Spock’s human mother. Buffy the Vampire Slayer is included not because of the film or television series directly, but because of a reference in a tie-in novel (Night of the Living Rerun by Arthur Byron (1998)) to ‘the ‘Cthulu Mythos tome The Book of Ebion’, from the work of HP Lovecraft which has already been assimilated Newtonverse. There is also speculation that one of Buffy’s predecessors, ‘Good Slayer Samantha Kane’ of ‘Salem, 1692’ may be the granddaughter of ‘Puritan swordsman’ Solomon Kane, a pulp character created by Robert E. Howard and a descendant of one of the coach passengers (‘Wold Newton’).
Peter Coogan describes the work of the Wold Newton ‘scholars’ (he is himself one) as a ‘game’ (‘Wold Newtonry’). Like fan fiction, Wold Newtonry makes unauthorized use of characters created and owned by others. Unlike fan fiction, however, it is less concerned with the generation of new stories than in the recording of existing fictional ‘facts’ which are then used to extrapolate a kind of ‘grand narrative’ that unites these characters in the history of a shared universe. The purpose of this game, Coogan writes, is to ‘recreate the “sense of wonder” […] that we felt when we first read the texts we work with’ (‘Wold Newtonry’). Both Wold Newtonry and slash fiction involve the recontextualisation of characters into new relationships, sexual in the case of the latter, historical/genealogical in the former.
Wold Newtonists acknowledge the existence of similar activity – also referred to as ‘the Game’ – predating Farmer’s novels:
The Game goes back to at least 1902. That year an “open letter” to Dr. Watson was published in the Cambridge Review criticizing the dates mentioned in The Hound of the Baskervilles and Arthur Bartlett Maurice wrote an editorial comment in Bookman, ‘Some Inconsistencies of Sherlock Holmes’. (Coogan, ‘Wold Newtonry’)
Conan Doyle, Homes’ creator, considered the kind of continuity errors identified by his critics as irrelevant in the telling of a ‘good story’. DeCandido takes a similar view, while accepting that it is part of the tie-in writer’s job to follow continuity as closely as possible:
You would never deliberately ignore something, and even if you did, your editor would catch it and you’d have to change it. But you just wouldn’t do it, anyway. Because the production time for a book is much longer than for a TV show then, yeah, you’re gonna get contradicted because you just don’t know what the writers on the show are going to do. So you just have to focus on your job, which is to tell your story as best you can within the continuity that’s been established so far. It’s a case of publish and be damned. (Interview)
That inconsistencies in continuity are pointed out by readers is an indication of their desire for a coherent and consistent fictive history which makes the fictional world they engage with, and the characters therein, more believable, more real. Jones & Jacobs have understood reader response to the establishment of the Marvel Universe, which interlinked the publisher’s range of superhero titles, uniting their characters into a shared fictional world, in similar terms
[…] stories were of less importance than the stuff: the texture, the background details, the “continuity” of old comics to new ones. To hard-core fans, this had the effect of making Marvel stories not just entertainment, but like the historical documents of another world, a world whose reality they dearly wanted, in their secret hearts, to see reinforced. (90, original emphasis)
Like Barthes’ rereader, the ‘hard-core fans’ lose interest in narrative, concentrating instead on the environment of the fictional world, the authenticity of which is supported by a consistent fictive history.
Both the Marvel Universe and Sherlock Holmes stories anticipate the modern entertainment franchise (of course, Holmes found new popularity in a variety of media, including film, with Basil Rathbone, who made fifteen Homes films, particularly successful in the role). Conan Doyle himself grew tired of the character and tried, unsuccessfully, to kill him off in the hope that work which he considered to be more important would receive equal attention. The public demanded, and received, the return of Holmes in an example of how, to borrow terms from Alain Badiou, the event of a fiction – the definitive nature of Conan Doyle’s creation – creates but is superseded by, its situation as the object of popular desire (32-3), which obliges the creator to return to work that he had considered complete. The popularity of Holmes means that Conan Doyle becomes ‘tied-in’ to the character. Moreover, his readership also expected to accurately represent the character’s history, to follow continuity.
The British novelist and critic Kim Newman satirizes the modern horror franchise in his short story ‘Where the Bodies are Buried’ (1993) and its sequel, ‘Where the Bodies are Buried II: Sequel Hook’ (1994). In the afterword to the latter he makes reference to Conan Doyle, as an example of ‘story-tellers [who] become slaves to their stories’ (1995 340). Allan Keyes, the central character in Newman’s stories experiences a similar fate when his creation, the monstrous Rob Hackwill, becomes a hit with the public, forcing Keyes into producing a franchise featuring the character.
Newman points out the signature characters of many horror franchises – Jason in Friday the 13th, Pinhead in Hellraiser, Freddy Krueger in A Nightmare on Elm Street – initially played minor roles in the source work, or, in the case of Robert Englund, the actor who played Krueger, received low billing in the film’s credits despite his character’s centrality to the story (284-5). As their franchises expanded, however, these characters were ‘promoted from the ranks’ and in the process managed to ‘get away from their creators and establish identities shaped by their merchandise-happy corporate owners and free-associating fans’ (284, emphasis added).
Newman’s image of characters escaping their authors is in keeping with the sense of the multiplicity of interpretation as a form of emancipation I advanced in my discussion of slash fiction above; unlike the controlling, limit-defining author figure identified by Foucault, Allan Keyes finds his ownership compromised by the desires of other interested parties (it should be pointed out here that George Lucas, as sole owner and president of Lucasfilm, has made sure that he would never be in such a position).
Newman’s disapproval of franchises – evident in both stories and their afterwords – lies in their dominance of the horror market resulting in a ‘genre climate which […] hardly strikes me as conducive to much interesting work’ (285). The artistic intentions of the original authorial source – auteur figures such as Clive Barker or Wes Craven – are sacrificed to satisfy other desires: the franchise’s financial backers and licensees for profit; the fans for ‘cheap’ thrills.
The role reversal experienced by Keyes, who becomes controlled by his character, allows Newman to dispense some classic ‘cosmic justice’ to the character: Keyes has allowed his ambition and greed to warp and ultimately ruin his aesthetic sensibilities yet blames this on the public that has made him wealthy. He is a hypocrite and, so, deserves his punishment. But the stories are perhaps more disturbing because they juxtapose Keyes’ sense of identity, of his individuality and autonomy, against the voracious multitude that constitutes his – that is, Hackwill’s – fan base. The desire of this multitude, which serves and is served by the mechanics of the entertainment franchise, overwhelms Keyes’ sense of self. He becomes what the market demands as much as Hackwill does, except that where the character receives a ‘promotion’ to top billing, Keyes’ auteur status is degraded. The monster’s name can be read not only as being representative of his murderous tendencies but also as an omen of what his success will do to Keyes once he enters circulation: it will make him a hack.
The difference between writers like Keyes or Conan Doyle and ‘hacks’ like DeCandido or Holder is that while the former no longer want to be involved with the characters they write, they latter clearly do. Moreover, as fans who have become authorized producers, tie-in writers find themselves in the position to ‘promote from the ranks’ by focusing on favourite minor characters. The range of Star Trek: SCE e-books (the diversification into this new medium is another form of expansion: of the range of Star Trek products), for example, which DeCandido created and co-edits, deals with the Starfleet Core of Engineers, an unglamorous ‘fix-it’ squadron who keep the Federation’s starships boldly going on. By focusing on these rude mechanicals, DeCandido and his writers expand not only the Star Trek proto-world but the reader’s understanding of how that world operates; in doing so they remind us, as Brecht did when he commented that Hannibal must surely have had cooks with him when he crossed the Alps, of the support that ‘great men’ rely on in their noble endeavors. Where the Wold Newton project creates a heroic population for its universe in its unification of ‘star’ characters, tie-in fiction achieves a similar result in its transformation of minor figures; the members of the SCE may not be ‘promoted from the ranks’ within their own fiction, but their status as characters is elevated by the focus the writers give them.
In much of his fiction, Newman makes frequent use of characters who have ‘got away from their creators in a similar manner to Farmer and the Wold Newtonists. (Newman has acknowledged Farmer as an influence (see ‘Wikipedia’) and has had several of his characters assimilated into the Wold Newton universe (see Eckert et al, “Anno Dracula’). He has cast Dracula in a series of novels which imagines an alternative sequel to Bram Stoker’s source text in which the vampire succeeds in his invasion of Britain and forces Queen Victoria into marriage, with the result that vampirism becomes the social norm. In these novels, Newman unites fictional characters and historical figures from the era in which each book is set: Anno Dracula (1992), for example, takes place in 1888 and has both Queen Victoria and Louis Stevenson’s Dr. Moreau among its cast and draws upon the Jack the Ripper killings for its story; The Bloody Red Baron: Anno Dracula 1918 (1996) is set during World War I and includes Lord Kitchener and Captain W.E. John’s character Biggles; Dracula Cha Cha Cha: Anno Dracula 1959 (2000) (aka, in the United States, Judgment of Tears (1998)) has Nabokov’s Vivian Darkbloom alongside Orson Welles. Newman sees this unification as an extension of his work as a critic: he uses both the fiction and the historical events of a period to gain an insight into it and comment upon both the period in question and its relationship to our own [see Guran, ‘Kim Newman].
Newman’s work is marketed and categorized, in libraries and bookshops, as original fiction despite its use of established characters; the same is true of Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea (1966) which expands upon Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre (1847) and Valerie Martin’s Mary Reilly (2001) which re-tells Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886) from the point of view of the titular character, Jekyll’s housekeeper. These books are filed under the authors’ surnames, rather than under the surname of the originator of the source work; DeCandido’s Star Trek novels and Holder’s Buffy books, in my research of four public libraries (Maryhill, Hillhead, Anderston, and Partick) and four major bookshops ( Borders, two branches of Waterstone’s, Ottakar’s) in Glasgow, were located in either the Young Adult/Teenage Fiction sections or the Science Fiction (Star Trek) or horror sections (Buffy), in separate sub-subsections for their franchise, and were filed either randomly or alphabetically by title but not by author. Of course Jane Eyre, Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde and Dracula are not franchises (although the Dracula character has been used in a series of films by Hammer studios); they are all considered to be ‘classics’ of English literature, part of the literary canon, and as such have become a kind of common cultural property. (Farmer seems to treat all fiction in this way, regardless of its canonical status; the Wold Newton universe can be understood, then, as a deterritorialised commonwealth of fiction ). While they are not on the same canonical level as the novels they expand upon, Rhys, Newman and Martin’s work qualifies as ‘original’ because of the status of the source text; Star Trek and Buffy, even though they might be considered to be superior examples of popular culture, are, nevertheless, inextricably linked with the entertainment industry and because of this connection licensed fiction seems to never truly transcend the status of merchandise regardless of the literary merit of individual books. Merchandise is expected to complement a franchise, to serve it, which returns us to the idea of the writer of licensed fiction as being in thrall to his employers, of being less free than a ‘true’ author, of being tied-in.
The readership for licensed fiction is clearly a niche market; even though Star Wars and Star Trek books frequently find their way into the New York Times bestseller lists their audience is but a fraction of that for these franchises in their primary medium. Nevertheless, licensed fiction remains profitable to publish, otherwise it would not exist; there are obviously enough readers out there who are not satisfied with what film or television provides them, who want more. This is one way that tie-ins could be positively marketed: as providing something extra, although, as Jenkins has observed (in Lewis, 208) ‘fan behaviour has been understood primarily in terms of metaphors of addiction, religious zealotry, social aberration or psychological imbalance’ and perhaps licensed fiction’s lowly status comes not only from the idea that the author is in thrall to his employers, but that the reader is also ‘hooked’ on the franchise.
However, Therin of Andor, who is also apparently a school librarian in Australia, identifies the recognizability of franchise characters as a potentially educational element of licensed fiction
[…] I know that one can tempt a so-called “reluctant reader” to read for pleasure through tie-in fiction, and once you have him or her reading voraciously you can lead them on many paths. (‘Licensed books’)
As with his comments about the enjoyment of rereading provided by novelisations, Therin again emphasizes the ‘pleasure’ to be found in licensed fiction – a pleasure that comes from returning to a familiar fictional world, to having it expanded, and, perhaps, from the intimacy or reading and the control that the form of the novel allows. Tie-in novels, paradoxically, permit a freedom – for producers and consumers, and also for fictional characters – that the very popularity of the source text precludes.
It has not been my purpose in this paper to defend licensed fiction, its production or consumption, so much as to situate it in both a history of the production of fiction and in our contemporary media environment. Licensed fiction can be as ‘original’ in its use of established characters and situations as literary fiction can in its use of archetypal characters and ‘universal’ themes. Moreover, tie-ins, far from being the work of hacks, can be understood as ‘real’ in the response these writers provide to a culture in which franchise characters exist as fictional beings, but also as part of our modern lives.
For Works Cited and footnotes, contact the author at firstname.lastname@example.org