Charlie Higson on James Bond and Fandom

I came across a lovely debut blog post from Tom Dunbar in which he interviews Charlie Higson, the writer behind the Young Bond novel series.

Towards the end of the interview, Dunbar asks Higson about participatory narrative worlds that allow fans and writers to collaborate in the creation of stories:

TD: Do you think it is possible for writers and the public to create stories together?

CH: In a word – no.

Now, I’m actually in agreement with Higson almost 100%, which may sound surprising to anyone who’s familiar with my stance about fandom and participatory entertainment properties. But I also think Higson is confusing collaborative storytelling with collaborative world building, and the difference is critical.

Higson outright rejects the idea of fans collaborating directly with him on a Bond novel. While I think that might be an interesting exercise, I agree that I prefer my Bond novels shaken by Fleming and not stirred by the masses.

That said, I’m intrigued by Higson’s rejection that fans collaborate with him on stories, especially because he quickly goes on to point out just how much input and influence fans had on the original Bond series. And Higson himself admits he chose to have Young Bond wearing a Multifort watch (rather than a Rolex) based on the suggestion from a fan.

CH: Fleming himself did the very same thing. Readers and fans of his books would write to him telling him where he had got his facts wrong, and making suggestions for future books, most famously in the case of Geoffrey Boothroyd, a gun nut who suggested that Bond’s original Beretta handgun was a bit of a girl’s gun. Fleming took his suggestions on board and used him as a weapons advisor. He ended up calling his ‘Q’ character in the books Major Boothroyd to thank him.

Some creators are notoriously adverse to input from fans and despise fan fiction based on their work. Others are more inviting.

But few creatives work in an absolute vacuum, which makes the concept of collaboration with audiences a matter of degrees v. an either/or proposition. Higson welcomes input – actively seeks it out, actually – but draws the line at actual story collaboration.

And this is where I think Higson may be missing an important point about shared story worlds by conflating collaboration on a single story with collaboration on building a world of stories. I like the creative potential for exquisite-corpse stories or story-by-committee approaches, but I believe these approaches alone are insufficient for strong story world foundations.

The kind of fan participation I believe works well is better described as a group of authors contributing their stories to a shared world. Remember the Thieves’ World anthologies? Or how about Eric Flint’s ongoing Grantville Gazette anthology series of professionally edited fan fiction set in Flint’s 1632 world?

And what happens as more stories are added to the shared world? A new level of narrative emerges, something I call the “world narrative,” which results from the aggregation of individual stories within a single, shared world. The world narrative has a tone, voice, and direction all its own. Consider the change in a reader’s perspective between reading a single Conan story and reading every Conan story ever written. In the latter case, each new story read is informed by its predecessors, giving that story a new dimension and leading to a different understanding of the characters and the world they inhabit.

To put it another way, it’s the difference between watching a single movie and watching five seasons of a particular television show. The serial storytelling gives authors and readers new narrative opportunities not possible in a one-shot story.

The blending of internally-generated stories with submitted stories from audiences creates the world narrative, with individual stories representing a kind of improvisational back-and-forth as both groups respond to each other’s contributions. Internally-generated stories spark new ideas in audiences, and the audience-submitted stories in turn spark new directions for shared story worlds owners to explore.

This kind of collaboration is about influencing other stories, not necessarily co-creating them. In that regard, I raise a Vesper Martini in Mr. Higson’s direction.

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