Red Pens and Retcons: Changing Readers’ Experiences

There are so many things I want to talk about, and they all revolve around the question of ownership of stories and the idea of author/reader interaction. When a story has entered popular culture, how much right does the author have to do exactly what they want with the characters they created, and how much should they listen to their audience’s desires? Or even their editor’s desires?

As you’re all presumably avid readers, I don’t have to tell you that readers tend to develop intense relationships with stories. We attend conventions and visit online forums where we meet up with other fans, discuss our “headcanons”—personal beliefs about story elements that aren’t fully discussed in the canonical works—and share our fan art and fan fiction. And the voices of the fans are heard, increasingly so, as authors reach out to their audience through social media. Heck, Jim Butcher has a group of “beta readers” who give feedback on his work as he finishes new chapters.

This author/audience interaction is a tradition in literature dating back to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, at least; Doyle was sick of writing about his great detective and killed him off, but Holmes’s fans (and doubtless pressure from The Strand on behalf of their readers and their pocketbooks) forced Doyle to give Sherlock a miraculous escape from his fight on the edge of the Reichenbach Falls. In the meantime, and ever since, fans wrote their own Sherlock Holmes adventures; even Neil Gaiman has a Sherlock Holmes story, in his customary strange and wonderful style. Obviously, the author/audience relationship is extremely important, and there are a vast number of factors influencing the relationship.

But how important are the audience’s needs compared to other demands on the author’s time? George R. R. Martin best exemplifies this particular problem: his books have been adapted by HBO into a wildly popular series that is now continuing beyond its source material. Martin’s responsibilities not only include writing the sixth novel in A Song of Ice and Fire, but they also include consulting with the HBO series and running the newly refurbished Jean Cocteau theatre in Santa Fe, New Mexico. As frustrating as it is to wait five or more years between novels, there’s really nothing the fans can do but sit back and wait.

In some cases, there’s so little attention paid to the readers’ desires that entire sections of the canon are simply retconned out of existence. In the Star Wars Universe, Disney recently changed the existing literary canon—the Expanded Universe—diminishing thirty-odd years of stories to “legend” status. This allows the new films, TV shows, and books room to play, but not without a good deal of grumbling from fans. The newly-redubbed “Star Wars Legends” stories might serve as inspiration for the new Expanded Universe, and their non-canonical status hasn’t stopped them from fueling a lot of fan theories about the new films. Just google around for theories on Supreme Leader Snoke’s identity for some examples.

On the other side of that coin, there are some big name authors creating the literary equivalent of director’s cut films—”author’s preferred text”—expanding the reader’s experience by adding back in some pieces of the text they wish hadn’t gone under the red pen. Neil Gaiman created an author’s preferred text of American Gods, which is twelve thousand words longer but with an essentially unchanged storyline, and Stephen King has an extended version of his novel The Stand. Similarly, J. K. Rowling continues to expand her beloved magical world through the online game Pottermore, stories like Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, and the upcoming film Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. More on that here.

Author’s preferred texts are an interesting study in the question of editorial license. Taken to the furthest extreme, this conundrum gives us works such as Raymond Carver’s A Small, Good Thing. I highly recommend you look it up and read first Carver’s version, then Gordon Lish’s edit, retitled The Bath. Lish’s edit was the first published version of the story; Carver’s unedited version was published three years later. While Carver might never have become so successful without Lish’s guidance, the editor’s heavy hand is painfully evident.

So what do you think? How much right does the audience have to the story once it’s out in the world? Have you seen any particularly fantastic (or horrible) author/reader interactions? Read any good fan fiction lately?

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