Thursday, August 6, 2020

Using the Great Stories

     Among the phenomena that irritate me most, in these days when everyone with a word processor and an Internet connection can call himself a writer, is the blatant theft of tales told by other, better writers. Such thefts aren’t always outright plagiarisms, though some of that takes place, too. More often, they take the form of setting and motif appropriations: the use of places and characters (or character categories) made famous by other writers in their best known, best loved works.

     The targets for such appropriations are usually the very best fiction writers in the English language. Of course! If you’re going to steal, why limit yourself to what you could pilfer at a 7-11? So we see what are often called “imitations” of Heinlein, Asimov, Tolkien, Stephen King, and other great storytellers of years past: mediocre stories that exploit the creations of those writers’ imaginations.

     Why would an aspiring writer do such a thing? Lack of imagination alone doesn’t strike me as a satisfactory explanation. No one wants to be known as an unimaginative petty thief, and the “serial numbers” on such a story can’t be adequately “filed off.” It seems more likely that the aspirant is entranced by the tales he chooses to mimic. He might be fully aware that he lacks the power to concoct something nearly as good, and has resolved to settle for some adulatory fingerpainting along the margins.

     Deplorable and sad. Yet the notion of a “subcreation,” composed as a “homage” to the great work of another creator, has considerable legitimacy. It can be done in an acceptable way, and I’m here to tell you how to do it.

     The prog-rock band Glass Hammer, headquartered in Chattanooga, Tennessee (is that enough doubled letters for you?), includes in its oeuvre works that constitute subcreations beneath the expansive umbrella provided by J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. Tolkien’s fantasy has inspired a huge number of imitators, but few have been respectful enough to do what Steve Babb and Fred Schendel of Glass Hammer have done. In their CD Journey of the Dunadan, they make use of an “unexplored space” Tolkien left in his epic fantasy: the wanderings of Aragorn and his yearnings for Arwen Evenstar, daughter of Elrond Halfelven and fairest of all the children of the Eldar race. This tale weaves artfully among the threads of Tolkien’s well known adventure, in such a fashion that it enhances the greater saga without contradicting or distorting it.

     That’s how it should be done. If a creator has left such an unexplored space, and if a story can be inserted into that space that neither violates nor distorts the original tale, it can stand as a valid subcreation with its own value. As the overwhelming majority of fantasies written since The Lord of the Rings borrow from it to some degree, Journey of the Dunadan constitutes a pattern to be followed by others equally respectful of Tolkien’s prerogatives.

     There’s another way to exploit an earlier creation: the “what happened next?” approach. If the original creator completes his tale and leaves the future events in the characters’ lives open, a capable writer can take up the threads from there – once again, assuming he can do so without violating or distorting the original. The late Robert B. Parker, a mighty storyteller in his own right, did this in his novel Perchance to Dream, which Parker bills as a sequel to Raymond Chandler’s magnum opus The Big Sleep. Parker adapts himself smoothly to Chandler’s “L.A. noire” style and portrays detective Philip Marlowe in this follow-on adventure in a fashion Chandler would applaud. This sort of subcreation should only proceed with permission from the original creator (or his estate). If that can be secured, it’s a legitimate way to borrow from an earlier creator.

     Finally, a subcreation can be rooted in the great classical and pre-classical legends, or in a story from the Bible. E. William Brown’s novels of Daniel Black make use of several mythologies: Nordic, Greek, and Egyptian. He combines elements from those sagas into a brand new epic set in a world like our own, yet unlike it. Brown’s “Midgard” is a place where magic actually works – indeed, it’s the dominant force in all of society, including the societies of the gods. The epic is so convoluted that I could hardly do it justice in a squib here, so take my word for it: Brown has concocted an original and intriguing alternate universe in which to exploit those myths. (And nobody will be suing him for his borrowings!)

     If you’re going to reach into the Bible for some foundation stones, great care is required. You don’t want to offend anyone unintentionally; it wouldn’t be gentlemanly. As for risking God’s wrath, that’s even more serious. I’ve taken my fate in my hands on two occasions: my short stories Names and The Last Vigil. Two minor characters – one a complete fabrication, the other the Roman soldier Longinus who attended to Christ on the Cross – were my foci. As I could speak of them without contradicting or distorting the greatest story ever told, that of Jesus of Nazareth, the Son of God and Redeemer of Mankind, I felt I could get away with it. (I’ll find out for certain in the afterlife.)

     So: it can be done. Viewed apart from the attitude of the subcreator, the requirements are fairly simple. Yet in the final analysis it is the subcreator’s attitude that matters most. He must respect the earlier tale as something over which he has no rights whatsoever. Moreover, he must respect its creator in the fullest sense: as one who, having brought something original and striking into the world, deserves to be shown homage for it. He must not mock or deride that earlier artist with an attitude of “I’ll show him how it’s done.”

     Keep this in mind should you elect to travel the road of subcreation.

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