Reading, Writing, and Sacred Cows

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Title: Reading, Writing, and Sacred Cows
Creator: Lucy Gillam
Date(s): February 20, 2002
Medium: online
Topic: Fan Fiction, Smallville, Superman, Lord of the Rings, Tolkien
External Links: Reading, Writing, and Sacred Cows/WebCite
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Reading, Writing, and Sacred Cows is an essay by Lucy Gillam.

It is part of the Fanfic Symposium series.


Drop in on any list, irc channel, or live journal to see what’s buzzing in fan fiction circles these days, and two names are likely to jump out at you: Smallville (the WB television show about the Boy Who Would be Superman) and Lord of the Rings (recent interest prompted by, if not solely based on, the recently released movie). Interestingly enough, the two fandoms have much in common: both involve “new” material based on existing sources. Both existing sources are well-known, well-loved, almost mythic in proportion. Both have really, really pretty men.

Okay, so that last was probably a given.

Under the similarity, however, there’s a deeper difference to how people are talking about the source material – or more precisely, source materials, since both involve an audio-visual (tv or movie) version of a print source. The difference is largely in how the original version is regarded, specifically in opinion of whether fanfic writers should read the source material (I hesitate to use the term “have to read,” because obviously no one is trying to forbid anyone from writing without reading).

The prevailing opinions that I have seen (and I’m getting these from a variety of sources, mainly FCA-L discussions and live journal threads - here would be a good example) are that (1) those who wish to write LoTR fanfic, even if they are primarily inspired by the movie, really ought to read the books (opinion varies on just how much of the available source material is necessary. Few people, for example, seem to be insisting the people read the Silmarillion or every inch of the appendices. OTOH, I have seen insistence on an adherence to details found only in those sources); and (2) those who wish to write Smallville stories really don’t need to read any Superman comics.
So in the midst of all this, I’m finding myself puzzled by the fairly righteous indignation with which people are insisting on reading the source in one case and completely dismissing it in another. So I’m doing what I usually do when I’m puzzled: I’m writing about it.

I can actually think of several very good reasons for this disparity, reasons that make perfect sense and are completely, well, reasonable. I’m also not entirely convinced that those are the real reasons. As with many things fannish, I think there are surface reasons, the ones we tell ourselves and others to makes sense of our world, and deeper reasons that are largely lizard-brain, but perhaps closer to the truth.

We’ll start with the surface reasons first. It can certainly be argued that Smallville and the LoTR movie are not actually in analogous relationships to their source materials. The LoTR movie is an adaptation, the aim of which is to translate the original into a new medium as faithfully as possible. What changes exist are largely a result of time compression and medium difference (you could also argue that some changes, such as the enhanced role of Arwen, are a result of changing cultural expectations, but those are minimal). You could argue about how successfully it captures the essence of the books, but I don’t think there’s any question of the intent.

Smallville, OTOH, is a re-imagining of the Superman myth. Just by placing it in the present day, the creators have thrown canon for a loop. While certain elements are clearly drawn from the Superboy comics (yes, there is a canonical basis for Clark and Lex knowing each other as teenagers – okay, so Lex hated Clark, but we won’t go there). Certainly the tone is different than much of what we’ve seen of Supes in the comics. Why, it’s almost Bat-like in its angst.

I’ve also seen the argument that LoTR is a more unified, coherent source than the Superman comics. The Ring books, at least until the Silmarillion, were the product of one writer, and thus stand a greater chance of being internally consistent in terms of detail, tone, and characterization. This, too, I’m willing to more or less accept (although doesn’t it kind of suck that because Siegel and Shuster were young and naïve, they don’t get their props?). Certainly Superman has been through a dozen incarnations, his powers growing, shrinking, changing, etc, his personality changing (albeit subtly) with the times. Most of the fundamentals have remained the same, but trying to figure out comic book canon is often like trying to herd cats. I mean, try getting a straight answer from anyone as to why Dick Grayson stopped being Robin. It’ll give you migraines, really.

The final reason that I’ve seen is simply availability. Yes, reading three novels (four if you decide to throw in The Hobbit) and the related appendices is a tad less difficult than trying to read all the available appearances of Superman. However, I’m a little less convinced when people who would normally have no patience for a writer saying, “Well, the show doesn’t air where I live” as a justification for writing based on scant canon exposure let this argument slide when it comes to buying or borrowing a few trade paperbacks to get at least a basic familiarity. I’d also argue that at the very least information on Superman is extremely readily available on the web.

Still, even dismissing that, the preponderance of evidence seems to weigh for it being eminently reasonable to argue that those wishing to write LoTR fiction should read the books, while Smallville writers really need not read the comics.
Which is where we get to sacred cows.

Tolkien’s books are much-loved, much respected, even much revered. People hold rituals and festivals taken from them. Certainly it’s expected that any literate fantasy reader will have read (and loved) them. Don’t believe me? Try admitting in a room full of relatively educated fantasy/science fiction readers (or worse, on an academic SF/F listserve) that you’d really rather read Stephen King’s Dark Tower series. Trust me: the results aren’t pretty. The books (and the writer) are, in essence, sacred cows, and you tip them over at your peril.

Superman is also a sacred cow in his own right, much loved, much revered, having attained the status of cultural icon. The difference is what circles tend to hold him sacred. I don’t think I’m being particularly stereotypical when I say that comics are a largely male domain (or if I am, it’s a stereotype based on solid statistics). Are there a fair number of fanfic writers who read and love comics? Yes. Are there probably far more who’ve read and loved Tolkien? I’d lay money on it (not much money, but money).

I also suspect it’s a difference between “high art” and “low art,” or more precisely, the respect we give prose writers versus the respect we give writers of, well, everything else. I’ve seen a fair number of discussions recently on “literary slash,” and why it is or is not appropriate to slash books. Interestingly, to the extent that comics enter this discussion at all, they’re usually considered fair game. Again, there are surface reasons that makes sense (direct competition with source material, although that reason doesn’t actually make sense if you look at it too long), and the underneath reason. Prose fiction is, or at least can be, High Art. Comics, television shows, movies: no matter how well these are done, they remain Low Art.

And thus, to switch my metaphors again, we get to the lizard-brain reason for this disparity, and the reason I’m suddenly finding myself at odds with the literati. If Tolkien and his writing are sacred, then daring to suggest that one might (or could) write a story based on someone else’s interpretation of his world, suggesting even that the movie can be considered its own canon and universe, and thus that, say, Aragorn's age in the books is irrelevant in a movie-based story, is profanity.

And this is where we get to why the difference in attitude with Smallville is pissing me off a little.