Repeating Myself For the Benefit of the Home Crowd
Over at Metafilter, they’re talking about media tie-in science fiction, bouncing off Vonda McIntyre’s blog post on the subject of writing Star Trek novels. The comments are fairly balanced between snarking on the people who read and write tie-ins and the people who are saying “hey now, it’s not bad stuff,” and so I thought I’d drop my own comment on the matter, which I’m reposting below for you folks. If you have a Metafilter account, you can comment there; if you don’t have one, well, why not comment here.
With very few exceptions, media tie-in SF outsells original SF, often by a significant amount. Now, we can argue about why this is and whether this is a good thing for the genre or not, but at the end of the day, it’s a fact and it’s something authors give serious consideration to, in terms of its value to their overall career.
Let me put it this way: If someone came up to you and said “I’d like you to write a book for me that’s guaranteed to be in every single bookstore in the nation and all but guaranteed to land on the New York Times bestseller list, thus allowing you to put ‘New York Times Bestselling Author’ on every single one of your books from here on out and I’ll pay you an advance worth more than you usually get for any three books you’ve written up to this point, and words get you to put into Yoda’s mouth, and you know you’ve always wanted to do that,” would you not give this person some serious consideration?
Maybe you say you wouldn’t, but, you know, that’s easy to say when you’re not an actual full-time SF writer, looking down the barrel of a mortgage (or rent, or kids’ doctors visits, or whatever) while working in a genre where seven cents a word is considered a decent wage. It’s exceptionally difficult to make any money at all writing fiction, much less science fiction, and even in the golden days of science fiction, most SF writers — even the famous ones — did something else to make money (or starved). Ask SFWA Grand Master and multiple Hugo winner Robert Silverberg about his soft-core porn writing days, for example, after the SF market collapsed in the late 50s/early 60s. I’m not aware of him having any shame about it — work is work.
Another thought to consider is that this snobbery against tie-in work is specific to medium. If I told people I was writing a script for Battlestar Galactica, I would get congratulations up and down the block; if I said I was writing a BSG tie-in novel, people would wonder why I was lowering myself. And yet the novel is by a substantial margin the longer and more complex work and in both cases one has to abide the rules of someone else’s universe. The assumption that tie-in novels are all hackwork is just that, an assumption; I challenge anyone to read a Karen Traviss or Matt Stover-penned Star Wars novel and say that they were not better works, in terms of story, character development, and audience involvement, than any of the prequel films. Yes, this is a low bar. But if you were to switch it around and say that any new Star Wars film had to clear the bar established by Traviss or Stover, I’ll you what: The next Star Wars film would fucking rock.
I don’t write tie-in SF for my own reasons, but it’s not to say I wouldn’t if the right project came along. I have quite a number of friends who do or have written tie-ins, and you know what, when all is said and done they’re generally getting paid well to do work they love in universes they’re fans of, for audiences who well appreciate their efforts. Maybe some people want to crap all over that and call them hacks. I heartily raise a middle finger at them.