Does it make a difference when authors step into another’s shoes?

Guest blogger Jason Sanford often rants on his website at His fiction has been published in Interzone, Year’s Best SF 14, Analog, Intergalactic Medicine Show, Pindeldyboz, and other places, and has won the 2008 Interzone Readers’ Poll and a Minnesota State Arts Board Fellowship.

So a month back I wrote a snitty little post on why I wouldn’t read And Another Thing… by Eoin Colfer, which is the newly authorized sequel to Douglas Adam’s Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. I mean, dammit, I love Adam’s trilogy. I think the first three books are as near to perfect as fiction writing can be.

Then Colleen Lindsay offered to send me a copy of the book to read. When the book arrived yesterday, I opened it and read a bit and found myself laughing. Which is deeply disturbing. I mean, if I like the book does that mean individual authors and their particular creative visions no longer matter for crap?

Okay, maybe that’s a bit melodramatic. And I must finish reading Colfer’s book before I can say if it is good or not. But this has made me wonder. Are we entering a world where fanfic—i.e., diving into the imaginary worlds of others—is the new norm among writers?

When Charles Schulz died, no new Peanuts strips were created per his family’s request. But this fact gathered so much attention precisely because it was so unusual. In the comic book and movie worlds, it is common for multiple writers, directors and illustrators to work on properties like Spiderman over the years. This results in storylines which never truly end; in characters which never truly develop and change. When a particular take on a character or story grows old, you simply reboot it, as was done to the Star Trek series with the most recent movie.

Perhaps this is where all fiction is headed. But one of the reason’s I read fiction is to experience another person’s vision of the world. My fear is that this interchangeable cookie-cutter view of authorship will result in stories lacking the vision which first drew us to them.

Any thoughts from other people?


  1. says

    Well, of course they’ll lack the original vision. But, done well, by a writer with an appreciation and respect for the original vision, they’ll contain new ways of looking at the characters and the world, revealing depths we as readers hadn’t thought about or perceived before. No, it’s not the same thing as it was under the original author; it’s something new, a recreation, to be enjoyed separately, but no lesser for it. (Well, “no lesser” in terms of it being a recreation – of course it might be lesser or possibly even greater in terms of the skill shown in the storytelling.)

  2. says

    Some thoughts:

    My fear is that this interchangeable cookie-cutter view of authorship will result in stories lacking the vision which first drew us to them.
    That’s only if you – and, more importantly, the author – view their work as copying what went before, instead of re-interpreting, re-spinning, bringing something new and individual to the world. As Laurie says, it’s something new. Or it should be.

    Are we entering a world where fanfic—i.e., diving into the imaginary worlds of others—is the new norm among writers?
    You’ve heard of the Aeneid, I assume? I wonder if medieval and early-modern scholars, and scholars of other cultures, could cite examples of acceptable fanfic too. Then there’s doujinshi in Japan (manga written by fans, and sold). I think it’s a tradition that’s been lurking around, in and out, for some (if not all) time; the level of acceptability, how much it’s actually embraced, is the thing to track. Which is a slightly pedantic remark, I guess, but to me it’s not quite the same discussion.

  3. says

    You are correct–there has long been a literary tradition to rework older literary works. Shakespeare did it to great acclaim, and the Aeneid is merely another famous example.

    But I think there is a difference in retelling a famous story in your own words–which is what Shakespeare did–and continuing a story in an author’s world. Turning Romeo and Juliet into a modern story a la West Side Story was brilliant. Writing a story where Romeo and Juliet rise from the dead so they can marry and live happily ever after, that’s quite another thing and would rub most people the wrong way. The reason the last example wouldn’t work is b/c it goes against the voice and vision of the original work (or, to add a caveat, the original work which is most known today, which is Shakespeare’s version of the story).

  4. says

    I don’t think we can forget the fact that, essentially, this is a discussion about franchises. While many of us (myself included) would probably hate to think of Adams’ opus in this way, the fact remains that he has now become a brand, and we shouldn’t be surprised that publishers are trying to milk this fact for all it’s worth. Do you honestly think that Tolkien would have had all that posthumous stuff published if it wasn’t for the fact that publishers knew they were on to a good thing?

    Regarding fanfic becoming a new norm… I don’t know. I don’t think it’s fair or accurate to stretch the polemic to ALL fiction anyway. There’s a reason why people feel comfortable writing Star Wars, Star Trek, Harry Potter fanfics. The fact that these worlds are so commericalised and impersonal already is what makes them so ameanable to manipulation. I can’t really picture any Bas Lag/Ambergris fan fics popping up any times soon (can you?)

  5. says

    How does this differ from the co-authored novels that are popping up everywhere, where a relatively unknown author writes a novel — presumably under the watchful eye of the original author — and both authors’ names are on the cover?

    True, if the original author is putting in input, you have a continuation of the original’s vision… but that happens in comics, too, where the previous writer isn’t necessarily dead, and where a thorough ‘bible’ is kept to guide the writer.

    Leslie Charteris did this with his Saint series in the 70s, I think it was. As an avid reader, I easily saw the difference in style. Another co-authored novel in a different series was so scattered and cookie-cutter that I couldn’t finish it, no matter how much I had previously enjoyed the series.

    On the other hand, I’ve read some truly great stories set in the Star Trek, Star Wars, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer universes. Of course, those aren’t meant to be written in the same style…

    That’s a big difference. It isn’t easy to write in another author’s style. People insisted Spider Robinson was channeling Heinlein in Variable Star. Robert Jordan’s series was completed by another author, chosen by his widow to best reflect Jordan’s style. (disclaimer: I haven’t had a chance to read these yet so I don’t know how well this worked, myself).

    How close does Colfer’s book mimic Adams’? I think that’s the true issue here. It’s not so much the vision — after all, when writing in another’s universe, an author often has a ‘bible’ or at least a very good idea of the author’s vision. But how well does the author capture the original author’s style? If it is very close, I see it more as an homage to the original author than copying his world. It has to be a labour of love.

  6. jeff vandermeer says

    Playing in someone else’s world can be fun and creative and result in good books, but it is not a substitute for having one’s own creative vision. End of story. And the Shakespeare as fanfic idea is totally and utterly laughable. This isn’t a condemnation of tie in’s or fan fic, but ultimately they do not require the same depth of imagination from the creator. Some things will never be otherwise no matter how someone would prefer they would be otherwise.

  7. Samuel Tinianow says

    I would point out the example of the movies Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory and the more recent Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.

    Are they drawn from the same source material? Do they share the same setting, characters, and basic storyline? Are they both funny? Yes, yes, and yes.

    Are they interchangeable? Nope.

    Pretty much describes my take on an author taking over another’s work.

  8. Christopher Robbins says

    Just wanted to chime in on the Shakespeare comment and point out that it is believed by scholars that Shakespeare was possibly more than one writer making him the R.L. Stine or V.C. Andrews or at least James Patterson of his day.

  9. Andrew M. says

    Regarding the previous Shakespeare comment, that is absolutely not true. A few scholars believe that theory, but the overall scholarly consensus is Shakespeare was one individual.

    And Shakespeare as R.L. Stine or V.C. Andrews? Big laugh.

  10. says

    The Victorians were tinkered with Shakespeare. And way before that, Nahum Tate did a rewrite of “Lear” that married off Cordelia and Edgar. Of course, Nahum Tate eventually ended up in Pope’s “Dunciad.” Perhaps a lesson’s there, somewhere…

  11. Drax says

    Gadling: “I saw KING LEAR yesterday. Mrs. Siddons as Goneril. The idiots had given it a happy ending.”
    Morpheus/Dream: “That will not last. The Great Stories will always return to their original forms.”

    “You see THIS, Stanley? This ain’t nothing else, THIS is THIS.”
    —The Deer Hunter

  12. says

    There’s no real doubt that Shakespeare had collaborators; Fletcher’s contribution to “Two Noble Kinsmen” is acknowledged on the title page of the first publication. It’s really a question of who and how much.

    The difference between something like the “Hitchiker’s Guide” books and the Aeneid (or Orlando Furioso, probably the greatest sequel-by-another-author ever written) is that a literary property is different from a tradition of storytelling. Homer didn’t own or invent the stories about the Trojan War; he was just one poet working an already-ancient tradition. Vergil or anyone else was free to come along and have a shot at the Troy stories, if they could stand the comparison to the big guy.

    We’re not quite in that situation today (at least with works under copyright), but what with fanfic and various encroachments on literary property, we may be getting close.

  13. Dylan Fox says

    Are you suggesting that the internet will do to creativity what free trade did to commerce? We will be in a situation where there are ubiquitous chain stores pumping out sterile and unimaginative product, all carefully monitored and controlled from ‘head office’ while a few artisans who still believe in what they’re doing struggle to survive?

    Have authors become brands? Can we expect to see J.K. Rowling books the same way we see Starbuck’s coffee? Of course it’s not written by Rowling, but you wouldn’t expect your cappuccino to be made by Mr. Starbuck. History does tend to repeat itself, so there might be a case to be argued there.

    Mind you, are we talking about anything other than Hollywood spilling out of California? I mean, franchises with input by dozens of different writers are already the norm, as you point out. Is it so surprising for books to go the same way? Someone comes up with a good idea, sells it to the publisher, who then go on to milk it for all it’s worth. Isn’t that what happened with things like Terminator and the Friday 13th films?

    Scary thoughts. What’s the difference between Doctor Who fan fiction and a Doctor Who tie-in novel? Just the brand’s seal of approval. If it’s already happened, maybe we don’t need to worry too much.

  14. says


    “I can’t really picture any Bas Lag/Ambergris fan fics popping up any times soon (can you?)”

    Sure I can!

    I seem to remember there was some written for the Yuletide exchange, too, but I’m not sure. And there’s a fair amount of fanfic for, say, Ellen Kushner’s Swordspoint series, or Sarah Monette’s Doctrine of Labyrinths series, and others. I’ve written a couple for KJ Bishop’s The Etched City, to boot.

  15. Candas Jane Dorsey says

    I tend to find the appropriation of other writers’ characters or settings lazy and annoying, but with exceptions that are mostly based on quality and intention. For instance, Jill Paton Walsh was retained to finish the last Dorothy Sayers novel, and then wrote one of her own–I found the latter interesting and readable, but that’s partly because Paton Walsh is a fine writer with her own thoughts: perhaps true of Eoin C too? But I wouldn’t have suffered if that book/those books hadn’t been written, either. (BTW, re: Teodor’s Tolkien comment above: the material in print was prepared by his son from manuscripts in existence, rather than being invented in the same universe–but if Tolkien had been a midlist writer the publishers probably would not have been interested, indeed.) I do tend to wonder why people don’t just tell their own stories. I understand the commercial appeal of franchises to publishers and marketers, though. But the real appeal is the need of readers, fans, viewers to have the characters constantly in their (the fans’) reality streams, providing them new material, new catharsis if you will.

    If characters become so iconic that they “belong” to an era’s cultural collective as much as do real historical figures and events (as the Trojan War example), are they as “up for grabs” as “real” history is? Does that mean that characters become real and are considered to have lived? Fanfic “fills in” the lives of characters as if it were documentary. This seems to me to be a level of wishful thinking that crosses some boundaries, both in the real word of intellectual property and in the mind of the fanfic writer. However, as Dylan points out above, tie-ins are fanfic with contracts. Look at all those Star Trek novels, including some by Kirk/Spock slash writers… All these examples here and in the above posts just seem to support my point that if a work achieves some level of cultural icon status, it is considered community property. But that’s not to say it’s OK.

    As an author, I’d find knockoffs from my characters or worlds spooky and invasive and possibly, depending on context, even creepy. I can’t imagine actually hiring someone and giving them a finished story and saying, “Write some sequels.” But these feelings depend on that word “finished”. When I finish a book I’ve usually finished with the characters in it and their journeys. I’ve told the story I meant to tell.

    Series books have a different motivation. Or, different motivations depending on genre, author and content. The Wheel of Endless Time series theoretically had some kind of wrapup planned? (I don’t know, I couldn’t stand it after the first couple of books brought no essential change to the characters, but would hope so.) If so, that may be why it needed “finishing”. Eoin Colfer playing in Douglas Adams’ universe is a different motivation, which may be homage or commercial cynicism or the “finishing” of a lifework cut short. If, for instance, the mystery novel I’m writing turns into a series it will be because the publishing world likes series detectives and I’ve set it up that way from the get-go. But if someone took up “my” detective after I wasn’t producing any more, I think I’d just feel sorry for them because they couldn’t think of any characters or stories of their own. On the other hand, if the series was wildly successful, and gave me a licence to print money, that could be seductive. Having acknowledged that, I must say that I can’t see J.K.Rowling, for example, franchising Harry Potter prequels, fill-ins, sequels and multigenerational sagas. I can’t really imagine “Bilbo: The Twilight Years”. I can’t see a point to this sort of thing. But I don’t have characters who “belong” to their readers. Which brings me back to the idea of common cultural property.

    I live in Edmonton, and was here when The Great Gretzky Trade happened. The people in this city were up in arms about Pocklington trading “their” Gretzky. They felt he was their cultural property. If he belonged to anyone, it was neither himself nor the millionaire to whom he was indentured by contract. No, he belonged to Edmonton, to his fan base. They felt robbed. They wanted him back. They had no sense of public/private boundaries. They felt betrayed because Pocklington had done what he had a right to do, make money out of his sports property. They thought Gretzky was there to give them an idol to believe in, and around whom to rally. They were heartbroken to discover they had been misled into ignoring the soundly commercial nature of the relationship. If they could have written fiction which kept him playing with the Oilers and kept the Oilers on top forever, they might have. And they might have bought it in quantity, thus making it commercially viable. Would their identification with his fate, as a quasi-fictional character in their universe, have made Gretzky belong to them, or made them the guardians of his legacy? I say no.

    An interesting topic. For me, I say, get your own characters and story. But who can speak for the cultural context, the audience, the profit motive, or the internal motivation of another writer? In the end, I think all these creations, to use an arguable term, get judged on the quality of the product: judged not only by current readers/consumers but by history.

  16. says

    In some ways the “interchangeable cookie-cutter view of authorship” is already with us, and has been for quite awhile. The publishing industry has long maintained a slot labeled “Bestseller,” and it doesn’t particularly care who fits into it, whether she’s writing about boy wizards or her Alaskan life.

    There are over 200 novels, novellas, and short stories set in the Star Wars universe, written by over 75 authors. Jeff (our host) wrote a novel set in the Predator universe. If you’re interested in being a working writer without a day job, that sort of thing is good work if you can get it (just ask Alan Dean Foster).

    Publishers will put Brian Herbert and Kevin Anderson together to crank out more Dune, and indulge Christopher Tolkien while he takes 30 years to finish The Children of Hurin. But it’s unlikely that anyone will hire someone to crank out another Rabbit novel.

    Still…did anyone from Shakespeare’s day foresee Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead? At some point, we might actually see another Rabbit novel, just as we’ve seen The Wind Done Gone, The Winds of Tara, and Rhett Butler’s People. Who knows? But if Rabbit’s Corpse Explodes Repeatedly–Michael Bay’s first foray into literature–sucks in all kinds of tremendous ways, it’s still a product of his own creative vision. The same holds true if it’s a revelation of unexpected genius.

    In short: I don’t think that “all fiction” is headed anywhere in particular. I think that the lure of commerce will lead to sequels and shoe-filling when there is sufficient economic incentive. I also think there will continue to be a place for unique voices, some of which might end up in that “Bestseller” slot, some of which will settle into precarious midlistery, and some of which will appear and vanish. Individual creative vision will persist until the advent novel-writing software, and even then we can start arguing about AI.

  17. Jeff VanderMeer says

    I largely agree with Candas on this issue–great comment, thanks for taking the time to post it.

  18. Rachel Swirsky says

    As someone with an interest in literary deconstruction, I think there can be a great deal of creative value in picking at the pieces of other people’s work in order to comment on it. This strikes me as a different project than continuing in the same vein as an original work since the intention is more toward social analysis than appreciation.

    Nevertheless, it makes me a bit twitchy when Jeff says something like “Playing in someone else’s world can be fun and creative and result in good books, but it is not a substitute for having one’s own creative vision… This isn’t a condemnation of tie in’s or fan fic, but ultimately they do not require the same depth of imagination from the creator.”

    “Depth of imagination” in what sense? Purely in the sense of creating a world? How far do we wish to take this? Is literary fiction less deeply imagined? Do characters, emotions, events, not count as deep imagining? And what about worlds that are poorly or shallowly imagined in the first place? Does the potential exist for a literary intervention with -say- Gor to showcase more deep imagination than the original? Is deeply imagined a useful metric, and if it is, is it an inherently valuable one?

  19. says

    I second Jeff’s comment and agree with almost everything Candas said. And tying what Candas said with Rachel’s comment, literary deconstruction is also a concern to me–at least with regards to how certain stories become so iconic that they “belong” to an era’s cultural collective as much as do real historical figures and events (to repeat what Candas said).

    One of my concerns with authors who are authorized to dive into other creative worlds is that when these worlds are famous properties like Superman or Star Wars, there are limits to what an author is allowed to do with his or her story. This lack of freedom impacts the creative vision which is so important to great fiction. It will be interesting to see how the iconic properties of today are reimagined in the future when their copyrights have run out. Then it might be possible an author will come around and do like Shakespeare did with the classic stories of old–i.e., create true masterpieces from today’s cultural properties. But until this happens, these types of fiction will often lack the spark and vision which I demand in the stories I read.

  20. jeff vandermeer says

    Rachel: I mean only when part of the context is already given to you, you have less work to do, and less work for the imagination. It is much harder to create from nothing. I know. I have done both. That doesn’t mean what is easier doesn’t have value. I think in a world where genuine and unique artistic expression is already undercut by mass pop culture, it is important to make the distinction.

  21. jeff vandermeer says

    Rachel: Just so it’s clear too, in the last year the novel’s I loved best were not fantastical or SFnal.

  22. jeff vandermeer says

    And all the elements you mention are givens for any good fiction–writers should work just as hard at them in any context. But to be given characters and settings and other elements is to immediately introduce certain constraints and to be given things that would otherwise rise organically in the context of all other elements holistically. In short, it is a dangerous and ultimately self-deceptive game to pretend to absolute originality when playing in someone else’s creation. More importantly, I as a reader don’t care about and don’t want someone else’s interpretation of my favorite works. I want their own creations. If other readers want something else, that’s fine, And they can then be advocates for it. But we have enough commercialization of fiction as it is, enough conservatism.

  23. Rachel Swirsky says

    “you have less work to do, and less work for the imagination. It is much harder to create from nothing. I know. I have done both.”

    That makes absolute sense.

    “One of my concerns with authors who are authorized to dive into other creative worlds is that when these worlds are famous properties like Superman or Star Wars, there are limits to what an author is allowed to do with his or her story. This lack of freedom impacts the creative vision which is so important to great fiction. It will be interesting to see how the iconic properties of today are reimagined in the future when their copyrights have run out. ”

    I agree.

  24. Rachel Swirsky says

    “In short, it is a dangerous and ultimately self-deceptive game to pretend to absolute originality when playing in someone else’s creation.”

    I agree with this, too, although I also sort of want to quibble with the concept of absolute originality. Where does absolute originality exist? Not in novels or short stories, forms that come with a great deal of baggage and a history of how to be interpreted. But I know what you mean, and I take your point.

    “More importantly, I as a reader don’t care about and don’t want someone else’s interpretation of my favorite works.”

    Well — and perhaps this is off-topic — this is one of my projects as a writer, I think, and I wouldn’t necessarily call it conservative. My writing is political (or at least, the pieces of it that I think of as being sort of central to my aesthetic) and often what I’m trying to do is write against a social narrative. I’m working with Coppelia right now, although that’s not the only element in my current project.

    Why do certain works catch in the imagination? What is Iphigenia at Aulis giving us so that it’s persisted for so long? What is Romeo and Juliet giving us? I think it’s just as possible to ask that question of Buffy the Vampire Slayer — which I note is not one of my favorite works — but probably much more difficult to yield a satisfying answer because the phenomenon is too recent, and also because of the limitations Sanford points out. For me, I think it’s possible and necessary to put these things through a political lens — feminist, marxist, anarchist, whatever. At heart, Romeo and Juliet / Pyramus and Thisbe is disturbing, not romantic. At core Buffy is, what? I don’t know, and I actually doubt that Buffy will have the kind of longevity that would make it interesting to me, but I could be easily wrong.

    I’m not interested primarily in reinterpreting texts as such, but I am interested in dissecting cultural response to them. This feels to me like a politically progressive project, not a conservative one. It can be literarily progressive or experimental, too, I think — I’m thinking of something like Zimmerman’s Metamorphosis.

    To what extent this relates to fan fiction, I’m not sure. I did write fan fiction when I was in high school (Star Trek fan fiction, and I fear that alas some of it persists on the internet), but I never felt like I was… I don’t know. It always felt very different from the kind of fiction that was salable or that I do now. It was writing “in the style of,” even when I was trying to figure out how to challenge the universe with the kinds of phenomena that Star Trek’s progressive vision erases.

    For the kind of thing I’m interested in, it doesn’t matter whether I like the original text or not. I’m not even sure how to approach that question for something like Coppelia. Do I like Coppelia as a ballet? Or, I don’t know, Red Riding Hood as a story? What does it mean to like an archetype? Whereas it seems to me that fan fiction or tie in novels, there has to be some kind of love for the original text.

    It’s interesting to put this conversation in tension with the one that happened on the subject of tie-in novels.

  25. Dylan Fox says

    What you said, Rachel, made me think about how people use texts. Classic texts like Romeo and Juliet are reinvented for each generation, and the way they are reinvented tells us an awful lot about the society they are reinvented for. Just look, for example, at the alterations to King Lear over the years. Frankenstein, of course, is another classic example. It’s been reinvented to personify fears of social chaos, fears of unprincipled scientific experimentation, to look at the creation of a monster, to question the idea of women’s role in society…

    Fan-fic inevitably reflects the hopes, dreams and fears of the author. Captain Picard’s greatest enemy was the Borg, the fear of losing one’s personal identity in service to an unfeeling collective. Post 9/11, I’m sure there was a great many fan-fics pitting him against the Marque. Or even fan-fic exploring his role in the Dominion war, dealing with the threat of the Founders. I grew up with TNG and watching the characters deal with their lives helped me to deal with mine. I still write to understand the world I live in. In retrospect, it seems odd that I created my own worlds and characters rather than writing about the ones I was already using. Maybe that’s down to my ego, my desire to add something new and original to the world.

    Established properties are ‘safe’ for the people putting up the money. And there’s always going to be people who want to use those properties to explore themselves and the world we all live in. Tying something into an established universe can be fun and incredibly challenging. I wrote a series of Doctor Who stories that slotted in between seasons. I went in thinking it would be easy. But doing what I wanted to do with the stories while at the same time maintaining the established world and characters was very, very hard and taught me an awful lot about narrative voice, character, and how to tell a story.

    I think there’s always going to be people like me who have the desire to create, ‘something greater’. Who want to be the genesis of something. There’s always going to be people who crave the raw creative product–with the danger of it being crap or even offensive–over the more refined and ‘safe’ option of a brand. A lot of the time, they’re going to be the same people. And I think they’re always going to be in a minority. The most popular shows on TV are soaps and the highest grossing films are franchises, after all.

  26. says

    For some authors, I think it would be highly recommended if someone would step in and write a few of their books. Heck, any authors who would like to step into my shoes and finish my half-written stories are more than welcome to do so. :)

  27. says

    I think “absolute originality” is a myth. Art doesn’t happen in a vacuum – we’re all working from the ideas we’ve taken in from other work, reprocessing them and integrating them into our own visions.

    And sure, it’s easier to work within an already-created framework – I don’t really see as that should have any bearing on the worth of the product, though. Is Grendel a lesser work because John Gardner was working off of Beowulf? Was John Gardner just being lazy for not going out and creating his own world and characters?

    (And this is all aside from the fact that most fanfic isn’t created to be art in the first place – most of it is play, for fun, to spend more time with the characters and world that you love. Calling that lazy or lacking in originality misses the point entirely. The element of play and make-believe is, I think, important not just to writers but to humanity in general.)

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