This doesn’t belong

Who gets to decide whether an element of a story belongs? Who gets to decide whether a detail is irrelevant to the tale being told? Is it the author, or can the reader way in as well?

This question arrives due to a recent comment over at RandomC. Commenter Bear mentioned that a certain detail was irrelevant to the story in question, while commenter Kazuo Teramoto replied that it’s up to the creator to decide that. So who’s right?

Here’s my original reply:

@Kazuo Teramoto

You know, that’s an interesting issue. As someone who is both a content creator and a (massive) content consumer, I have a unique perspective on it. Allow me to share.

You’re correct…technically. It is up to the creator to decide what belongs in a story, and they cannot be “wrong”. It’s their story, warts and all. However, what most people mean when they say something is “irrelevant to the story” (or doesn’t belong there, etc) is that the thing in question diminishes the story, and in this the reader is perfectly within their rights to criticize.

We all hold the creative arts up to a higher standard than other products. It’s not “is this providing me enough value to warrant the cost I paid?”, but rather “Is this the best work it could possibly be?” We criticize fictions for being less than it might be, no matter how much enjoyment we get! Isn’t that crazy?

But it’s valid. Just mentally translate those comments to what people are really saying and it begins to make sense. The author decides what belongs, but we all get to decide whether it worked out or not. That’s the reader’s right.

Fiction belongs to its creator, but it also belongs to everyone else. Why? Because sharing the work is an integral part of the experience, which means the reader is a participant in that work. A reader can’t truly say a piece of fiction is “wrong” – it’s not theirs in that way – but they can say it’s not for them, or that something didn’t work, or offer many other criticisms (and praise!) about the work in question.

We’re all in this together, so we all get to take part. Not the same part always, but we each have a role to play.

9 thoughts on “This doesn’t belong

  1. My opinion: Fiction belongs to the author indeed. However, a wise author should try to keep an ear out to the fanbase how his ideas are received. And consciously going against fan opinion can be painful.

    Example in case: You may remember the LN/anime “Kämpfer”. Over the course of the anime, a clear consensus developed that Shizuku was the fan favorite by vast margin. However, when the LN ended, he forced through Akane as his intended ending match. The backlash was so severe that LN sales plummeted and many fans turned away in anger and disappointment. To alleviate this, the manga conversion changed tracks and created a Shizuku ending. Happy fanbase, good sales, good memories.

    Different example: Remember when the author of School Rumble essentially bitchslapped the fanbase when he “ended” the story without any resolution of the Harima pairing? In a way which essentially yelled “I am the author, I decide, screw you?” – it was so blatant that I vowed never to purchase a product related to the author anymore. Yea, it’s your prerogative to write the story as you want. Just like it’s my prerogative to decide which works I support with my money.

    So, even though I generally do support the author when he decides to make controversial or maybe even consciously unpopular decisions, I’d suggest not to overdo it. If you REALLY want to change course away from an established fan consensus (if such a thing consists), you might be better off to lay the groundwork first and change the foundation first. Noticeably “pulling rank” on the fanbase is usually destructive.

    • A good point. You have to balance it though, because if the author is always just giving the fans what they want, they begin to lose their agency. (Note: I expect you agree with this, I’m just making it more explicit because it’s an important point.)

      Perhaps Shizuku was the better girl – I would agree, based on the anime – but if there was a compelling reason for an Akane End, I say go for it. That’s more a difference of opinion in my mind, in that the author wanted to tell one story while the readers wanted another. You do have to lay the groundwork properly though.

      School Rumble, on the other hand, was a sign of a story that wasn’t wrapped up properly. That’s more an issue of not finishing what you started than a story decision.

      To be honest, I think an author should ignore 95% of what the fanbase says. If the act of creation turns into a democratic exercise, it’s going to lose the beautiful imperfection that makes great art great. That doesn’t mean readers don’t get an opinion, it just means the author shouldn’t listen to most of them.

  2. Let me try to explain myself, which without getting into spoiler material is hard. Who do you consider the creator of the story when it is adapted to another media? If it’s intended to be a recreation of the original story then wouldn’t you expect it to be faithful to that story? Since I was complaining about a specific scene that implied a sexual attraction between two of the main characters let me give you an example of why I thought it was inappropriate. If someone did a movie in which they gave the impression that they were going to do one of the Sherlock Holmes cannon and in it showed an explicit scene that implied that Holmes and Watson were naked in a gay embrace [insert Seinfeld joke here] wouldn’t you find that irrelevant to the story especially if you knew that Holme’s one true love as Irene Adler? That Doyle would probably be rolling over in his grave at the thought? Now you could make the case that it was artistic license, but then consider the number of movie directors who almost froth at the mouth when one of the classic movies (or their own) are edited for television. Do they have a point that it is wrong to change what they have created? Different media isn’t it? How would you feel if one of your books was adapted for another media and you found that they had changed one of your characters to imply a relationship that you had specifically be intended as something else. Especially when the change had major impacts on the story itself? Would it have been alright if Peter Jackson had implied a sexual relationship between Frodo and Samwise? (Well, we know Merry and Pippin are gay but that’s another issue :D). How in any way would that have “improved” the story by adding irrelevant implications? Would a remake of the Maltese Falcon be acceptable if it turned out that the bird was the real thing? Now that is not to say that all works are sacrosanct. In regards to my Holmes example, you have Elementary which is based on the original but takes it in a different direction and it was done with no implications that it was going to be true to the original. Maybe MKnR is going to take that tack like Arpeggio did, but Arpeggio at least made it a very different story from the manga.

    Finally, if they are actually sticking to the story as conceived in the LNs then the director is acting in bad faith by imply something that he knows to be untrue.

    • In that case, there are unfortunately two creators to deal with – the original and the adapting director – and some friction between them is, if not inevitable, at least extremely likely.

      You used me as an example, so I’ll tell you what I would do in this case. First of all, me giving up adaptation rights for any of my work (unless I was heavily involved) is unlikely, but if I did and they screwed something up, I would wield my Word of God and disown the adaptation without a second thought. They’d have to screw up pretty royally though – if it was just small stuff I would note that the two works are in different continuities (even if they’re very similar) and be done with it. No confusion.

      One thing, though – I would caution you to assume that everyone working on the anime is working in good faith unless proven otherwise. I can’t adequately get across how easy it is to imply things you don’t mean when writing. I’ve written tasteful romance scenes that came across as awkward and cringe-worthy to my proofreaders. When you’re in the trenches, it’s hard to see how something will come across. That’s what editing is for…though I fear most anime don’t get enough of that.

  3. “Who gets to decide whether a detail is irrelevant to the tale being told? Is it the author, or can the reader way in as well?”

    The author gets to make the attempt, the reader (or viewer) gets to decide if the author succeeded.

    The reader’s use of the word “wrong”, and similarly emotionally-charged objections, has the same relevance as someone complaining that their internet “stopped working”. From the technical perspective of trying to maintain or fix the issue, it means almost nothing, but that’s because the user isn’t an expert in the field, doesn’t have the training to both grasp the fundamental details of the problem and convey that information to you, or the vocabulary to discuss things at a precisely-defined level.

    That doesn’t make their objection invalid; it just makes it vague and difficult to discuss with technical precision.

    Going back to the original question: Suppose someone made a car, and you bought it. Suppose also that the car has a flat tire, and that the maker said that that was done deliberate, as part of the “artistic expression”. You might rightly object to that, saying that, whatever the reason, the flat tire hinders your ability to drive down the road.

    This is pretty much exactly the same relationship as the author of the book and the reader, except that it’s far easier (on all sides) to understand the idea of a flat tire and not being able to drive the car well with one. It’s something you can point to explicitly, and generally not be confused about. It’s far more difficult to point out problems in an artistic work with the same clarity, in part because most people aren’t trained to do so.

    To approach things from another perspective, consider reading any fanfic of a series. Most you come across will be greater or lesser degrees of dreadful — poor characterization, poor storytelling, lack of plot, awful spelling and grammar, etc. However it is still exactly the same relationship — author and reader. Regardless of whatever ‘intent’ the author had, readers can and will complain about things being poorly done. It’s done “wrong”. Note that the reader can’t force the author to change things, but that’s not the same as the author being “right”.

    The only differences between that and any professional work is the author’s experience, skill, editors, and the fact that the professional work is supposed to be good enough that it’s worth actually selling. It’s a very long, continuous quality scale. However just because you crossed the large grey divide between amateur and professional, that doesn’t mean that your work is suddenly perfect and free of all flaws. A reader can still be perfectly valid in saying that the author was “wrong” in one aspect or another.

    So yet again returning to the original question: “Who gets to decide whether a detail is irrelevant to the tale being told?” Everyone — both readers and author, because the author is just a reader with one very special privilege: he also gets to edit the work when he decides something needs to be done differently. That is, everyone can make that evaluation, but only one person can -act- on that evaluation. All other readers can make the same assessment, but are powerless to change the work that everyone else reads.

    You cannot say that a reader is not allowed to declare something as done “wrong”; that ability to evaluate is inherent to the position of one reading the story, and cannot be taken away. The author of course has the same right because he’s also in the group of ‘all readers’.

    Of course, beyond that, saying something is “wrong” is not the same as saying it shouldn’t exist at all. It’s just a catch-all word for all possible objections. Your question seems to focus on one particular type of “wrong” — whether an element of a story belongs — though even that is somewhat vague. Regardless, as with most general objections, the main question is whether the story as a whole would be ‘better’ (another ambiguous term) if done differently, whether by removing said element, or changing it, or having it interact with other parts of the story in a different way. And obviously that’s impossible to answer except on a case-by-case basis, so isn’t appropriate for this particular discussion.

    • When someone who is adapting a story and goes beyond straight adaptation and inserts material that not only is not in the original, but creates scenes that directly contravene the intent of the original author at what point is the adapter not only insulting the original creator, but the viewer as well? The adapter is using the popularity of another’s work to attract viewers to promote their own agenda or views by essentially lying about what they are presenting. My most egregious example is the movie Starship Troopers. The author of the book, Heinlein, was a firm supporter of the military (former naval officer as well) and said so in many non fictional articles. The book is one of the most pro military SF novels. The director turned it into a screed and made it’s patriotism into a joke. If they’re going to subvert the original author’s intent, at least have the decency to make that clear, else write their own damn story.

  4. Pseudo-edit: I think I ended up replying more to the original post you were replying to, and less to what you actually said. Re-reading your own post, I think I basically just restated everything you said. Oh well.

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