Three months after originally scheduled, Cory Doctorow will finally be landing in New York City this week, to hold court at a benefit for those tireless champions of First Amendment rights in the sequential art world, The Comic Book Legal Defense Fund. The reason for the delay wasn’t Doctorow’s fault, of course—or anyone’s, really, but rather the sort of last minute misfortune that’s capable of derailing even the best of intentions.
Sometimes, however, these matters are blessings in disguise. When Doctorow appears at the Helen Mills Theater in midtown Manhattan, this Thursday, the event will be more than the simple book reading planned for his original appearance, which was more or less an extension of the North American tour for his latest novel, Little Brother. This time out, the writer will be joined on-stage by DJ Spooky, whose recent volume, Sound Unbound, features contributions from a number of prominent digital culture theorists, including Doctorow himself.
As a writer, Doctorow wears a number of different hats, including that of an award-winning science fiction novelist; staff writer for the mega-popular Boing Boing group blog; and most recently, graphic novelist, having released a number of works for IDW and contributed to Kitchen Sink’s Haunted Mansion anthology.
Doctorow’s credentials as a guest spokesperson for the CBLDF go beyond his writing expertise, however. The author is arguably equally well-known for his work with free speech groups, including, most prominently, Creative Commons, which has licensed all but one of his books.
When we sat down with Doctorow earlier today, we planned on discussing the CBLDF almost exclusively, only to embark on any number of tangents along the way. Fortunately, however, when it’s Doctorow talking, half the fun is in trying to guess where the conversation ultimately will end up.
I’m told that you paid out of your own pocket to appear at this event.
The original plan had been that I was going to do this at the end of my Little Brother book tour. But someone at CBLDF had a health problem, and they had to cancel the event. They asked me when I would be back in the States, so they could reschedule it. I’m coming back in for this tiny, tiny convention in Southern Mass, in a town called Springfield, which is kind of equidistant from New York and Boston—it’s actually fairly easy to get to New York from there, so I said I’d come a couple of extra days early and do the event.
I didn’t really think about it at the time, but the other day, when I was finalizing my plans, I was like, “oh yeah, I need a hotel in New York!” I started Googling around—I suppose I could stay with friends, but it’s already so hectic that I just wanted to hole up in a room. The airfare was paid for by the convention, but when it’s all said and done and I’ve ended up paying for hotels and meals and all the rest of it, it’s going to come to a grand or two.
So why make all of these sacrifices for the CBLDF?
First of all, the CBLDF does something that’s really near and dear to my heart, which is defend creators and comic store owners. I’ve worked in science fiction bookstores before, and it’s kind of a holy calling to do that work. On the one hand, it’s kind of every nerd’s dream to work in a comic book store, and on the other hand, it’s a low-income, high-risk business that demands incredibly grueling hours and you have to love it to do it. There’s really no good reason to do it, except that you love it and really want to spread the word of this art that means a lot to you.
The American response to that, I guess since Seduction of the Innocent, has been to demonize those people, and not just prosecute, but persecute them, and the risks that people face for the—admittedly very subversive—act of operating a store in which people can come in and buy literature, those risks have gone through the roof, and supporting that is very important. Making sure that those people have something to fall back on, when those things go bad is really important. Moreover, those people face the risk because their opponents stand to make a lot of money and power by terrorizing people and convincing them that there are bad people in their midst who want to expose them to terrible literature.
The stakes are very high for the other side. You pick a scapegoat group and you demonize them, and it you do so effectively, you can use the so-called threat to justify all kinds of power for yourself and budgets and careers to be made for everyone from senators to local cops on busting people who sell literature to children or do anything else that involves something outside of the norm. There’s a lot of money out there, and it’s an asymmetry, because comics are a low-margin business for retailers and inpendent publishers. The people involved in comics don’t really have a lot of money to defend themselves, and every now and again, you get a nice little bit of poetic justic, like when William Gaines is forced out of doing EC and becomes a millionaire with Mad Magazine. For every one of those, there are a million people who are just chased out and have their lives ruined by political opportunists. So that’s the first part for why the CBLDF is so important.
The other thing is that the CBLDF is, itself, a kind of model for the kind of organizations that other people who are involved in other dangerous cultural acts are turning to. For example, Naomi Novik, she won the Campbell Award last year for best new science fiction writer. She comes out of the fanfic culture of people who make stories out of other people’s universes—this is something that’s pretty common in comics, and obviously, the shared universe is a real common piece of comic storytelling, in the way that comics have always taken place. And even where you have unauthorized, thinly-veiled shared universes—you have things like The Watchmen and so on. So Naomi and her friends, they want to defend the rights of people who are involved in fanfiction, because this is as old as culture, the retelling of stories to suit your own needs.
She said she wanted to make a CBLDF for fanfiction, and that just conveyed so much in just a little phrase. So what the CBLDF has actually done is provided us with a useful vocabularly for describing a certain kind of advocacy organization that’s small, incredibly nimble and intelligent in the way it conducts itself, commited to an important cause, and really fueled by creators and the work they do. So I think for that reason as well, I’m really game for doing stuff for the group.
Are these fan fiction issues primarily copyright problems? Unauthorized use of people’s creations?
Yeah, well trademark. Copyright, trademark, and just a general vilification of people’s work. You have something that’s transformative often making commentary on the work. It’s the kind of classic test for fair use. A lot of it’s political or sexual in nature and sometimes it crosses between those two subjects, where you have people writing about the politics of sexuality. This is the kind of thing that the First Amendment was made to protect. But these people don’t have any money to mount a defense. They are engaged in this massively assymetrical struggle with the people who want to make their work disappear from the Internet.
People are generally not making any money of these pieces of fan fiction, correct?
No. The only commercial piece of fan fiction that I’ve seen in all my years of working in this field was someone who had spiral-bound about five copies of her fan fiction stories and was selling them for about $5 each, in the back room of a science fiction convention, and I don’t think anyone was buying them. So yeah, this is an extremely non-commercial, hand-to-hand activity. But often the case with fan fiction, the aesthetic effect is not from the fiction itself—though sometimes the fiction is very good. Often times, the quality of the actual fiction is not as high as the experience of those who actually wrote the fiction.
Writing fan fiction these days, with the advent of Internet communities, is a very public act. People will write an installment and get feedback from other fanfic writers who will help them along and give them ideas, and they’ll go back and forth. What they end up with is not so nearly as important as the process they took to get there. I think a lot of fan fiction, judging it by what’s left on the page is about as useful as judging a sex act by what’s left on the sheet. The important thing is not what they end up with, it’s how they got there—it’s the journey, not the destination.
So, for these people who are engaged in this extremely recognizable culture activity—sitting around fire and telling each other stories, saying, “well, what if this happened?”—you recognize that in all kinds of cultural institutions and all kinds of binding and defining stories. You can see that they were arrived at in this creative manner, and we have these archetypal stories that we find evidence for in ancient Greece, going all the way forward to the contemporary era, and having been retold to suit each person’s needs. EL Doctorow, in his book, The Creators, talks about the history of Genesis and finds evidence for the Genesis story being told among Babylonians, hundreds of years before the ancient Hebrews. The stories just float around, according to whatever circumstances seem to suit the storyteller best, until someone writes it down.
So this is a really important cultural activity. It’s kind of what makes us what we are. We’re the animal that tells each other stories, and to say, “well, that’s all well and good to say that you’re going to tell stories that are part of your cultural make up, but you’d better not do it with a character from a show that Paramount made,” is just dumb. It completely misunderstands the relationship between audiences and creators. I think anyone who says that content is king is probably a sociopath. If I said, “well, I’m going to send you to a desert island, and you can take your comic books or your friends,” and you chose your comic books, we’d send you for psychiatric evaluation. Content is just stuff that people talk about. The important thing is the talking.
[Concluded in Part Two]