Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Steal that book?

By Pat Remick

When '60s activist Abbie Hoffman wrote the cult classic “Steal This Book,” his intent was to inspire people to challenge the status quo. I don't think he meant for people to go out and literally steal books – or their plots.

But I wonder if that's going on with authors today who use characters and plots from literature as foundations for their own work. Did they “Steal This Book” or are they merely "borrowing”?

Either way, it doesn't seem to bother some publishers. My local bookstore recently hosted an event featuring major publishing house representatives who offered reading recommendations. They not only talked about books with exotic locations and unusual characters, as you might expect, but also gushed over four novels based on literature created by someone else.

“Pride & Prejudice & Zombies: The Classic Regency Romance - Now with Ultraviolent Zombie Mayhem!” apparently is a big hit. It's described as an expanded version of "Pride & Prejudice -- only with zombies -- that's supposedly written in classic Jane Austen style by a guy named Seth Grahame-Smith.

In “The Heroines," Eileen Favorite writes about what it would be like if fictional heroines like Scarlett O’Hara and Madame Bovary attended a literary retreat in Illinois. According to the description, this “lively, fresh and enormously entertaining novel gives readers a chance to experience their favorite heroines all over again, or introduces these fictional women so beguilingly that further acquaintance will likely follow.”

Does this mean it's OK to “borrow” these characters for fun and profit if the reader then goes back to the original works? I’m not sure their creators -- the long-deceased authors like Margaret Mitchell and Gustav Flaubert -- will get much satisfaction from that.

In "Finn,” author John Clinch “re-imagines” Mark Twain’s classic Huckleberry Finn from the viewpoint of Huck’s degenerate father. And the lead novella in “Dictation: A Quartet” is about what might happen if female secretaries taking dictation from writers Henry James and Joseph Conrad meet and decide to make their own marks on those authors’ works.

"Fan fiction" is used to describe stories about characters or settings written by fans of the original work, but it generally isn't offered for sale by major publishers. These books seem to be more "metafiction” – a new term used for parallel novels "with the same period as a previous work, and many of the same characters, but told from a different perspective.”

Metafiction has been especially profitable for Gegory Maguire. He’s written three novels based on L. Frank Baum's “The Wizard of Oz” -- "Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West” on which the Broadway musical is based; “Son of a Witch,” and “A Lion Among Men.” From Cinderella, he created “Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister” while his “Mirror Mirror” is based on the story of Snow White.

This all has me wondering if I'm wasting my time creating a setting and original characters for my mystery novel-in-progress. It might be easier to just sprinkle a little imagination over someone else's creations.

First, I should pick an exotic location. Not many U.S. novels are based in the former Soviet republic of Kazakhstan so that might work and I like how the word sounds. But what classic literature should I "borrow" from? The Bible? What about “Cat in the Hat”? My mother thinks “Grapes of Wrath” might work. Maybe I could even add a character named John Steinbeck....

What do you think about the idea of "metafiction"?


Tory said...

I think it's an illusion that creating a novel based on someone else's characters and premise is easier than creating one yourself from scratch. I think it would be terribly hard to pull off . . .

But then, I find the thinking up settings and premises to be the easy/ fun part. It's coming up with scene after scene that keeps the pace and doesn't drag that's the hard part . . .

P.S. Word verfication is "suckin." I kid you not! In other words, how do you create a novel that doesn't suck?

Tory said...

Or, conversely, how do you create a novel that "sucks you in"?

Joyce said...

I have no desire to read the Jane Austen zombie book, but that's mainly because I have no desire to read about zombies, period.

If something is fresh and different and not merely a "retelling" of a previous book, I don't have a problem with it. Greg Maguire's books are very entertaining, and they give the reader a different perspective of the story.

My kids had a book (I still have it on the shelf) when they were very young that's the story of the Three Little Pigs from the Wolf's perspective. Bet you didn't know the Wolf was framed.

PatRemick said...

I bet we could come up with a lot of stories told from someone else's perspective -- but how would you feel if someone did that to one of your novels? Would you be irritated that you weren't getting any profit from it -- or flattered that you'd written such a compelling story that others don't want it to end?

Jennie Bentley said...

I hate and despise fan fic, and although there are characters out there I love - other people's characters, I mean - that I wish I'd come up with, I wouldn't want to write about them. They belong to someone else. And I certainly wouldn't want anyone to write about my characters. If the fans keep them close to the originals, that's one thing, but all too often they don't, and just to mention one thing, the Harry Potter slash fic is just too uncomfortable for words.

Wilfred Bereswill said...

I'm with Tory. I think it's easier coming up with your own plot, characters and reality than to spin someone elses.

And like Joyce, if it's fresh and done well, I'm for it.

Now, if it were my book...and someone thought it was good enough to tag on to, I'd be flattered.

lisa curry said...

It kind of feels like cheating to me, but, hey, if it sells, more power to them, I guess.

I am curious about the legalities. The books we're talking about people lifting are from works that the copyright would be expired on (Scarlett O'Hara, Huck Finn, etc.). So they're public domain now, right? But you couldn't legally steal a character from a contemporary novel, could you? Like say, Jack Ryan from Tom Clancy's novels or Dirk Pitt from Clive Cussler's. Wouldn't they be protected by copyright? Or does copyright law not protect characters? I really don't know, but now I'm curious. (Not 'cause I have intentions of stealing anybody's characters -- classic or contemporary -- but just 'cause I want to know.)


Dana King said...

Lisa raises a good point. QAll of the mentioned characters that were "borrowed" are now PD. using a copyrighted character would probably get you sued faster than you could say Art Buchwald.

As to the ethics of "metafiction," there was an established and honorable musical tradition of famous composers writing variations on themes of other composers. Brahms wrote famous Haydn and Handel variations; Rachmanioff's Paganini variations are also famous. These were, in their day, considered to be not only legitimate art forms, but genuine homages to the original. Copyright complicates this--and I'm not advocating limiting the copyright restrictions at all--but these novels strike me as pretty much in the same vein.

Karen in Ohio said...

Also, Maguire tends to use minor characters as his main character. For instance, the Witch of the West in Wicked (and her son in Son of a Witch, a character wholly out of Maguire's imagination), and the stepsister in Cinderella. You could even argue that the lion is a secondary character in the Oz stories, compared to Dorothy and the Tin Man.

He twists the perspective around so firmly that it's nearly unrecognizable as the same story; indeed, it isn't at all. His version is generally tortured and dark, and delves deeply into the human conscience. Not to mention that he takes what amounts to short stories and makes tomes of them.

It's an interesting question.

Bill Peschel said...

Minor nitpick: Scarlett O'Hara is definitely not public domain, since the book came out in the 1930s.

However, it didn't stop that writer from coming out with "The Wind Done Gone," which was GWTW told from the slaves' POV. Alice Randall evades some copyright issues by disguising the names (Scarlett is referred to as "Other" and Rhett as "R"), but that still didn't stop the lawsuit. She was able to argue successfully that she was parodying the original.

As for stealing a character, I think you would have a hard time getting away with it. In some cases, such as Dirk Pitt and Clancy's Ryan, the authors did trademark those names, so there's an added layer of protection (much like deodorant). I would think, if you took James Bond and wrote a spy story, that they could still argue successfully that you've created confusion in the marketplace by writing an authorized story. But if you wrote a parody of Bond and called him James Stock, you could get away with it, much like the Harvard Lampoon folks did with "Bored of the Rings" and their Dune parody.

Since I'm not a lawyer, this shouldn't be taken as legal advice. But in general, you could be taken to court over anything, so the best thing would be to create something that's truly your own. Then you can copyright and trademark the sucker.

Bill Peschel said...

Whoops, I meant "create confusion in the marketplace by writing an unauthorized story."