Friday, May 11, 2012

Fanfiction And (Not Vs.) The Hexslinger Series

Four days to go! So here's a new essay on a complex topic, one which hopefully won't draw too many trolls. I guess we'll see.

A new piece from Alyssa Rosenberg, here (, got me thinking about the role of fanfiction in the Hexslinger Series' development. Or actually, more accurately, it was the juxtaposition of this article—just one more in roughly a million ruminations on the potential impact of 50 Shades of Grey and its success—and the fact that while I was searching under the tag-term “hexslinger” on Tumblr, I cam across this (

In case you're wondering (or are too chicken to click), it's a screen-grab from the “Making Of” feature on James Mangold's 3:10 to Yuma remake which highlights the part of Charlie Prince (Ben Foster)'s outfit you almost never get to see, ie the lavender shirt, royal purple brocaded waistcoat, purple, gold and lavender-patterned neckerchief, plus a nice watch and chain—probably the one he took from that dead Pinkerton after the stagecoach robbery—and some sort of double-strand necklace of silver and little jet beads that sort of looks like somebody's stolen rosary put to bad usage. Underneath it, the poster ( has written: “CHEEESSSS PAAARRRRGETERRRR.”

Which is hilarious on the face of it, and beautifully apt, and generally makes my heart soar with squee, just like the couple or so times I've run across Hexslinger series fan-art, or every time I Google my name and get somebody raving about how much they like the story/Chess in particular. That frilly little sociopath really seems to have connected with a lot of people, which makes me vey happy indeed. But it does open up an interesting line of inquiry, one which never really goes away.

When A Book of Tongues was first going to press, I had to make a quick tactical decision about whether or not I would publicly “own up” to A) having written fanfiction in the past, B) still writing it now and then and C) the fact that if I'd never become obsessed enough with 3:10 to Yuma to write fanfiction for it, the Hexslinger Series probably wouldn't exist. In fact, it goes even deeper than that, because when I first started work on the novel, I was integrating a bunch of magic-system notes I'd previously made for a series which would have taken place in 1870s New York, a la my then-obsession du jour, Martin Scorsese's Gangs of New York. So there would always have been a fanfiction-based influence on the series no matter what, because frankly, that's the way my magpie mind tends to operate: I find something I like, I fixate on it, figure out what the draw is, boil it down for parts and start over, effing with it until it's hopefully not that thing anymore, not really.

So the decision was easy, in a way. As I told Torontoist, in one of my first interviews on A Book...: “I’ve never made any attempt to conceal that the originating template for Chess Pargeter was definitely Ben Foster’s performance as Charlie Prince, Ben Wade (Russell Crowe)’s ambiguously gay sidekick. But as I went further, Chess started to change, along with the narrative—I mean, just making him aware of his own motivations makes him very much not Charlie…”

In other words, I've never seen much point in lying about this process, not least because I've always been quote-quote “stupid” enough to post my fanfiction under my own name rather than making up a pseud, like everybody else and their sister. I mean, the most rudimentary Internet search turns up an archive a friend constructed for me as...third on the list, I think. As secrets go, it's not exactly a closed one, though since my interests tend to be pretty non-mainstream—I think the most juggernaut fandom I've ever written for was X-Men: The Movie, and that was only twice—I tend to get a flattering mixture of small yet extremely positive response. In retrospect, I've been told that I was apparently a “BNF” of HBO's OZ fandom, for example, and while I don't quite remember it the same way, I certainly had a hell of a lot of fun while I was in it.

Possibly, it's the fact that I was already a published author—making my living from nonfiction, placing short fiction in various venues, seeing my stories adapted for TV by Telescene's The Hunger—when I first started posting fanfiction and interacting with Internet fandom which keeps me from completely coming down on either part of the amateur/professional divide that you constantly observe at work in articles like Rosenberg's. The notion that fanfiction is a phase you outgrown or a place to practice your craft until you're ready to “graduate” to the heady heights of paying work is one which some people believe devoutly, while other people find it reductionist and insulting. Why should somebody like Joss Whedon be more respected than I am, they ask, just because he played with the Powers That Be's toys under contract, in their sandbox, and made the exploitative hegemony which keeps information unfree $200 million dollars over a single weekend doing it? Aren't I doing exactly the same thing, in far less tethered ways, and then making the result available to anybody with an Internet connection?

And then there are the authors who believe that fanfiction is injuring them somehow—either personally, by violating the characters and worlds they consider their “children” (ick), or simply by devaluing their brand and/or opening them up to potential legal action. (Which works both ways, of course; fanartists everywhere still live in vague fear of a Cease and Desist order from any given iteration of “...the TV show I cannot name, for fear of legal action...”, as the writer-director of William Shatner Leant Me His Hairpiece puts it, and rightly so; copyright can be a harsh mistress, at least in theory. Though there are plenty of acafen and fen with genuine legal experience around who can spend literal hours demonstrating the many ways in which “transformative work” not only hearkens back to a long line of historical precedents—Shakespeare, mythology, satire, homage, etc., from The Wind Done Gone to March—but also falls into cracks which make it remarkably difficult to do anything about, even when money actually does start changing hands.)

My position is personal rather than philosophical, however; I don't believe moral force automatically rests with either side, generators or samplers, not least because the balance of who exactly qualifies as what tends to shift back and forth so erratically. We're all creators, after all. But I also grew up in a freelance culture (both my parents are actors whose ability to make a living “from their art” has ebbed and flowed with the currents of two extremely volatile forty-year periods), so the idea that wanting to get paid for what you produce makes you some sort of whore for The Man is one I will never be exactly down with. There has to be some way to reduce the polarization effect, if only so we can go five minutes without somehow damaging each other's ego-integrity.

What I do know is that without fanfiction as an outlet, a form of writing I didn't feel I needed to monetarize, I wouldn't have been able to explore some of the currents which lead me, eventually, to where I am now. I wouldn't have eventually become familiar and comfortable with the idea of writing a long-form narrative in chunks, of not constantly checking and re-tooling things until they were “perfect”, of simple having the confidence to write End Chapter Whatever/Begin Chapter Next, and move the eff on. So my involvement in fanfiction was utterly integral to my process, in terms of bringing the Hexslinger Series to birth—and in a lot of ways, it remains integral to my process: Obsession, inspiration, alchemical combination, numbers-filing, brave new content, ta dah! Something fresh, something alive. Something “mine”.

And as should probably go without saying, I look totally forward to the day I trip across evidence of someone playing in my sandbox, for a change. I may not be able to acknowledge it directly, but that's what Creative Commons is for, man—it's flattery, not damage. It means, essentially, that somebody fell in love—however indirectly—with “me”. How can that ever be bad?   


  1. Hey! That's my Tumblr! Haha. I'm so thrilled, not just by the fact that you're so connected with the people who read and love your work, but by this entire entry. It's so wonderful to see an author accepting of fan fiction and taking it as a compliment, rather than some weird offense to their characters.

    1. Hey back!

      Sorry it took a while for me to respond, but I don't get direct notification of comments from this blog. At any rate: No problem, glad you liked the essay, and your post remains a huge source of smiles for me. Guess I should probably follow you, huh?;)

  2. Howdy! Just came here after reading "A Book of Tongues," being blown away by it, and being like, "Who is this Gemma Files person and where has she been all my life?? GOOGLE!"

    I'm not surprised to learn that you write fanfic, although that didn't jump out at me while I was reading it. (Which means you're winning!) I know someone on Amazon accused it, and the sex scenes in particular, of "sounding like fanfic," but I think the only thing it has in common with fanfic is not being afraid to give gay relationships the screen time, the detail, and the attention that people take for granted in fictional straight relationships. I think a lot of writers are tempted to play it down in deference to what they perceive as their audience's sensibilities, wondering, Is anyone going to be interested in a gay relationship? Are they going to want to read about two men having sex?

    Well, if you've ever read or written fanfic, you know that the answer is "Fuck yes." And those are the people I'd rather have as my fans anyway, because you can tone down the gay and the mainstream will tolerate your book, or you can write it loud and proud and the fanfic-reading minority will LOVE THE HELL OUT OF YOUR BOOK.

    Sex scenes in fanfic (and I say this as someone who's read a lot of it) tend to be pretty much removable. It's like, STOP! ::blow the whistle:: EVERYBODY STOP THE ACTION, IT'S TIME FOR A SEX SCENE! Cue five pages of smut, then resume the story. That is most definitely not the case in your book, because the sex is extremely well-integrated and consistently doing double-duty for character development too. So yeah, not like fanfiction, and I suspect anyone who says otherwise was just thrown by how explicit it is. (Which is no more than straight romances ever are, but go figure, double standards.)

    So anyway, thank you so much for writing this book. There are precious few books that do everything I want them to do, and even fewer that do them gay. If ever we're at the same con, I want to buy you a drink. The end.

    (Oh yeah, and I wrote you up a very enthusiastic review on my site: Although, awkward, I apologize in advance for my criticism. >_<)