E. L. James makes no bones about the fact that her 50 Shades of Grey trilogy started off as dirty True Blood fan fiction. She dropped the vampire angle, changed the names, and the result was phenomenal sales of books (and vibrator batteries).
Well, I’ve written some fan fiction now, too. Is it smutty? Yeah, kinda. If you call mentions of porn stars and giant penises smutty. Oh, you do?
Unfortunately, it’s only a short story, so I won’t be getting any 50 Shades-style riches. It’s licensed fan fiction through a new-ish program from Amazon called Kindle Worlds.
Amazon signed deals with various intellectual property owners. Fans can publish their stories and even novels using the copyrighted worlds, exclusively through this portal. (If E. L. James had tried to sell her novels without changing the names and ambiance from the copyrighted True Blood characters, her trilogy would have been called 50 Shades of Sued, then 50 Shades of Broke, and finally 50 Shades of Living in a Cardboard Box).
You, the writer of the fan fiction, get a percentage of the sale. There are some restrictions. Chief among them: no erotica. Why did I write a story with smutty elements, then? Keep reading.
You can see the list of available licensed worlds here. Some are literary properties (the Silo Saga), some are TV shows (Gossip Girl), and some are a mystery to me (Bloodshot? X-O Manowar? Hey, to each their own).
From what I understand, the Kindle Worlds program has been around for about two months. A month ago, the anonymous Kindle Worlds official blogger noted that there were now 100 fan works for sale now. So clearly, there are people who are excited about this.
Being the nerd I am, I chose to jump in and experiment with this using ….
… drumroll please …
… THE WORLD OF KURT VONNEGUT.
That’s right, Kurt Vonnegut. Alongside The Vampire Diaries and Pretty Little Liars, comes the work of one of the literary giants of the 20th century. An accessible literary giant, who wrote with short, clear sentences and never hid behind cant and pretense. But a giant nonetheless. How did this happen? I dunno.
It so happened that the day I saw that (the fact that Kurt Vonnegut’s estate had licensed fan fiction rights to Kindle Worlds, that is) I had just finished a story. So the next one I started was "So It Goes ... Until It Doesn't".
It is a continuation of the story of Billy Pilgrim from Slaughterhouse-Five. I tried to write parts of it in the style of Vonnegut. In other places, I dropped the parody in order to be able to tell (what I hope is) a satisfying story.
In trying to capture his voice, I did my best to use mostly 1960s and 1970s references; the kind that would have been roughly contemporary to Slaughterhouse-Five and some of the other novels I referenced. I also tried to write in his political voice. For instance, here is a passage from my story that attempts to capture the feel of his mordant observations:
Billy’s home in Ilium, New York was not unusual for a man in his seventies in 1999. He had been a successful optometrist before his retirement, and his home was quite nice. Billy had had the great accidental good luck to be born in the 1920s. He had been an American when a comfortable middle class life was attainable through hard work.
Many red-blooded he-men talked about this phenomenon, calling it, “The American Dream.” The main components of this Dream had been the basket of government programs enacted in the early 1930s and the mid-1960s: Social Security, unemployment insurance, Medicare, and Medicaid. The programs had created a safety net which had kept the poor from starving, and therefore rising up to murder the rich, and had kept the old from living in destitution in their final years.
In other words, the “American Dream,” also called the “American Way of Life,” had been built on unbridled socialism. The Communist Manifesto, by Karl Marx, had laid out everything needed to build the country that anti-Communists were so proud of. So it goes.
Now, understand that the politics of that passage are not quite my politics. But I believe it is something Vonnegut could have written. He self-identified as a socialist. And I hope that I was able to capture some of the flavor of the man in that passage.
Of course, no pastiche featuring Billy Pilgrim would be complete without mention of his "enormous whanger" (Vonnegut's words ... and odd spelling).
Whangers aplenty make their appearance. Vonnegut was what I would describe as ‘Vulgarity with a mission.’ This is, after all, a man whose story in Harlan Ellison’s legendary Again, Dangerous Visions anthology was entitled “The Big Space F***” (without asterisks; much of my writing is R-rated, but this blog is deliberately not.) So, I did the vulgarity thing. At one point in my story, Montana Wildhack tells Billy: “Oh wow, you’re almost as big as John Holmes.”
So if I’m vulgar in my pastiche (and Vonnegut’s 1969 novel was censored by many communities because of its language) do I have a mission, as Vonnegut did?
I think I do.
I went to graduate school and I have a master’s degree in English. (I didn’t complete the Ph.D. program.) Looking back, I am very angry about it. Because I do feel that the English programs in America have lost their sense of wonder, and have been replaced by hack literary criticism. There are other reasons as well. If you want to get a sense of how people can be fooled by the nonsense of literary criticism, check out the celebrated Alan Sokol hoax.
The first story I ever sold at professional rates was “Two Dwarves and Eight Chained Ourang-Outangs.” It was my tribute to Poe. And that’s how I practice my love of literature now; instead of some silly paper aimed at a single professor’s prejudices, I can create my own work of art that riffs on the author's original.
My Writers of the Future-award-winning story “Gonna Reach Out and Grab Ya,” is inscribed “To Nathaniel Hawthorne, the Master.” The story cannot be said to resemble anything he wrote … except in one particular. It features a protagonist who pledges lifelong devotion to a certain idea that others might reasonably consider to be tragic or weird. I had read Hawthorne for years, but until I finished that story and then impulsively added the dedication, I had never realized that. It was a wonderful moment.
So, my 5,700+ word story, “So it Goes … Until it Doesn’t” is now available exclusively as a Kindle download. Kurt Vonnegut, parody, and penises. For 99 cents, how could you go wrong?