A thought experiment on printed literature

I have a thought experiment for you, dear reader. It will require a writing instrument and a small scrap of paper.

  1. Draw a vertical line to divide the paper into three columns.

  2. In the first column write three names: the names of your three favorite contemporary authors. Later, you may expand this list to creators of other kinds of media, but for now restrict your list to authors of printed books within the last 30 years.

  3. In the second column, write three characteristics of those three authors that make them your favorite. (A total of three, not three for each.) For example, if you appreciate well-developed characters, write that. Or maybe your passion is for witty dialogue. Whatever.

  4. The third column is a little tricky. You’re going to write the titles of three books, but they must meet the following criteria:

    1. They must not have been written by any of the authors in the first column.

    2. They must have been written in the last 30 years.

    3. They should have been written in genres that the authors in the first column don’t normally write for.

    4. They should be books where the basic premise was interesting, but the author flubbed it along the way. They should have left you with a sort of really, that’s where you went with that? kind of feeling. You wanted to love them, but just couldn’t.

    For example, my paper might look like this:

    Neil Gaiman Thought-provoking Inverted World by Christopher Priest
    Stephen King Deep characters Sphere by Michael Crichton
    Jim Butcher Off-beat The Weather Warden series by Rachael Caine
  5. Draw lines from the books in the third column to the characteristics in the second column that represent what could have been improved to make those books better. That book suffered from a lack of …

  6. Connect the lines from the second column back to the author in the first column that could have best re-written the book in the third column.

So where am I going with all of this?

I was thinking the other day, thanks to an article I read about Google’s book-scanning efforts, about the proposed extension to Copyright terms. Copyright law in the USA is up to something ridiculous like the death of the author plus 75 years. Or maybe 100 years. Point being: it’s a ridiculous number.

Then I got to thinking along the lines above, about books that had a really interesting concept, but that I thought the author fumbled toward the end. I’ve just finished Inverted World, which was great up until the last 10 pages or so—it seemed that Priest just couldn’t come up with an interesting way to end the book. A similar problem holds true of the Weather Warden series: it started off interesting enough, but after a couple of books just went in an uninteresting direction.

Now add in a dash of the Dark Knight and Terminator: Salvation films, and the Amazing Spider-man comic series. What do they have to do with anything? Both films are reimaginings of their source material. Similarly, when J. Michael Straczynski came in to write for Spidey, he took a step back and reworked several key plot points and characters, in effect performing an in-continuity reimagining of the series.

But how does that apply to your little piece of paper?

I had you stick to contemporary authors and books for a reason: as much as you might like to see it, there’s almost no chance that you’ll ever get to see those books in the third column reimagined and redone (remixed) by the authors in the first column.

Me? I’d kill to see Butcher or Gaiman remix Inverted World, or King remix Sphere. But, thanks to the mire that is Copyright law, it’s not like any of those authors can just wait and write their own versions of those works in a few years. Nor is it likely that the original authors of those works would be all that willing to agree to such remixes—what incentives would they have?

Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m not calling for an end on copyright just so that professional authors can do fanfic. You know how Romeo and Juliet became Underworld? Imagine the horror that it would be if J. K. Rowling got it into her head that she should rewrite Jurassic Park. Yuck, right? But what if Stephen King tackled the Harry Potter universe? Where might that go? Or, if you’re looking for something a bit less jarring, imagine Neil Gaiman taking on Harry Potter. If nothing else, you have to admit that the dialogue would be far more interesting. (And Hermione might be more than a plot device.) Could we find a good author to take on Interview With A Vampire and turn it into something more than 300 pages about wallpaper?

But we’ll pretty much never get to see that. And that bums me out.

It can’t be just me, though. Look at how successful Maguire’s Wicked was. Mercedes Lackey has written several books that are remixes of old fairy tales. Gamain’s Snow, Glass, Apples. K. J. Anderson’s Captain Nemo. How many people have redone Shakespeare? Young adult fiction is rife with retellings of classic literature remixed in a way accessible to children.

But you see the pattern here? The source material is always old, at least in part because authors don’t want to get sued.

There’s also the capitalist argument to be made: if a second author comes out with a version of the first author’s book that is better-liked, then that’s just how it goes. Copyright is then a legalized monopoly.

Of course … there’s always the argument about investment of effort. Books are hard to write. I’m all too familiar with this. The author alone, no one else in the production chain, will put hundreds and sometimes thousands of hours into a single book. Developing complex characters and weaving in interesting storylines is demanding work if you are going to do it right. How fair would it be to allow a second author to come along and find all of the hard work already done for them?

Of course, it’s just a thought experiment.

But seriously, how awesome would a Warren Ellis remix of Ringworld be?