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Writing

Cursive Letters: dead men tell no tales

I am at that stage in my writing where I am keen to try my hand at a contemporary  ‘tribute’ piece of short fiction based on a famous story. I have seen this done before and some Chekhov or Henry Lawson tribute pieces are as well known as the original source of inspiration. So my question is what should I feel my parameters are for borrowing characters or plot devices for stories that are well known and over one hundred years old? What I am free to take, carve and twist as my own and how do I not feel like I am just stealing from a master?

I imagine all writers who try this want the same effect – for the source of inspiration to be instantly recognisable but for the work to be unique and stand alone as their own.

Struggling Short Story Writer.

 

Dear SSSW,

If you are looking for clear lines between adaptation, homage and plagiarism, there aren’t any. The three approaches overlap, on the page at least. Some writers can use a classic story as a leaping-off point into their own imaginative world, like Maria Takolander did in her collection The Double. Others make formal theft into an art form, as in Ryan O’Neill’s ‘An Australian Short Story’, which takes each of its lines from another source. Short stories have a long and wonderful history of being rewritten, going back to their literary ancestors, the folk tale and the folk song, which of course belong to nobody and everybody, and can be retold, resung, and repopulated to suit contemporary circumstances. There’s a particularly strong feminist tradition of retelling stories in this way. If you haven’t read Angela Carter yet, I think you should.

As to copyright, you’re safe if the author has been dead for 70 years (or it’s 70 years since publication if publication was posthumous). While it’s technically not okay to steal stuff that’s still in copyright, in practice it’s probable that no-one is going to bother suing you unless you’re making fast millions or somehow damaging the brand of the original, as with Potter porn. Since Australia doesn’t have a fair use defence, our copyright law is technically more stringent than in the US, but we are not nearly as litigious, so our equivalent – fair dealing – is mostly untested when it comes to culture. The Arts Law Centre of Australia has a good, non-legalese explanation on this subject.

By all means get informed about copyright, but don’t get obsessed. Fretting about ownership is an early-career anxiety that tends to evaporate as you go on and realise how much everybody borrows from everybody else. People have always nicked each other’s best techniques. Some writers constantly ventriloquise. Hunter S Thompson retyped swathes of The Great Gatsby, apparently just to get the feel of writing something halfway decent. We learn it all from the people who came before us. You may find that the source of your anxiety is not the ethics or legality of what you’re doing, but your own entitlement to try. That anxiety will be visible in the work, in tiny gestures and deflections, qualifications and apologies. It is impossible to hide behind fiction.

All writers want to be in conversation with our traditions. The real difference lies not on the page but in your intentions. To be dishonest about those intentions, or to deliberately conceal your sources, is a kind of fraud; at the very least it violates the contract you make with the reader. So it’s important to own up about what you’re doing. Be as obvious as you can about it.

But if you’re looking for permission to write something, nobody is going to give it to you, ever. Certainly not the deceased. So take the silence of these dead white men you venerate as consent to dig them up and go through their pockets.

 

 

Dear Ms. Mills, I am a member of an online poetry critique group. Recently, something a member said made me question my own approach at sending poems to publishers. This member called herself a rebel and mentioned that she liked to submit experimental poetry to traditional publishers and classic poems to more avant-garde markets; thereby ‘challenging’ the publishers to open themselves up to new ideas.

[...]
I’m aware that there isn’t one timeless advice on submitting, but I would love to hear your view about disregarding publishers’ preferences for the sake of the freedom of expression. There has to be a line between awing and irrevocably upsetting an editor.

Kind Regards,
AP

 

Dear AP,

I’ve taken the liberty of editing your question for length, but thank you for understanding that literary journals are eclectic and varied and try to focus on quality within their explicit brief. Of course, quality, like excellence, is a very subjective term. That’s one of the reasons the submission process at Overland has a system of peer-review embedded in it. As fiction editor, I have a wonderful team of volunteer readers ahead of me to help offset my personal biases.

Just as quality is subjective, so too is conventionality. I might not accept a well-written story that Griffith Review would leap at, and our dear frenemies at Quadrant would have trouble accepting some of the work that we champion here; different boundaries mean different places to push. You don’t have to tailor your work to suit imagined expectations, but if you read enough you’ll learn there are certain places that favour certain styles. I have written some stories I know won’t work in journals at all. But editors and fashions change rapidly.

Some people like to believe the world is too conservative for their work. It’s sometimes true, but I am not sure it helps to think like this. Indeed, it can be a narrative that writers build around themselves to excuse a certain lack of success. Perhaps it’s a kind of emotional self-defence against rejection. The rejection becomes the fault of the publisher, or the culture at large, and not the writing. I think it stems from identifying too heavily with your work, and taking rejection too personally.

Why else would writers develop this sense of editors as gatekeepers needing to be schooled? Editors are, after all, part of a wider literary community with an interest in good writing, in interesting writing, and if you will forgive my lack of humility, we are some of the most widely read people you will come across. Far from keeping you from the potential audience for your work, we are the audience for your work. And we love to be surprised when it’s a good surprise. We all want to discover and champion something new.

There is so little room left for poetry as it is, let alone experimental work. The well-trodden is not always the best path from an author to a reader, and what market there is can seem ruthless. Self-publishing can be a much better way of reaching an audience. So can performance.

Fortunately for your poet friend, George Brandis’ recent announcement presents a fantastic opportunity. I encourage her, and all those who feel slighted by the existing literary ‘scene’, to send all of their work, every rejected first draft and boundary-pushing experimental poem, to the new National Program for Excellence in the Arts. I am sure the minister will be delighted to read every last submission he receives.

 

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

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Jennifer Mills is the fiction editor at Overland. Her latest novel, Dyschronia, is out through Picador.

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Comments

  1. The rejection becomes the fault of the publisher, or the culture at large, and not the writing. I think it stems from identifying too heavily with your work, and taking rejection too personally.

    I absolutely agree. Shifting from ‘they don’t want my writing this time=they hate my writing=they hate me=I am a failure’ to accepting that different tastes/editors might like different work has been a godsend for my mental health.

  2. Mmm, a friend of mine (and that’s not a euphemism for me) submitted the same pieces to a selection of journals under two names; one male and one female. The ‘male’ works were accepted; the ‘female’ rejected.

    Some gatekeepers do need a bit of schooling! Or replacing.

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