Thursday, March 6, 2008

Sequels, Prequels, Fan Fiction

Despite my bibliophilic tendencies, I am seldom in bookstores these days. I live on a rather tight budget, so I follow this simple economic maxim: If you don't go into stores, you won't spend money. But the other day we had some time to kill between our meeting with the tax guy and a medical appointment. So we slouched into a nearby Borders to do a bit of browsing. While Fillius Minor disappeared into the science section, I worked my way through the new releases and the bargain books.

I noticed the new 100th anniversary edition of Anne of Green Gables. It's main virtue is that it is a facsimile of the 1908 edition, and it's illustrations can help the modern reader to imagine how readers of the time might have pictured the characters. (When reading old novels my mind's eye is sometimes oblivious to period details, such as what life is really like without central heating, the actual level of illumination in a room without electric lighting, and the fact that in certain periods the hero of a novel probably would almost certainly have had a beard.)

Sitting right next to it was Before Green Gables, a prequel written by Budge Wilson, a Canadian author. I hate it when they do that! But I can also understand the longing to catch a further glimpse of a beloved world. But such simulacra never satisfy when what you crave is not simply the author's characters, but her style which is her very essence.

I will admit that I have read and enjoyed some fan fiction, particularly when based on a movie or a television series. Perhaps that's because these genres are collaborative in origin -- they have no single author. (I am very fond of Barbara Hambly's Ishmael, which merges the original Star Trek with a lesser known '60s series, Here Come the Brides.)

But in the case of works by individuals, such as Montgomery or Jane Austen, I feel that the original author is being violated. And that goes double for living authors -- though I know that some writers accept fan fiction as a sincere and flattering effusion of their reader's enthusiasm.

I think that derivative fiction works best when one is not actually trying to duplicate the style of the original author. A parody? Yes. A pastiche? Sure. But no one can be Jane Austen except Jane herself. So if you're going to write in Jane Austen's world, it helps if you don't try to sound like her and it helps if you also have some original or clever twist to contribute. I suppose that's why I somewhat enjoy Jane Fairfax by Joan Aiken. The author uses her own voice and she turns the story inside-out, making Jane the heroine and viewpoint character. She also manages to make explicable Jane's engagement to Frank Churchill who, upon my first reading of Emma, seemed scarcely better than a lighthearted cad. (Okay, maybe cad is too strong a word, but he definitely didn't seem to deserve Jane. Subsequent readings of Emma have brought more nuance to my perception of him.) In Jane Fairfax Frank is plausibly presented as a more likeable fellow without doing any violence to the original novel.

One exception to my feelings on this subject are the Oz books. Perhaps it's because I was never that emotionally that involved with them; or because the Oz books are read for incident, not style; or because Oz has made its way into our American folklore that I don't mind a bit when other authors write works set in Baum's universe. (Baum only wrote about 14 out of the 40 canonical Oz books. I did like his best though.)


Sherwood said...

I think my mind permanently blew on the fanfic thing when I encountered Arthuriana written in German (Wolfram) back in college--and then realized that Chretien d. T. was doing the same. Arthur's story was in fact a shared world thing! This after overhearing some of the Mythies retailing their fanfic at Myth meetings. (Their stories sometimes sounded more interesting than the originals.)

Last summer I read a 3 volume Harry Potter fic that I thought much better written than the originals. That writer has subsequently gone on to her own professional career.

Enbrethiliel said...


I think that FF is great--when it's in its proper place. There are some excellent stories made available online by fans who both respect canon and have writing skills as good as or even better than the original authors.

It is FF that is given the status of canon that puts me off. Along with Before Green Gables, there are also new "spin-offs" of the works of Louisa May Alcott and Laura Ingalls Wilder. (I believe there were negotiations to do the same with C.S. Lewis, but happily those fell through.) I wouldn't have minded so much if the new books were put on the same level as all other FF, but the fact that they were commissioned, published and marketed by big companies makes me agree that the authors were violated.

Heather said...

I agree wholeheartedly on the subject of published fan fiction. I passionately hate it. On the other hand, unpublished fan fiction, such as its found online doesn't bother me in the least. :)

There is, however, one thing I hate more than published fan fiction, and that is abridged versions of classic tales sold as if they were whole. My kids have been tempted by many of those at the library and my grandmother has bought them thinking they were the originals. Other than brief excerpts turned into board books they head right back out the door. I don't care if they read abridged versions once they have read the originals but absolutely not until then. (Though I must say that this does not apply to the George MacDonald books--I never would have picked up his more romantic books if I hadn't read them as abridged and put into standard English.)