J. Steven York, famed for his Star Trek novels, Conan,
and lots of other cool stuff, recently posted a response to some character who rather insulted those of us who often write adaptations of movie screenplays, novels based on popular TV shows and/or movies (Star Trek, The Saint, Alias, Monk, etc). His response was so good, I am sharing part of it with you here. For the full discussion click the link at the bottom of the excerpt.
Why do people think tie-in fiction is inferior? Well, first of all,
there’s the matter of its being based on existing material. Perhaps
the assumption is that the author is somehow limited or shackled by
this preexisting structure. As if western literature and the novel form
itself weren’t a complex kind of structure to which the author is
generally expected to conform. Writing with such strictures doesn’t
make things easy sometimes, but it’s endlessly challenging and helps
develop the author’s skills. It can detract from the work, sure, but it
can also be the annoying grain of sand that generates the perfect
As if many works of celebrated serious literature
weren’t derived from earlier literary works, historical figures, or
characters of myth and legend. For instance, this year’s winner of the
Pulitzer Prize for literature, "March" by Geraldine Brooks is derived
from the classic "Little Women," by Louisa May Alcott. In that respect
(and admittedly, in that respect only), it differs from a Star Trek
novel primarily in that it wasn’t licensed or approved by the owner of
the original work. Ms. Brooks just took a classic work in the public
domain and used it as the springboard for her novel.
even a broad generality to say that tie-in novels are automatically
highly derivative. Most of my tie-in work, from Conan to MechWarrior
has mainly used elements of concept and background. Virtually all the
characters and their situations have been entirely original. Not all of
it. The Star Trek and Generation -X books, for instance, have used
mostly existing characters, but even then, many of the supporting
characters are original to the work.
Then there’s the matter
that most tie-in fiction is produced under battlefield conditions. No
waiting for the muse. No excuses (or none that your editor is likely to
care about). No delivering a book radically different from the one you
promised. It needs to be done. It needs to be done on deadline. It
needs to be done to specification. It needs to fit the package we’re
prepared to market.
Does that hurt the quality of tie-in works?
Sometimes, but less so than you’d think. Tie-in writers are, by
definition, fast, and I could do a whole separate post (and I may, at
some point) on the literary myth that fast means hackwork, and slow
means quality. That isn’t, in my experience, true at all. Sure, it’s
possible sometimes to push a novel too hard, to write it too fast, and
that can hurt a book.
But in my experience, the natural pace
of a book that’s working well is pretty fast. When the book is moving
slow, it’s often a sign not of quality of care, but of a writer
struggling with problems, or flailing around on a book they really
don’t understand yet. There are examples of great novels that took
years or decades to produce, but I’ll wager that if you could have been
a fly on the wall, very little of that span was actually spent typing
on the project at hand. Most was spent procrastinating, researching,
throwing away false-starts, working on other projects, dealing with
life, or flipping those infamous burgers.
Then there’s the taint
of writing "popular" fiction. Too many people like that Trek crap, so
it can’t be good. I’m convinced this is a legacy of the English class
system. Anything attractive to the dirty masses is obviously not fit
for the refined tastes of the literary upper-class.
carries over to popular fiction as well, where its easy to turn one’s
nose up at bestsellers simply on the basis of their success. Yes,
there’s some pretty poor writing in the bestseller pockets at your
local grocery store (though all of it is entertaining and successful on
some profound level, of it would never be a bestseller). Yes, there are
some books there written in a paint-by-numbers fashion that makes the
most restrictive tie-in book pale by comparison. But there’s also some
damned fine stuff there on occasion.
If one defines literature
as "works that will continue to be published, read, and appreciated
long after the author is gone," (and admittedly, that’s only one of
many possible definitions), then I suspect that much of what will be
read by future generations will filter through those best-seller lists,
while other, more celebrated "literary" works fade into obscurity. It’s
easy to forget that Charles Dickens, for instance, was the Stephen King
of his day, turning out commercial entertainments that were serialized
in newspapers for the pleasure of the masses, or that "Moby Dick" was a
huge bestseller, the "Da Vinci Code" of its day.
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