The Limitations of Tie-In Fiction

A year ago, I wrote up something about the perceptions of tie-In fiction and how it compared to other, more original stories. Author Karen Traviss came up at one point, because she has remained a staunch supporter of tie-in fiction as a sort of professional writing, on the same level as other, more original stories. I’ve never really come down on either side as to whether tie-in fiction is better or worse than other ones, but Traviss’s recent announcement that she was pulling out of the Star Wars universe came with a bit of interest from me.

Karen’s approach to tie-in fiction is one that I think needs to be emulated by other writers. There is a reason why this sort of genre is looked down upon, I suspect, because authors essentially work from a script, and do little beyond transcribe the script and a couple more details. In contrast, Karen seems to get the stories, and really makes them into a worthwhile book while she’s doing it – Matthew Stover has done much the same thing with his own books, as well as a couple other authors who have dabbled in the Star Wars universe for their various tie-in books. The Star Wars editors and LFL have a pretty good grasp of their universe, which ultimately helps things.

Because of this, and because of Karen’s article, Sprinting the Marathon, I’m honestly a little surprised that she decided to pull out. Though out this essay, she stresses the importance for authors working in the tie-in field to be creative, and just how this field quite literally forces one to be far more creative than other avenues of the literary world – working within a tie-in universe has many constraints, and especially something with Star Wars, the challenges in putting together a book are far more frequent.

In a recent blog entry on her website, Traviss announced that she was going to be moving on from the Star Wars universe. The reasons that she listed are mainly that the established story lines that she’s put into place over the past couple of books, and with the new Clone Wars series, there will be conflicts with the higher up canon within the universe. While I’m happy that she isn’t going to be changing over a couple of the story lines and screwing things up more for the literature people to argue about, I’m a little annoyed that she’s throwing in the towel, because she’s one of the better writers to have come to the Star Wars universe in a while.

I have to wonder if there’s more at play here. Traviss is clearly aware of the limitations that are placed upon her as a writer, and that the story lines that she comes up with – original within the universe it might be – but essentially, they’re hers to come up with, not to totally own. Therein lies the big difference, I think, between tie-in fiction and an author’s original story: ownership. There are limitations to what you can do with a story that you don’t own, even if you’re given relatively free rein, because the higher ups at LFL can do pretty much whatever they want in the universe, no matter how it tramples on other stories. This was a big issue that a lot of the books and authors had to dance around prior to the prequel trilogy. Authors who got it wrong, got it wrong, and these are bits of the books that fans will endlessly argue over.

When it comes to tie-in fiction, and the ownership distinction, I’m a little baffled at this sort of distinction – if it is just ownership that separates the two (I think that it is), at least on an academic level, why is it that people take such notice and relegate the significance? I think the answer there lies in precisely why I think that Karen’s books are a step above, say someone like Max Allen Collins or Keith R.A. DeCandido – the writing style, attention to the story and the focus on the story over a mere paycheck is the deciding factor (Not to say that these guys only write for the money). Traviss’s books are different because there is the attempt to make these books a real reading experience, while other times, I get the impression that other authors don’t care nearly as much, and essentially are just trying to pay the bills. Whether this is intentional or not, I don’t know, but as a reader, I appreciate being able to read a story that is more than the screenplay. If I wanted that, I would just go see the film.

Really, the ownership issue is a really minor one – it all comes down to the one thing that I continue to gripe about, and that’s the story, story, story. The reason why tie-in fiction is disliked and looked down upon is the long bibliography of less than stellar, and if Karen’s example is anything to go by, the number of restrictions and lack of ownership tend to put off other authors who might otherwise write for a franchise. I find that second part a little more sobering than the first, because with more authors willing to write tie-in fiction, the genre as a whole would improve quite a bit.

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