Thursday, August 09, 2007

"Fake" Harry Potter in China

Last week, the NY Times had a story about "fake" Harry Potter books in China (behind Times Select wall now--hint for students: you can get free TS access with an academic institution email address), which are so "copious" that they must be "peeled back, layer by layer." The outer layer is comprised of books which purport to be by J.K. Rowling or even to be the translation of the actual seventh book in the series. That's not so interesting to me, but the "inner layers" made me smile. Some are by budding novelists "inspired" by the series:
Some borrow little more than the names of Ms. Rowling's characters, lifting plots from other well-known authors, like J. R. R. Tolkien, or placing the famously British protagonist in plots lifted from well-known kung-fu epics and introducing new characters from Chinese literary classics like ''Journey to the West.''
The funny thing is, nothing has really changed in that regard. Journey to the West itself borrows from so much. Take, for example, the scene where Sun Wukong hides in Pigsy's marital bed, pretending to be his wife and then beating him up (this is before they become fellow travelers, of course). There is a scene just like it in the Water Margin--and surely countless other tales lost to the ages.

There were also a lot of "fake" sequels to the classic Ming and Qing novels. There was the Later Journey to the West, for example, in which Sun Wukong's descendant and others of a later generation go to the West once again. There is also A Supplement to the Journey to the West, which actually is supposed to be a dream that Sun Wukong had during the course of the "original" story that went unrecorded. There are also sequels to the Water Margin, in one of which several characters from the Water Margin escape to create a Utopia in "Siam," which actually seems to be a fictionalized Taiwan. There are tons of revisionist sequels to Dream of the Red Mansion, written by people dissatisfied with the ending. (Fan fiction from Late Imperial China?)

Surely some (if not most) of these are hack work, but at least some of them surely have something to say. I wonder, if a book--even a work of fiction--is saying something you don't agree with and you want to engage the argument on its own terms, isn't writing such a "fake" sequel a natural move? Can your ideas be "fake" just because you aren't the initiator of the conversation but the responder or objector?

A writer named Alice Randall got swept up in that question when she "re-wrote" Gone with the Wind from the perspective of a slave in a novel called Wind Done Gone. She got taken to court for copyright infringement and eventually won the right to engage Gone with the Wind on its own, fictional, terms by calling it an "unauthorized parody." The Wikipedia entry for the novel notes that it is "parody in the broad legal sense: a work that comments or criticizes a prior work" despite the fact that "the book is not a comedy, as the term 'parody' would imply in its common usage."

The NY Times article also mentions that unscrupulous underground publishers snatch up these "fake" Harry Potter books and publish them without paying royalties to the authors. This has been going on since the Ming Dynasty as well--see my post about Li Yu, the author of the Carnal Prayer Mat, complaining about piracy.

Update: The Times now has synopses and (very) brief translations of selections from a few of these "fakes."


Imre said...

I think this whole phenomenon shows how inadequate the marketing people of the Harry Potter empire are in China. Apparently there is a huge demand for Harry Potter which the original crew not only cannot satisfy but cannot even detect. They are still in the best position to fulfil this demand by supplying it with newer sequels, perhaps targeted specifically at the Chinese audience. Perhaps even contracting out the writing part to the very same writers who are ripping them off.

In general, going around and slapping hands does not seem to me the best solution to do. Especially in China, where this also means that the readers will be deprived of what they are getting hooked on, it does not generate a positive attitude towards your product.

amida said...

I have been meaning to write a separate post on this, but here is what I think the root of the problem is: When the Jesuits started showing the Chinese their paintings in the Ming, the Chinese thought they were uninteresting because of their "poor" brush technique. The Europeans thought Chinese paintings were poor because they lacked techniques like perspective and chiaroscuro. The Chinese thought the Europeans were just painting the way things looked, capturing an image without thinking. The Europeans thought the Chinese were unable of capturing an image properly. The two sides were looking right past one another. The same sort of thing happens with this sort of copyright stuff, only now the Europeans can use trade sanctions and things like that to back up their categorizations. (A novel must be the unique work of a single author, etc.)

(Of course, IP holders in the West aren't doing any better, keeping their potentially viral content from spreading to more fans who might be convertible into paying customers.)