Friday, August 23, 2013

Cassandra Clare and the Great Power of Responsibility.

A joint piece by Ceilidh and Christina.

At some point, you have to pay the piper.

The reviews are in for the much-anticipated film adaptation of City of Bones, and they aren't pretty. The movie is being described as "disastrous", "messy", "soulless", "convulted", and "tedious". It currently has a rating of 13% on Rotten Tomatoes, and while it's still early to determine what the final rating might be, keep in mind that two other movies released a few days after CoB, The World's End and You're Next, have ratings of over 90%.

So who's to blame for this?

Well, don't look at Cassandra Clare. Lately her tweets have her wiping her hands of any involvement she has had in the movie, which contrasts with her earlier statements of being "interfere-y" (I think she meant being "involved", but maybe she was trying to coin a new Clarism?).


We could go on (and on and on) about the cool, refreshing taste of Clare induced schadenfreude but what we really want to talk about today is responsibility, a concept that seems to be foreign to Clare. 

Many of you will by now be familiar with the recent controversy that fell upon Clare and her sometime co-writer and good friend Sarah Rees Brennan. The pair, along with another friend Maureen Johnson, have been writing short stories together centred on one of Clare's more famous Mortal Instruments characters. One such story involved a character saying the line "That is mahogany!" To those familiar with The Hunger Games, that line is pretty well known. To those who aren't, it was simply a funny aside in a random scene. Naturally, given Clare's past of plagiarism, people called foul. Brennan declared she alone was responsible and issued what can only be described as a bizarre, misguided and occasionally passive aggressive explanation for the error (by the way, I plan to use my love of mahogany as a defence for everything I do wrong in the future). Many other authors and friends of Clare and Brennan rushed to their defence, and John Green's own justification was particularly insulting. 

"As a teenager, I used to think “reading critically” meant prodding and poking a text for weaknesses and failures and typos until I found them. I find reading far more fulfilling today because I now view “reading critically” as an attempt to read generously. I am so much happier as a reader and as a person now that I understand that my job as a reader is to make the text in front of me into the best book it can possibly be." (Source with further explanation of this concept from Green.)

And so we come back to today's theme of responsibility - that of the author, the reader, the editor and the general state of the industry, not to forget Clare's own seeming inability to acknowledge her many screw ups.

The mahogany defense aside, what separates plagiarism from cryptomnesia, or "subconscious plagiarism" [when an idea occurs to someone and it is actually a rediscovered memory incorrectly assumpted to be an original thought] is intent. Cryptomnesia is a mental error, plagiarism is theft.

Entertainment is riddled with parodies, copycats, and homages. The trick is to make a well-known story your own. Old School is a frat boy comedic version of Fight Club, and O Brother, Where Art Thou? took the story of The Odyssey and turned it into a Depression era comedy. So what makes that different from what Clare has done?

For starters, the makers of these films never hid the influence of the movies that inspired their work. Clare has sidestepped the presence of other people's work in her own, citing using quotes as a game, pastiche, or with the original author's consent.

The notion of responsibility seems to have shifted from the author to the reader. John Green's quote (along with Brennan and Clare's non-apologies) basically states that it is the reader's job to assume that nothing is being taken without permission. In fact, the consensus seems to be that the reader should be able to spot the pop culture reference without assuming that it's theft of any kind.

The issue with references is that there's basically no chance that 100% of your audience will get them. Generally, you can gauge your audience's interests based on their interest of your work. I'm guessing that the thinking behind Brennan and Clare choosing the mahogany one is that YA readers will be familiar with The Hunger Games. It's not an unreasonable assumption to make, but two issues still remain.

One, as mentioned above, you can't guarantee that every one of your readers shares your interests and knowledge of pop culture, even with something as popular as The Hunger Games. I (Ceilidh), for example, have a pretty extensive knowledge of modern YA but I've never read beyond the first book in the Hunger Games series. If a reader doesn't pick up on the reference, then they simply assume that the authors came up with the comment or joke themselves. 

This ties into the second issue. Clare's past cannot be ignored in this context. Her plagiarised fan-fiction was loaded with lines stolen from books, movies and TV shows, and entire chunks of prose were lifted without citation. When she was caught stealing (no dressing up what she did here. She stole. She's a thief), she tried to brush it off and claimed these were just cute little in-jokes and references for her readers to pick out themselves. Once again, this weak excuse assumes that her audience are as knowledgeable as she was on shows like Buffy, Red Dwarf and Blackadder (the latter two are not as well known in USA as they are in UK so the task was even harder for non British readers), as well as the work of Pamela Dean (taking an entire passage and changing the names was a cute reference for friends to get? Sure thing, Clare). This "cute" little game also failed since many fan-fiction readers and Harry Potter forum users started using these jokes and lines from the Draco Trilogy in profile signatures and the like. They didn't attribute them to Ben Elton & Richard Curtis, or Rob Grant & Doug Naylor or Joss Whedon. They attributed them to Clare. Did she correct these people? Three guesses.

So when John Green talks about the job of the reader, I snort. It is not up to me to make your work better. If I like a book, I like it. If I don't, it's not because I failed in my task as a reader. It's just my opinion. If the first assumption readers made when they saw that Hunger Games line and thought "Theft", they're not overreacting; they're aware of an important context that people like Green, Holly Black, Maureen Johnson, Sarah Rees Brennan and Cassandra Clare are desperate for people to forget. The only problem for them is that the internet never forgets.

Readers have no duty or responsibility to fix the problems of authors. If an author gets called out for something obviously problematic then that's not the reader getting the reading of their work wrong. Fortunately, the film critics of the world have done a bang up job of noticing Clare's many "references" in the Mortal Instruments movie. It's all just a cute game for friends, after all.

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