Covers and Shared Worlds

Prepare for my thoughts! And a ridiculous amount of links!

I love covers. Not book covers, though there are plenty of nice examples of those out there, but covers of songs. Just love them. Discovering a new take on a song I like, or even one I hadn’t before, just puts a smile on my face.

I also enjoy living in the future. Thanks to YouTube and streaming music services I can now go on quests to find covers I’d never heard before. Do you have any idea how many versions of Sting’s “Fields of Gold” there are? I have to be careful though, because I can turn such quests into tools of procrastination like no other.

Covers appeal to my curiosity. I find it fascinating how the same base music and lyrics can be used to create entirely different listening experiences. Consider Judas Priest’s rendition of Joan Baez’s “Diamonds and Rust”, Vanilla Fudge’s versions of Beatles songs like “Eleanor Rigby”, and Apoptygma Berzerk’s take on Metallica’s “Nothing Else Matters” (or perhaps the Vienna Boys Choir?). In a different, but similar, vein I can no longer listen to The Jimi Hendrix Experience’s “Hey Joe” (itself a cover) in the way I did before I heard Type O Negative’s cover “Hey Pete”.

On the other hand, subtle variations can make for interesting listening too. For all those version of “Fields of Gold” I haven’t found any the sound substantially different, but it’s fun to figure out which versions work for you, and which don’t, and why. I have a longstanding personal conversation going on with “The Long Black Veil” (originally recorded by Lefty Frizzell). I want to hear the perfect version of that song and sometimes go on binges of gladiatorial listening wherein I pit versions against each other. So far, no take on it can withstand Joan Baez’s heart-wrenching wail in the chorus (Lefty’s version is a close second).

Some covers are so good (personally speaking) that, for me, they become “the” version of the song, regardless of what came before. See these covers: Hendrix’s “All Along The Watchtower”, Johnny Cash’s “Hurt”, Manfred Mann’s “Mighty Quinn”, Joe Cocker’s “With A Little Help From My Friends”.

Finally, there are original-cover pairs that I find I enjoy equally as great songs. Leonard Cohen and Jeff Buckley’s versions of “Hallelujah”; The Clash and Jimi Cliff versions of “The Guns of Brixton”, The Velvet Underground and Cowboy Junkies versions of “Sweet Jane”, The Who and Pearl Jam (well, maybe just Eddie Veder in this case) versions of “The Kids Are Alright”.

There is so much greatness to be found in cover songs, in artists interpreting, re-interpreting and riffing on one another. So why can’t we have more of this in fiction?

Not that it never happens.

Works which have moved into the public domain such as the Cthulu Mythos, Oz, and Jane Eyre novels have all been “covered”. John Scalzi did a cover version of H. Beam Piper’s novel Little Fuzzy called Fuzzy Nation. Sometimes authors or publishers invite “cover artists” to come play with their toys. Angry Robot did something like this for Adam Christopher’s novel Empire State called WorldBuilder. Scorr Sigler has invited authors such as Matt Wallace and Mur Lafferty to write novellas for his Galatic Football League universe.

Then there are the shared worlds. One of the best known of which was probably the Thieves’ World stories. These anthologies allowed authors to share a playground and borrow each others’ characters to tell their stories with. I loved the early Thieves’ World books because we really got to see different perspectives and takes on the setting and characters. Just as we are all likely to be the heroes of our own stories and allies, enemies, loved interests, and rivals of other peoples stories the denizens of Sanctuary truly took on different roles depending on who was writing the particular story you were reading.

Still, I think there is more room for the idea of covers in fiction, and I don’t just mean fanfic as it seems to be mostly practiced today with its slash and shipping (the obsession with which I don’t really understand, not being a part of the fanfic community in any way), though that is certainly a kind of literary cover. I’d like to see space carved out for more “takes” on stories, worlds and characters. I’d like to see modern authors find more ways to let others into their sandboxes. I’d like things like the recent “Oz Reimagined” anthology not have to wait decades before it could legally exist.

After all, the tradition of oral storytelling has always had the idea of “covers” built-in. What are Shakespeare festivals if not a collection of covers of The Bard’s work? In many ways audiobooks are a kind of cover of written works. So are movies (for the lucky few authors who get to sell movie rights to their work). So why can’t there be a way to find room for written covers?

Of course, I understand there are reasons why this is difficult and it’s not just current copyright law. It’s the fact that music and writing are different mediums. Getting on stage and performing a three minute song is quite different from publishing a novel. Even if you include a cover in an album it’s likely to be just one of thirteen or so songs. It’s things like working authors, very, very few of which are rich or even able to sustain themselves on their writing alone, not wanting to earn even less as someone over there takes a slice of their audience pie’s limited buying resources with a derivative work. It’s not wanting to lose control of characters and worlds and narratives you’ve spent years, possibly decades, slaving over to get just right. It’s the fact that listening to an original song and a cover version of it probably takes less than 10 minutes of your life. Depending on the length of work involved, your available free time, and how fast you read the time commitment to a written work and it’s cover are quite a bit more, even for the shortest of reads.

It’s complicated. It’s also something I must fully admit I probably don’t know enough about. After all, I’m almost the farthest thing from a working writer you can find. I’ve sold exactly one short story for a semi-pro rate. Still, I hope there will be more encouragement for cover works going forward, and I hope that one day I’ll have something out there that I can encourage others to play with.

Note: Amazon announced their new “Kindle Worlds” thingy while I was working on this post. It made my twitter explode. It’s obviously relevant to what I’m talking about here, and I personally think it has some interesting possibilities. Not that I expect to participate in it as either a writer or a reader, not with these initial properties anyway. Still, I’m very curious to see what happens with them. The two best initial thoughts reads I’ve seen so far were from John Scalzi and Matt Forbeck.


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