Amazon’s announcement that it has begun offering opportunities to riff off of the work of Kurt Vonnegut on its fan fiction licensing site, Kindle Worlds, has caused a stir. Rightly so. Amazon is The Man and Vonnegut tilted against The Man, as all great artists do.
I thought the blogger Matt Kahn did an excellent job of explaining why Vonnegut must be rolling in his grave. Noting that one of Amazon’s rules for the fan fic marketplace is “We don’t accept offensive content,” etc., Kahn writes, “Pretty much anything the man ever wrote would be prohibited under these rules.” It’s worth quoting his explication extensively:
This is a man who has a story called “The Big Space Fuck.” Breakfast of Champions has a drawing of an asshole on page five. From God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater: “Now Eliot came out of the lavatory, all naked and hairy, drying himself with a tea towel… Eliot now began to play unconsciously with his pubic hair. It was nothing extravagant. He would simply uncoil a tight spring of it, let it snap back into place.”
Vonnegut’s books have been burned because people have found the content offensive! His novels frequently end with the protagonist committing suicide! He routinely draws assholes in his books! And what counts as offensive content? He writes about World War 2. One of his novel’s main characters is a Nazi propagandist. Try that without risking offending anybody.
Of course, those who control Vonnegut’s estate weren’t concerned about artistic or intellectual consistency. They’re after the money, and — at least at the moment — there is a perception that there’s lots of money in fan fiction. Just look at the $95 million that Fifty Shades of Gray, which began life on a Stephenie Meyer fan fiction site, has reportedly earned.
Other authors, notably Hugh Howey, have encouraged fan fiction based upon their own work, perhaps under the banner “If You Can’t Beat ‘Em, Join ‘Em” or perhaps because they see this as a way to build audience under a kind of “freemium” model. After all, fan fiction is in essence the uncompensated appropriation of an author’s hard work — uncompensated, that is, until Kindle Worlds came along.
Yet, even if the original creator has gained financial purchase in this slippery marketplace of ersatz product, there remains something deeply unsettling to me about the idea of a writer expropriating the fictional world and characters of another. The hard work, after all, lay in the creation of those worlds and characters. Original fiction toils in the broiling sun. Fan fiction luxuriates in the shade.
I think art has an obligation to aspire toward originality. The fact that it’s hard to achieve complete originality — that each of us stands on the shoulders of giants — doesn’t diminish the rightness of this goal. It’s one thing for your writing style to kind of sound like that of Dashiell Hammett and quite another to use Sam Spade as if he were your own creation. And let’s not forget that to write a character is to create him; there’s no separating the two acts.
Once in a while, of course, a character becomes so ingrained in the culture that we all have a kind of moral right to him or her. Think Frankenstein, Hamlet or Emma Bovary. When an artist’s creation transcends ownership, by all means we can indulge in intellectual exploitation. But commercial exploitation is not that. It’s just a grab for easy bucks.
This summer my family and I had the privilege of visiting the legendary racehorse farm in Lexington, Kentucky called Claiborne. Some of the greatest horses that ever took a turn around the track were sired and raised there, and more than a few returned there to be buried. We took a picture at the grave of Secretariat, who was arguably the greatest racehorse in history. Secretariat was put to stud at this impressive farm by some of the finest professionals in the business. He sired more than 650 horses, but none came close to replicating his success. As a writer at Horse Racing Fantasy notes:
After he was retired at the end of that magical 1973 racing season to stud at Claiborne Farm, Secretariat was expected to set the world on fire as a stallion. Because of his amazing talent on the track, expectations were impossibly high for him to reproduce a horse that could do exactly what he did on the track. The problem was, of course, that Secretariat was unique, like all the greatest champions always are.
In brief, Secretariat was sacred, untouchable, irreproducible. The same can be said for all true artists and their art, I think, even the “non-greats.” The work springs from the mind of a single person, and by its very nature that makes it unique.
In his preface to Breakfast of Champions, Kurt Vonnegut supports Kahn’s argument in favor of the author’s irreverence. “I am programmed at fifty to perform childishly — to insult ‘The Star-Spangled Banner,’ to scrawl pictures of a Nazi flag and an asshole and a lot of other things with a felt-tipped pen.”
In that same preface he also wrote: “What do I think of this particular book? I feel lousy about it, but I always feel lousy about my books.”
Not as lousy, I suspect, as he’ll feel in a couple of years, looking down from on high as the literary rabble exploits his characters for little more than commercial gain.