Monday, July 10, 2006

Lou vs. the Media Tie-In

I just got my contributor's copies today to BenBella's Star Wars on Trial, the latest in their "Smart Pop" series, and it's given me an excuse to address something that's been worrying at me for a bit.

I'm quite fond of BenBella's Smart Pop books, and quite honored to have been asked to contribute to four of them, their The Man From Krypton, Star Wars on Trial, the forthcoming So Say We All (about Battlestar Galactica), and an upcoming Spider-Man title. I enjoy writing these essays, and I hope to write many more. I also think that Star Wars on Trial is a very good book, possibly one of the most fun books they've put together so far.

So why the worry? The nature of the book is that writers are split into "witnesses" for the defense or the prosecution, themselves represented by Matthew Stover and David Brin. The book is divided into eight sections, looking at the politics of Star Wars, its portrayal of women, its lack of real science, its impact on the field, etc... The back and forth effectively encapsulates the heated emotion all Star Wars debates stir up and has all the juicy fun of a good flame war.

Now, I've got a lot to say about Star Wars, pro and con, a lot of which can be summed up with a not-uncommon deep affection for the original trilogy and an utter disgust with the new one (though I'm less thrilled with Return and quite enjoyed Revenge). And I've got a lot of real problems with some of Lucas' choices in the latter films - something I share with, oh, most of the English speakng world. But the topic I drew was the media tie-in and whether it was good or bad for the genre.

Probably because my head was up my butt and I wasn't paying attention, I didn't quite grok the us vs. them nature of the book and what I set out to write was a much more balanced look at the issue, an attempt to ask the question "are media tie-ins harmful?," rather than answer it outright. To that end, I included quotes from a number of different writers in the field. Realizing into the process that I was supposed to be more emphaticly one-sided in my opinion, my essay was steered towards a more forceful attack on the media tie-in (and even paired back eventually from what you see in print). Now, when I say "steered" I am not saying editorial involvement from above altered my words. I altered them to give BenBella more of what they were looking for and what I had agreed to do. But the result is that I feel I have taken (or will seem to have taken) a strong Lou vs. Media stance that is not entirely how I feel.

Lest you think I'm backtracking, I am not wild about media tie-ins. I don't believe they draw readers into the rest of the field, nor appreciably affect the number of readers a writer gets for his non-media tie-in work. My own sense from working in media as a journalist is that readers of media tie-in works are there for the media, not the writer. There are superstars of the tie-in (R.A. Salvatore for Forgotten Realms of course), but these are different readerships and I don't think if all the Star Wars books disappeared tomorrow that those readers would rush out and pour their dollars into purchases of Accelerando or Starship:Mutiny. And maybe this doesn't matter.

I've bought the occassional Doctor Who book in the past, don't fault my friend Sean Williams for his successful Star Wars trilogy, and am happy for Chris Roberson's upcoming X-Men novel (the cover of which, by John Picacio, will undoubtably blow us all away). I don't fault anyone for writing or reading a media tie-in. Sure, I wish we lived in a world where the cinema of science fiction more closely resembled its literature and where popularity followed quality more closely than it does. Yes, I am aware that there are books of quality written as media tie-ins, and, ironically, I suspect that a lot of Star Wars novels are better than Star Wars itself.

And I think that railing against Star Wars is raging into a wind.

But a few months ago, I gave a young man who only reads Forgotten Realms novels a copy of Sean Williams' fantasy, The Crooked Letter. The next time I saw him, he said he finished the book in a rush, that he couldn't put it down, and that it was "the smartest fantasy he ever read." He said that he "didn't know that fantasy could be this good," and that he was telling all his friends about it and was anxious for the next book in the series.

As I try to say in my essay, I don't object that the media tie-in exists, but that it is so often conflated in the minds of the general public with the rest of the science fiction and fantasy genre. I do not fault you if you read them or write them, and perhaps you write them well, but for my part, it is the rest of the genre that I will strive to proselytize and uphold. Star Wars, after all, doesn't need my help, but there is a lot of smart pop out there which does.

18 comments:

Sean Williams said...

Thanks for the kind words, Lou. I'm a living, breathing example of someone who entered the field courtesy of media tie-ins (Doctor Who, Star Wars, Blakes 7, even Space: 1999) so I will always hesitate before damning them. If they bring one more new reader, like me, there's no harm done. And I'm absolutely positive that they never took anyone away from the "real" stuff, either readers or writers. Like the movies they are often based on (which I find a lot more problematic, since in most people's minds they represent SF, as if a lower standard of thought applies for movies than books) they are sometimes money-spinners that allow poor-selling, cutting-edge works to be published. And that's definitely a good thing.

I'm going to order a copy of _Star Wars on Trial_ right now. It sounds like a hoot.

RobB said...

I also made my way into the genre through tie-ins - DragonLance, as well as Stephen King when I was in Middle School.

Lou Anders said...

Hey, again, I read Doctor Who books in the mid 90s, when I was working as a journalist covering SF TV in Hollywood. I don't damn them, and I applaud those who when they write them strive to push the form. But "when I was a child I spake as a child" and all that, and, as I say, Star Wars doesn't need my help...

A.R.Yngve said...

I'm trying to recall the media tie-ins of my childhood... but as far as I can recall, they were almost exclusively comics (such as Star Wars and videogames (such as Indiana Jones).

When it came to books, I read original fiction. (Then again, media tie-in books were rare in 1970s Scandinavia...)

Aaron Hughes said...

I read Star Trek ties as a kid before moving on to serious SF. The best thing about media tie-ins is that they are accessible to young readers who may not be quite ready for Charles Stross or Iain Banks. With the young adult market now firmly oriented toward fantasy, and with Robert Heinlein and Andre Norton juveniles out of date, media ties are one of the few options left to transition young readers to SF/F. At least, I hope that's the case -- my son has this big stack of Star Wars books in his room, ya see.

Neth said...

Everyone seems to agree that an important quality to media tie-ins is that they are the gateway drugs of SF.

While I had read others, the Star Wars books were certainly a gateway drug for me.

Lou Anders said...

Yes, this is interesting to me. I never read media tie-ins growing up, though my father read Splinter of the Mind's Eye when it came out. My introduction to SF was the Hall of Fame volumes that I found in my grandmother's basement. I read two Star Trek tie in's in the early 90s, (Spock's World & Sarek, and I read several Doctor Who books from the Virgin line. But that felt different, as the NEW ADVENTURES was often written by writers, producers, even actors from the show, and it was an effort to keep a property alive that the BBC had abandoned, to carry a torch not capitalize on a rabid fanbase for an existing, ongoing franchise. The one Star Wars novel(ization) I tried to read was unreadable, appaullingly so, but that sampling of one doesn't mean there aren't works of quality in the series.

Aaron does raise an issue we discussed at the Campbell conference last week, which is that the Heinlein's really are out of date now, or, if not, will rapidly be so soon. We need new middle reader and YA SF that can speak to a 21st century readership. If Star Wars is that for now, more power to it, though we need to produce an alternative!

Anonymous said...

Hi,

Although media tie-ins are a modern phenomenon, the practice of writting for hire is as old as literature, and has an established pedigree (see Anais Nin and Henri Miller writting erotica for a well off patron in the 30's Paris). After all you gotta live and writting even for hire is better than clerking in some office (or whatever...) I guess. So I would never condemn media tie-ins or anything else that allows a writer to pursue his/her dream.

Liviu

Lou Anders said...

Oh, I never fault a writer for making money through writing. If one media tie-in gives the breathing room to write your masterpiece, go for it.

Joel Shepherd said...

I got into SF and Fantasy first through The Hobbit, which my mother read to my brother when he was 8... the 5-year-old me wasn't expected to sit through it, but I was hooked. From there I don't think it ever occured to me that SF&F was an unusual genre, they were always the tales I liked best. A little older I got into good YA stuff -- Lloyd Alexander's 'Chronicles of Prydain' and Douglas Hill's 'Last Legionary' series stick in my mind. And from there into the adult stuff.

But then pre and early-teens, I did read some tie-ins, largely Robotech and Battletech (had a thing for giant fighting robots, I guess) a couple of which were good, most average, and a lot sucked. But I think I learned quite a bit about writing from reading that stuff, just in seeing how different writers would play with the same material, and some would screw it up completely, which would give me insights into why.

I think tie-ins illustrate a glum problem for SF writers in particular -- every other medium of SF expands outwards, TV and films jump over into books, video games become films, TV shows become films... but the pure literary form rarely becomes anything else. Unless it's by some bigshot like Philip K Dick. Every other medium invades our medium, but we don't invade their's. Has SF literature become that irrelevant to the other entertainment mediums? And how can we bridge the gap?

Lou Anders said...

Actually, I was surprised when I started looking into the sheer number of SF books that have been made into films. James Gunn included a list (which I helped him update) in my own nonfic anthology Projections and I was blown away by the number of SF books beyond PKD and 2001 that have been filmed. But I take your point. This disparity between cinema and literature is a serious concern of mine. Meanwhile, I worry about people like the reader I mentioned, who may never stray beyond the tie-in. The other thing I took from the Campbell conference is that it is the intervention of a LIVE HUMAN BEING that turned on ever dedicated SF&F reader.

Anonymous said...

Hi,

When I grew up in the 70's as a child and then 80's as a teen in communist Romania, we did not have much TV and very few "contemporary" SF (VanVogt, Asimov..), but we had Jules Verne, some uneven local and russian SF and the french and russians epics (Dumas, Rois Maudits, War and Peace...) and of course the classical myths and the Arabian Nights who are still some of the best fantasy ever, and that shaped my taste quite a lot. Today by and large the best SF&F are the current epics of the day since the so called literature mostly degenerated into postmodern crap about nothing particularly.
My son is 4 and 1/4 and I started reading/telling him the myths, a little bit of the Arabian Nights and Jules Verne and he really likes it so I hope he will like sf&f too.

Liviu

Lou Anders said...

Yes, if we could only get Americans to grow up outside America I suspect the general literacy would improve.

Ryk E. Spoor said...

Media tie-ins can be great or they can be terrible, pretty much like any other writing. I think that because it HAS become a common industry method of making money from a franchise (as opposed to what it was when I was younger, a very minor sideline) that there are those who treat it as a turn-the-crank rather than a major creative opportunity. This isn't helped by some franchises which strongly limit the options of authors writing for the franchise.

I'm not sure I'd consider them at all a replacement or substitute for the Heinlein Juveniles. One could argue perhaps that as they tend to be accessible books to young people who will start out interested in that subject, that they could serve as a sort of "gateway drug" to other SF/F, but I'd have to see a lot of statistics to see if there really was such an effect. I read plenty of tie-ins as I grew up, but I started reading "real" SF/F long, long before that -- by the time I was 8 or so I was reading my dad's Heinlein, Asimov, etc. books. I read all the Star Trek books that came out in the early years, but I interspersed them with other "regular" fiction.

RAH's juveniles and much of the similar material of the era from the 40s through early 60s was a kind of fiction that's become quite rare today; relatively straightforward adventure with more thought and problem-solving involved in dealing with the obstacles confronted by the protagonist rather than using super-magic or big weapons. (Eric Flint and I have tried to replicate some of that with Boundary; I hope we have succeeded to some extent)

I like some media tie-ins greatly; Timothy Zahn's Thrawn trilogy was a LOT of fun, for example. There are certainly dire tie-ins too (a novel called "Devil World" from the 80s-90s Star Trek franchise comes to mind), but I doubt that the proportion's much worse than in regular fiction.

The only actual gripe I've ever had over media fiction really wasn't over the fiction per se; it was over a couple of authors who essentially wrote nothing BUT media tie-ins, yet spent considerable time talking about the evils of fanfiction. This had such a venomous sense of dark irony about it that it caused my head to hurt.

Insofar as Star Wars itself, I think it's responsible for making it possible to find SF/F in the actual mainstream. I literally used to get beat up in school over what I read. Nowadays, my son runs D&D games during lunchtime at his school, and some of the teachers are fans. The change was due almost totally to Star Wars, in my opinion; looking back, the dividing line is almost as sharp as a knife-edge.

Tim Akers said...

I have a number of friends in the gaming community who exclusively read media tie-ins, and no amount of urging on my part will ever change that. They are simply a fan of the *thing*, be it Battletech or Buffy or M:tG or whatever, and they read the books because it is an expansion of the universe of the *thing*. Simply another outlet of their obsession. And that's really why media tie-ins get made, I think. You have an audience, a die hard customer base who will put down the cash regardless of the quality. It's an undeniable market force. If the authors of media tie-ins had to compete in the general market, if they didn't have so many guaranteed sales, then I think you'd see an increase in the quality of the work.

What's important about media tie-ins, and has already been mentioned, is that they serve as a gateway. The kid who plays Halo, downloads the Halo wallpaper, hangs out on Halo message boards, laughs at the Halo-themed webcomics, goes to the bookstore and buys the Halo books. And maybe he reads them all, so he picks up Starship Troopers, or Armor, or whatever. Maybe that leads to something more. Beats me. But my tastes were pretty uncomplicated when I was a kid. If I hadn't started out in Bolo and Berserker, maybe I never would have gotten to Neuromancer and from there to wherever we are today.

A.R.Yngve said...

Surely not all SF-related media tie-in books are written for the "diehards"?
:-S

Tim Akers said...

I think at that point I'm talking about all media tie-in, uh, media. Videogames, for example. A spiderman videogame, regardless of quality of content, will sell X copies. X tends to be a very high number when you're attaching to a successful brand. It's just marketing.

And I think the same applies to media tie-in books. It's not true in all cases (I say, since I haven't done an indepth study of this, and I don't want to make any broad statements) but these things sell to a specific audience, and that audience will buy it because of how it's branded, rather than how it's written. The readers of the literature will, after time, develop favorite authors and such, and people do develop a name in that splinter industry. But what brought the reader to the book was not the author, or the story, but the trademark.

Lou Anders said...

When I worked in journalism for UK magazine publisher Titan Books, whose specialty was in high quality tie-in magazines (Star Trek Monthly, Star Wars Monthly, etc...), they were constantly considering moving into a general interest SF magazine. Eventually - after I left - they did so with the purchase of Dreamwatch, but what had caused their hesitancy was this: A tie-in magazine like Star Trek has a predictable number of guaranteed sales every issue, because anything with "Star Trek" written on it will ALWAYS sell to a die-hard core that buys regardless of quality. A general monthly's sales figures vary from month to month, depending on who is on the cover. That was why, a few years ago, Sarah Michelle Gellar was on every single issue of every general SF mag. So yes, there IS a non-descriminating core audience backing the appeal of the media tie-in.