Monday, September 22, 2008

What do I owe you?

Oooh, I've been itching to write this one. And I think it's the perfect re-introduction to me as blogger, rather than me as hopefully semi-adequate teacher.

I'm sure many of you have already seen something about the Annie Proulx thing, wherein Ms. Proulx, who wrote the original short story on which the film Brokeback Mountain was based, has complained to the Wall Street Journal that terrible people out there--these disgusting maggots are sometimes referred to by lesser people as "fans"--have the unmitigated gall to send her fanfiction based on the story/film. Her exact comments:

'Brokeback Mountain' has had little effect on my writing life, but is the source of constant irritation in my private life. There are countless people out there who think the story is open range to explore their fantasies and to correct what they see as an unbearably disappointing story. They constantly send ghastly manuscripts and pornish rewrites of the story to me, expecting me to reply with praise and applause for 'fixing' the story. They certainly don't get the message that if you can't fix it you've got to stand it. Most of these 'fix-it' tales have the character Ennis finding a husky boyfriend and living happily ever after, or discovering the character Jack is not really dead after all, or having the two men's children meet and marry, etc., etc. Nearly all of these remedial writers are men, and most of them begin, 'I'm not gay but….' They do not understand the original story, they know nothing of copyright infringement—i.e., that the characters Jack Twist and Ennis Del Mar are my intellectual property—and, beneath every mangled rewrite is the unspoken assumption that because they are men they can write this story better than a woman can. They have not a clue that the original 'Brokeback Mountain' was part of a collection of stories about Wyoming exploring mores and myths."

Now, here's the thing. Ms. Proulx has every right to be upset by the fanfiction. Personally, while I don't read or write fanfic, I think it's kind of fun and neat. My website gives express permission for fanfic (provided the writer of said fic does two things: 1. Acknowledges my copyright somewhere on the work; and 2. Does not send it to me, because for legal reasons I cannot and will not read it. Not that anyone is rushing out to write fic set in my world[s], but hey, I figured best to have the policy in place up front.) So while I don't necessarily agree with her views, I do absolutely agree that she has a right to be upset. And it seems, from some of the reaction I've heard from fanficcers, that sending the author of the original work your fiction is frowned upon in fanfic circles. She has a right to be annoyed by this. She has a right to speak so nastily about people who loved her work, if she likes.

But that doesn't mean she should, and it doesn't mean that I don't find the bulk of her comments disgusting, degrading, and pretentious in the extreme.

Let's start with the most offensive comment. "There are countless people out there who think the story is open range to explore their fantasies..."

Um. What exactly is a story supposed to be, if not fuel for the imagination? If not a view into another world? If not open range to explore fantasties?

A writer cannot, absolutely Can Not, tell people in what way their work should be enjoyed. To attempt to do so is at best rude and at worse highly offensive. We write the story; we send it out into the world. What readers get from it, how they view it and what it says to them, depends entirely on how well we've done our jobs and what the reader thinks/feels/has experienced in their lives up to that moment. All we can do is attempt, with each word and image, to convey a certain feeling or emotion. If the fan doesn't "get" that it's our failing, not theirs.

For example. In creating Megan Chase I attempted to do several things. One of which was to create a strong female character who wasn't "kick-ass"; someone more like me and the women I know. Strong emotionally/mentally rather than physically; someone who picks their battles. Someone who doesn't fly off the handle at imagined slights, someone capable of behaving like a professional and not a teenager.

I was lucky enough to have quite a few people "get" that. Some of my favorite comments from reviewers were to the effect that Megan was refreshingly mature and clever, that she was realistically strong. Those made me feel great.

On the other hand, several people felt that in the beginning of the story especially Megan seemed weak, that she didn't stand up to her boss, that she sort of let people walk all over her; what I saw as common sense (you don't tell your boss to fuck off if you want to keep your job) others saw as wimpiness. Some readers loved Greyson and found him as sexy as I did; others thought he was rude and overbearing.

And I can't do anything about that. All I can do is describe these people to the best of my ability and hope people connect with them. For me to insist that there is only one way to interpret their characters, that there is only one way in which to see them, and that way is exactly the way I want them to, is wrong. It turns me into some sort of dictator and my readers into idiots who can't be trusted to understand me. If they don't understand that's MY fault. This is akin to creating a painting and telling people they're not allowed to feel a certain way when looking at it.

All art is open to interpretation, by its very nature. For Ms. Proulx to insist that it is not, that the opinions, thoughts, feelings, and experiences of readers mean nothing and they should just shut up, is terrible. I don't like it. It upsets me. Because I'm not just a writer, I'm a reader too. And I have certain tastes and I have certain things I like or dislike and those things color my reading experiences whether I want them to or not. It's why I love The Caine Mutiny but hated Catch-22. It's why I adore To Kill a Mockingbird but loathe Catcher in the Rye; I recognize the greatness of both works, but one struck an emotional cord in me and the other left me cold. And if that were not the case, quite frankly, I would not be human.

Then there's the bit where she calls fanfic copyright infringement. It isn't, technically, at least these stories to which she refers are not. The chances that these writers are posting their stories on the internet are slim; the chances they're attempting to make money off them are even slimmer. Let's put it this way. When my husband and I talk we have a tendency to quote movies. A lot. We are perfectly safe in doing so; it is not copyright infringement nor is it plagiarism, because it's something we're doing in our own home. Were I to write a book with huge swathes of movie dialogue, that would be wrong.

But most of all it's just her attitude. She is rude. She is disdainful. That is not the way to treat people touched by your work. That is not the way to treat people period, frankly, but especially not those who spent time and money on you.

I'd be willing to bet at least some of the people sending her that fanfic, the men saying "I'm not gay but...", are in fact gay. And didn't realize it. Didn't realize it was okay to feel the way they felt. Or perhaps they're not gay but now think being gay is more acceptable; the story/film made them more comfortable with the idea. Is that really something we should disdain? How many young people out there perhaps gained the strength from that story or that film to be proud of who they are? How amny of those people sending her their "ghastly manuscripts" were perhaps (and perhaps misguidedly) trying to thank her? Trying to share with her a part of themselves the way they felt she'd shared a part of herself? Do you think any of those people thought to themselves, "I'll scribble up a shitty story and send it to her to torture her, that will be great!"*evil cackle*? Or do you think those stories were sincere, loving attempts to share something? To touch her the way her work touched them?

If spending time in the online writing community has taught us anything, it's that people who write badly don't really know they write badly. I firmly believe the people bothering her with their "ghastly manuscripts" really, honestly think they might be giving her some pleasure in exchange for the pleasure she gave them. Misguided, perhaps. But not deserving of contempt. Nowhere near deserving of contempt.

When people take the time to tell you how much they enjoyed your work, the only correct response is graciousness. You don't have to squee, you don't have to visit their houses, you don't have to read their fanfic, you don't have to kiss their asses. But you do owe them the same respect which you owe every other person on this planet. The idea that you don't because how dare they send you something you're under no obligation to read is shameful. (I also have a hard time imagining the woman buried under huge piles of this stuff, frankly, but whatever.)

But to my surprise, my opinion is far from the only one. I've seen quite a few writers standing up for her, asking if the fact that she's become famous means she has to just take whatever garbage is dished out.

No. Of course not. I don't believe that any more than I believe movie stars are obligated to always smile, sign autographs, or allow their pictures to be taken. They do not. But they also should not respond to the greetings and compliments of fans with "Go fuck yourself, how dare you speak to me!" How hard is it to smile and nod? To say "Thank you"? How hard is it, in an interview, to say not "These morons are a constant source of irritation" but "I love that my work touched people but please, I can't read the stories they send so if they could stop sending them I would really appreciate it." She's not under any obligation to read the stories. She's under no obligation to sign autographs or reply to letters or anything of that nature. But she is obligated, as are all of us, to be respectful to her fellow human beings, and to be especially respectful to those misguided enough to think compliments--however distastefully they submit them in her eyes--are welcome.

What lies beneath Ms. Proulx's tirade is not the weariness of someone snowed under by adoration. It's the arrogance of someone who cannot believe there are people out there who wish her story ended differently, who have their own interpretations of her Pure Work, who dare to think of her as someone who might be pleased to know she touched their lives.

Published writers put their work in the public eye. We write it. We leave it to the world to decide if it's any good or not. That is the nature of what we do. To declare readers are wrong for doing exactly what they're supposed to do, and interpret the story, is a violation of the sacred trust between writer and reader.

And that's all. I feel I owe it to the readers to produce the best quality work that I can, and to be gracious when they tell me they enjoyed it and gracious when they tell me they didn't. There are some who feel all I owe them is the work itself, and nothing more. That my obligation ends the minute I hand in those final edits.

What do you think?


Bernita said...

I thik you've expressed the sub-texts very well and I largely agree.

Kerry Allen said...

"Are you asking a woman to be 'nice,' the most devastating oppressive tactic employed by the misogynistic male establishment? How dare you! Everyone has a right to be rude, condescending, and insulting, regardless of gender, race, or creed!"

I've noticed an overwhelming lack of the "be respectful toward others" filter---more online than in person, when there's a danger of getting decked if you don't choose your words with care.

It reflects well on you that you're gracious, but a lot of people don't care who's offended, as long as their oh-so-brilliant remarks are released into the wild. Saying you're offended marks you for increasingly offensive attacks because "How dare you suggest the use of basic manners! We're adults! We can behave like bratty toddlers if we want!"

One of these days, by golly, someone will prove to me how cool it is to be a douchebag.

December/Stacia said...

Thanks, Bernita! I didn't even touch the "This is written by men thus implying they think men write better" because I just don't have the stomach for it. :-)

Lol Kerry! Yes, one day someone might do that, but I do wish they would understand that it's a lot more fun to be rude with politeness than without it. And that rudeness is simply not necessary in most cases anyway; why waste the energy? What does it prove? I just don't understand it. I'm sure Ms. Proulx felt very, very good about herself after her cruel and nasty little tirade, but she could have felt just as good had she been respectful. And what gets me is, there are people out there cheering for her! "You tell 'em, Annie!" WHY? Who out there is such a dickhead that they delight in this sort of thing? How small and pitiful do you have to be to enjoy seeing this? It's not like in a movie, where we all cheer when the Bad Guy Gets His, because he's the Bad Guy. These people are people, just readers, innocently trying to thank someone, and they get spat upon. And when writers behave like that it makes us all look bad, frankly.

How many people read the first story outside school they've ever read in Brokeback? How many wrote the first story they'd ever written, and found they loved it, and saw her comment and felt like shit and threw away their books (because obviously they didn't read them right) and pens (because their first story was called "ghastly" by someone they admired) and will never pick up another? How many people did she needlessly hurt?

It makes me sick. Ugh!

Charles Gramlich said...

I can understand the writer's frustration, but to express it in such terms is indeed rude. I also find her comments very pretentious. I'm afraid I've never been touched by her work and this doesn't suggest to me that I try.

BernardL said...

It's always a mistake for a writer to publicly take offense at a comment regarding his/her writing. One immediate consequence will be the exponential increase in hate mail, and sock puppets everywhere you go on line. Each fan the writer abuses will not only lose a future sale, but also an unknown number of potential readers for your product the 'abused fan' interacts with. I wonder why a simple 'thanks for your input' wouldn't have been sufficient as a response. :)

Devon Ellington said...

I agree with you, and I think you stated it all beautifully.

If we don't want people to respond to our work, we shouldn't put it out there. If we do, we have to accept the fact that people with interpret it via their own prisms.

We are not obligated to agree with them; we are not obligated to give them a leg up in fanfiction or any other kind of publishing.

What we are obligated to do is write the best we can and be as gracious as possible (and there are times when it is NOT possible) when dealing with the people who are touched by our work.

pacatrue said...

While I would likely be disturbed to find some character of mine re-created in rather unpleasant ways in some fanfic, I think I would just not read it. As you say, you can't stop people from dreaming. I think authors (at least I might be) would be afraid that the altered character would take over their own work in the public consciousness, but I've seen no evidence of that. I don't read fanfic myself, but my wife reads tons. There must be 1.2 billion Harry Potter fanfic stories, but everyone seems to know that Rowling's vision supersedes it all. And after the next Potter book came out, (generally) everyone just adjusted their work to take the new one into account.

Michele Lee said...

I think you're right. While she has the right to be upset, just like a writer has the right to be upset if they get a horribly negative review, when in public she should be graceful. You can indeed express dislike for something without insulting the people behind it. I've seen other authors just casually say "I can't endorse fan fiction and for legal reason I cannot read it, so please don't take the time and effort to send it to me."

See? Same thing, no contempt or hatred. A great example is Charlaine Harris. She has the southern charm of many of her characters and it like many classy southerners she could insult you in the most charming of ways. But she's always been graceful and polite to me, and from what I've seen to others as well. Unlike another author I shall not name (and there are a few that fit this, so I'll let you guess), who always sounds superior and snide to her fans.

Perhaps it's something years of answering the same questions gets you, but then again, Harris has been publishing at least as long, or longer as the name in my head.

kirsten saell said...

I agree completely. It's not how you feel or what you say, it's all in how you say it.

Marian said...

December said:

"And what gets me is, there are people out there cheering for her!"

Not surprising. I saw at least one writer defend Anne Rice after her meltdown on Amazon, and it was the same "you go girl, you had the guts to stand up to the jerks!" support.

I could see myself venting about someone who tries to "fix" my work... but I hope I'll do that venting in private, to a close friend who won't repeat anything I say.

December/Stacia said...

Exactly, guys. It's not really about fanfiction. Fanfic doesn't bother me, but I can see where it would bother some. It's easy to say "Imitations is flattery" or "They just love the characters so much" but when everyone starts dressing like you and wearing their hair like you it's hard to feel flattered instead of annoyed; I can see it being hard not to think "Go write your own damn stories, my characters are special and they're MINE!"

My point is more that the line about stories not being open range for fantasies is just ridiculous, and that no matter what you don't talk about people that way. There's no purpose to it other than to be basty and rude and cruel to people who admire you. It just makes me sick to think of it. Like I said, imagine someone who just picked up a pen for the first time to write this story, maybe a gay teenager or something, and they hear/see this and how it would humiliate and crush them. Disgusting.

Seeley deBorn said...

I think she should remember who paid for all those books.

Those same people might not be interested in buying something written by someone so mean to her fans.

laughingwolf said...

yeah, like the old saw sez: it ain't the meat, it's the motion

no need to be rude, you can show your annoyance in other ways, perhaps sarcastically... :O lol

Angie said...


Yep, what you said. Way too much good stuff to quote.

I was disappointed when I saw that in the news; I loved Brokeback and would have liked to be able to continue thinking well of its author.

One thing I remember from Miss Manners is that it's rude to be ungracious to people who haven't realistically had the opportunity to learn the rules, for breaking the rules. Her examples were mainly children, foreign visitors, and other newcomers to whatever social group, but it applies here as well.

The vast majority of fanfic is written by women, and particularly slashfic. Ms. Proulx said most of the stories were sent by men, which means 1) they most likely were isolated individuals, rather than people who participate in fanfic fandom, which means they couldn't reasonably be expected to know that it's incredibly uncool to share your fanworks with the canon creators, and 2) she must have really hit some resonant chord in the hearts of a lot of men, to get any significant number of them writing fanfic and sending it to her.

One would think that she could have taken the second point as a deep compliment, and considered the first point by graciously overlooking this gaffe on the part of some of her fans. :/


December/Stacia said...

Thanks everyone!

And yes, Annie, exactly. That thing about them not knowing copyright pissed me off too. Why the hell should they, you know? Are readers now required to learn about publishing before they can pick up a damned book? I'm sure these people are aware in some vague way of copyright, or at least some of them are; but I'm also sure those who are aware of it thought, "But I'm just sending it to her, I'm not selling it or anything" and assumed that was fine.

This isn't about fanfiction per se. I can't believe there are people justifying her comments by saying "But it was wrong of them to send it to her because the major rule of fanfic is you don't do that." I really think most of these people are NOT fanficcers, just as you said; there's no way they can be expected to know "the rules". I believe the majority of them genuinely thought she would be flattered and pleased, and that makes her cmments so much worse. Sigh. Thanks for getting it, if you know what I mean. :-)