“Fan Fiction”

(as posted on Medium, January 2014)

Though I’ve been reading scifi and fantasy since I was a kid, it wasn’t until I started working in the tech community that I learned about fan fiction (feel free to supply your own Venn diagram). What we usually think of as “fan fiction” may have begun as small circles of like-minded people swapping cheap photocopies but, with the internet serving as both incubator and distributor, it’s blossomed. Recent events, such as the continued whopping success of Fifty Shades of Grey and Hugh Howey bestowing his approval on Silo stories published under the new Kindle Worlds canopy, have pushed this form of storytelling smack dab into the middle of the main stream.

I don’t know why I’ve been thinking about this. Some of my own narrative fiction borrows generously from history, but not from other fiction (at least not consciously!). Nevertheless, as a consumer bombarded by sampling and re-boots and spin-offs, I find myself wondering: when we say “fan fiction,” what do we actually mean? I’ve always taken it to mean that the world of the story, or perhaps even some characters, are borrowed from another writer. Interesting that this describes an entire universe of Star Trek-inspired fiction and also applies to Terry Pratchett’s Dodger and Peter Carey’s Jack Maggs (both spun off from Dickens). So this category I have to call “possibly-fan-fiction” is limited neither to amateurs nor to those who want to extend a scifi universe.

There are any number of reasons why even an established writer might choose to take on someone else’s world. Backstories are particularly irresistable; after all, protagonists meet so many fascinating others. How can you help but try and imagine what it was that made Miss Havisham (Ronald Frame’s Havisham) or the Wicked Witch of the West (Gregory Maguire’s Wicked) what they were? Bertha Rochester was nothing but a plot device until Jean Rhys’s staggering Wild Sargasso Sea. As well as backstories there are sidebars, potentially fascinating “meanwhile, back at the farm” behind-the-scenes that run parallel to the thread of the source; consider Tom Stoppard’s brilliant Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, or Longbourn, Jo Baker’s recent “downstairs” view of Pride and Prejudice.

Sometimes there’s a desire to continue a popular story line after the death of the original author. Oz continued after Baum’s death, Bond after Fleming’s, just to name two. I should think that, regardless of whether writing out of love or for hire, a writer would need to be something of a fan to absorb him or herself in another person’s world to the extent necessary to continue it. So why aren’t such books referred to as fan fiction? Does the authorized passing of the torch, such as Brian Herbert continuing his father’s Dune world, or the Wodehouse estate’s endorsement of Sebastian Faulk’s Jeeves and the Wedding Bells, bestow sufficient gravitas on a work to place it on the “legitimate” shelf? If so, what about when authorization is a grey area or even a non-issue: the public domain Pride and Prejudice has inspired numerous spinoffs, sequels and riffs, for stage and screen as well as print; yet these, like the hundred of Holmes-inspired stories (and more to come, now that Holmes, too, is ruled to be in the public domain), many by notable writers, have never suffered from the fan fiction stigma.

Clearly it’s not just your co-worker or your best friend’s stepson who gets inspired by previous writers; some pretty big names have passed this way. What then decides how a work of fiction-inspired-by-other-fiction ought to be labeled? It would be simplistic to assume it’s based on the degree of reinvention or the quality of the writing. Personal taste makes quality subjective. For example, I agree that, despite its flaws, Margot Livesey’s 20th century version of Jane Eyre (The Flight of Gemma Hardy) belongs on the same shelf as her other work. On the other hand, although Geraldine Brooks’ March, a backstory of the father of the Little Women, won a Pulitzer, I was underwhelmed; if you’d passed it to me as a pdf and said it was a student exercise in creative writing, I’d have given it a B-minus.

Does the mere fact of mainstream publishing decide the point? Publishing is a form of educated gambling, relying on assumptions of marketability that are based on analysis of historic markets. Though widely-panned, Alexandra Ripley’s best-selling Scarlett proved to be a sound business call by Warner Books. It seems to me that commercial publishing houses have done well by harboring, perhaps nurturing, fan fiction all along! Good original writing, particularly by an unproven writer, is a much bigger gamble and often ends up on the slush pile. More and more writers, reactively or preemptively, are opting to forgo the appraisal process and are taking their original stories directly to the public, using the same self-publishing tools embraced by the fan fiction community. So Hugh Howey’s admirable original Wool was initially released with the same tools and in the same venue as the flow of Silo world fan fiction to which it gave rise.

The more I reflect on this, the more question marks and quotation marks I see. “Fan Fiction?” Is it an out-dated label or a charmingly Warholian hi/lo construct. Either way, with a culture that ever more embraces the comfort of the familiar, fiction-inspired-by-other-fiction is here to stay.

Unrequired Reading

My oldest niece went off to college this week. Inevitably, it’s made me think back to my own Freshman year.

It was my first time leaving home. For a kid from Queens, the ivy-covered campus, the Platonic ideal of an Eastern college, was as discombobulating as a trip to Oz. The entire student body, less than half the size of my NYC public high school, was made up of strangers who’d experienced very different lives from mine. Everyone of them, I assumed, would be smarter than I was.

My room, even after I’d unpacked and filled it with my things, felt empty of life. It was a small square but, even with my little rug in front of the iron bed and my posters on the wall, it seemed to echo. There was a pole-operated glass transom above my door, something I’d never seen before. Then there was the small metal safe-box that was bolted to the door beside the wardrobe; it didn’t seem particularly safe to me for anything except, assuming it was at least sufficiently insect-proof, my stash of spray cheese and Milano cookies. The communal bathroom—a row of stalls, a row of sinks, a row of showers—was down the linoleumed hall. Meals were peculiar dishes like Swiss Steak, eaten at refectory tables in the dark paneled dining hall. Classes, when they began, were small (12 or 15 students, rather than the 34-36 that had been standard for me K-12). Unlike the homely teachers I was used to, the ones who seemed like someone else’s mother or uncle, the professors were grand or cool or a combination of the two. And the work load was staggering. Read how much before the next class? Write how many pages??

That first semester, everything about the place was strange to me, with one exception: the college bookstore. From the first time that I understood how letters fitted together into words, reading was always my most beloved entertainment and my most dependable therapy. Considering my shallow purse, you might have expected the library to become my logical haven; but the gorgeous Gothic library, with its stacks and carrels, intimidated me. It glowed with a purposeful scholarship that felt far beyond my grasp. I spent many dogged hours there, but it was never home the way that the bookstore was. Once the first few weeks of term had passed, and the stacks of required volumes migrated from its tables to our dorm rooms, the bookstore was comforting in its familiarity. The shop was run by a pair of women who truly loved to read and who stocked it accordingly. Unlike those in the library, these books wore bright covers and friendly titles. As well as classics, and the contemporary books that people were talking about, there were plenty of lesser known volumes.

I found the shelves of children’s lit on one of my earliest visits to the bookstore. I assumed they were there for faculty children; but I came to learn that I was hardly original in reacting to sudden adulthood by reaching back to childhood. I splurged guiltily that day and scuttled back to my dorm, where I snuggled into the corner of  my bed and returned to Narnia. On later visits, I dipped heavily into the mystery and science fiction shelves. I also discovered reissues of novels that had been popular in previous generations (I freely admit it: I have chosen a hell of a lot of books by their covers).

It wasn’t that I needed something to read. I had piles of required reading to plough through. What I needed was to read books the way I always had, for the pure enjoyment of it. I craved fiction, especially fiction that I wouldn’t be required to pull apart. There was freedom in knowing that the only person who cared that I was reading my way through the Lord Peter Wimsey books was my friend Jo back home, who was also reading them.

Some of the most significant reading that I did during my four years of college were the books I read when I was supposed to be studying. Whenever I needed a break from studies, when I had a broken heart, when I felt I was losing hold of who I was, I ran to the bookstore. It wasn’t long before the women who ran the shop started recommending books to me, and even holding new arrivals behind the counter with my name on them. When I graduated, we hugged and cried.

It’s difficult to remember exactly what I read when (it wasn’t until my Senior year that I thought I might want to look back on this someday and began keeping a record of what I read), but here are a few I can pin to that year. The links are to Amazon, but any bookstore or library should have all of these:

  • The Complete Sherlock Holmes (Arthur Conan Doyle). Note that I’m linking you to the Kindle edition, because it costs less than a fancy coffee beverage. If you still haven’t read these stories, I’m hoping this cheap option will push you to finally do so.
  • Dorothy and the Wizard in Oz (L. Frank Baum). I first saw the classic film version of The Wizard of Oz on television when I was 5 or 6. Soon after that, I read the book for the first of many times. But until I got to college, I was woefully ignorant of all the other Oz books. I bought and read a bunch of them then. This one, with it’s direct connection to the first, was one of my favourites.
  • The various volumes of “People” stories, by Zenna Henderson. This link will take you to a volume titled Ingathering, which is a compilation of all the stories Henderson wrote about refugees from a lost planet who find themselves on our earth. They appear human, but their longing for Home and their psychic abilities make them perpetual outsiders, ever seeking for their own. You can imagine how an eccentric college Freshman might over-identify!
  • Gaudy Night (Dorothy L. Sayers). This is my very favourite of all the Wimsey books. If anything, I loved it more after spending a summer in Oxford, and even more after attending a recent college reunion of my own. If you’re not going to read all of the Wimsey books, you’ll better understand  the emotional landscape of Gaudy Night if you precede it by reading Strong Poison and Have His Carcase.

Do I dare to eat a mango?

I just cubed a mango, which is one of my personal Proustian memory triggers.

In my Senior year of high school, I took the advanced level French course (did we call it French 4 or French 5? I can’t recall). It’s a joke that I even took the course. In my school system, languages were primarily taught via memorization. Whether conjugated verbs or categorized vocabulary for various assumed frequent-use topics (weather, food, transportation), you’d be given a page or three of words to memorize as homework. The next day, you’d have written or spoken drills in class. We even memorized scripted conversations, often echoed back to a tape of “native speakers”:

Bonjour…Bonjour Jean…Bonjour Marie…Bonjour Jean et Marie…Comment va tu?…Pas mal, merci, et toi?…Pas mal, merci.

When there was extemporaneous conversation, the emphasis was on being linguistically correct over expressing your thoughts. From the earliest I can remember, I’ve learned most effectively through context. Even when I was acting, I’d learn my lines better by putting the work up on its feet than by reading the lines over and over to myself. Rote memorization has never been my friend, I lack that magical language-music-math gene, and I grew up in a monolingual environment. Put it all together and you get a miserable language student (though, should I ever run into Jean and Marie, I can successfully say hello and let them know I’m fine, thank you).

Monsieur Henri Solganik, Teacher (with a capital letter 'T')

Monsieur Henri Solganik, Teacher (with a capital letter ‘T’)

However ineffectual my attempts to learn, I continued to dream of someday speaking another language, and I knew that the teacher of the only advanced French class was Henry Solganik. He was one of the younger, cooler teachers. More than that, he was vibrant with life and the implication of a world far wider than our neighborhood in Queens.

So in my final year in high school, I made one more attempt to learn some French. This time, thanks to Henry, something stuck. What happened that year was that French was finally freed from drills and scripted “conversations,” to become a living language. We read Sartre and Racine—aloud, and with tremendous overacting. As we might have done had we been raised in France, we read Le Petit Prince and Le Petit Nicholas. I also recall thumbing through issues of Paris Match. Not only did we read, but we spoke. We discussed current events and what we did over the weekend. Henry told us about some of his travels. His travels were an important part of who he was to us, fundamental enough that, when we wanted to give him a present to say “thank you,” we chose to buy him the suitcase you can see in the snapshot above.

I know there’s much else I’m forgetting about that class; but I can haltingly express myself in French if I have to, and there are two important moments I will always remember.

We were smart kids, but Henry knew how narrow our horizons were. He decided to broaden them before we launched out into the world. At the end of the year, he treated us all to dinner in Chinatown. The enormity of his generosity must be considered in light of the size of the class (there were about 30 of us; he split us into two groups to do this) and the fact that teachers’ salaries were even lower (proportionately) than they are today. The only qualification was that he would be ordering the meal, and we must each absolutely taste every single item that was put on the table. In an almost hysterical state of anticipation, we took the subway downtown and followed Henry to the restaurant. We’d all eaten a lot of what we considered to be Chinese food (Americanized Cantonese), but even those whose families might have ventured downtown had never been to a place like this. It was a half-basement space, and dimly lit, the combination making it seem far more exotic that it probably was. The maitre d’ greeted our teacher like a friend and showed us to the large round table. Food started coming out. With each new plate that arrived, Henry would scan our faces with wicked glee. Some of what he’d ordered was actually familiar, and even the more mysterious dishes weren’t scary once we tried them. Except, that is, for the snails. They came in the shell, with toothpicks to dig them out. We didn’t know what to do so, with one trembling eye remaining fixed on our own plates, we watched him demonstrate. Then he sat back and, grinning from ear to ear, watched. I remember sticking the toothpick into the shell and wiggling until I pulled out what looked like an inch and a half version of a pencil eraser. I held it gingerly between my teeth and snapped my mouth shut before I could decide not to. It was as chewy as an eraser, too; and it honestly didn’t taste like much of anything. Yes, the first snail I ever ate in my life was overcooked and under-seasoned. But this peculiar not-horrible mouthful, consumed in a strange place but among safely-familiar faces, made me feel worldly and adventurous. It was probably the first adult meal of my life, and the memory became a kind of mascot to bring me courage when confronting the unknown.

At some point during that same year, one of my classmates (I think it was Thalia Gross) brought a mango to class. During the years of my childhood, pineapples were about the most exotic produce any of us encountered. The closest we came to other tropical fruits was the label on the can of Hawaiian Punch. I don’t think there were even two of us who’d ever seen a mango. Henry’s face lit up like the sun. I’m sure that’s why she brought it to class; she knew he’d know what do. He took out his pocket knife and ran it around the edges to halve it, then scored the halves and turned them inside out. He passed the halves down the rows of desks. Each of us in turn nipped a single cube of sweet flesh from the skin and passed the rest down. Unlike the snail, the mango was a revelation to me. It was what I thought Olympian ambrosia must taste like.

During that final year of childhood, I was lucky enough to spend 40 minutes a day with a teacher who thought not only of the schoolwork we needed to master but of the wider world we would explore once we ventured past our own backyards.

I remember Henry Solganik, and that moment on the frontier, every time I cut open a mango.