Saturday, 27 February 2016

On "Dickensian" (2015-16), Originality, and the Supposed Rise of Fan Fiction

From December 2015 to February 2016, BBC1 aired 20 half-hour episodes of a period-drama-cum-soap written by EastEnders, Life on Mars and Hustle scriptwriter Tony Jordan[1]. The series featured an all-star guest cast, four different directors and a number of guest writers, a fairly hefty chunk of cash thrown in its direction, and despite middling to poor viewing figures, it achieved a pretty good critical reception. However, I'm not so much interested in discussing the series' relative quality (though I enjoyed it very much) - but rather its single greatest talking point: the fact that though the plotting, dialogue and incidents were original material, almost all of the characters were lifted from the works of Charles Dickens (about whom I have blogged extensively - covering all of his books between 2008-9). Viewers would see Fagin propose business dealings with Scrooge, Inspector Bucket accuse Bob Cratchit of Jacob Marley's murder, and Esther Summerson's poor mother Honoria Barbary (later Deadlock) help a young Amelia Havisham into her wedding dress.

Dickensian, then, was a riff on a particular corner of English literature; running with the not uncommon idea that all of Dickens' works take place in more or less the same universe[2], and that the prospect of these characters running about and meeting one another on the streets of London is too good an opportunity to pass up on. They all share a certain quality, the vision of a single creator, something...well, Dickensian for want of a better word, something Dickensian which unites them all - and thus makes the show feel aesthetically and thematically coherent, building as it did to something of a grand musing on love, family, money and class - four of the Victorian writer's greatest obsessions.

What interested me most about this programme, at first, was that it was made at all - and it seems I was not the only one to feel like this. Though mine was a pleasant surprise, not everybody felt this way. Was this not "fan fiction", that dreaded word normal folk apply only to the saddest and most pitiful corners of the Internet, where good-for-nothings project their scribblings onto a blank canvas and hope for good feedback? Was this not merely aping the greatness that has gone before, rather than telling a new story or creating the next Fagin or Oliver Twist, or a character with a similar shelf-life? Was this not, in fact, lazy and unoriginal and derivative?

It is my firm conviction that all of the above assumptions are profoundly wrong.

There are many reasons for this, but the principal one is to do with how literature functions - as a great structure, a lattice which nobody can possibly see in its entirety. The more one reads, and the more TV one watches, and the more one thinks about what one is consuming, the funnier comments like "it's unoriginal and derivative" or "it's been done before" seem. While it's probably a stretch to assert that there is, in fact, nothing new under the sun, that is more or less the thrust of my line of argument. As we have been reliably informed: talent borrows, but genius steals[3]. And so many of the ancients were such marvellous thieves. William Shakespeare wrote 38 plays, and there is only one (The Tempest) which does not have an obvious source; of those he did plunder cheerfully, he regularly copied out bits of Plutarch wholesale for Antony and Cleopatra (c.1607) in his description of, say, Cleopatra's barge[4] - notoriously one of his more lauded segments; or, to give another example, he stole chunks of King Lear (1605/6) from a contemporary source called The True Chronicle History of King Leir, which Leo Tolstoy thought far superior to Shakespeare's version[5]. And then there is the infamous Ur-Hamlet[6], and on and on. Of course, this phenomenon stretches far beyond Shakespeare - Thomas Mann's Doktor Faustus specifically apes both Marlowe's and Goethe's[7]; T.S. Eliot's The Waste Land borrows liberally from so many different sources that he had to leave an entire set of accompanying notes to help one study the poem[8]; and, more recently, a popular play such as Mike Bartlett's King Charles III owes a clear debt to Shakespeare's historicals[9].

The truth is this: if you don't behave like a magpie, your writing will acquire very little silver or gems. Or, as Philip Pullman charmingly puts it, "read like a butterfly, write like a bee"[10]. Everything is stolen or borrowed from somewhere. If this seems rather reductive, be assured that I am not proposing the existence of one single Ur-Text from which all stories originally sprang; rather that we simply return to do the same things and the same tricks time and again, and that our stories talk about the same things - love, loss, grief, joy, hatred, anger, crime, compassion.

Fan fiction, though (bringing us back to Dickensian), seems to many people a different kettle of fish. Surely nicking other people's characters is a bit iffy? That's not the same as quoting the odd bit of Dante or doing a new spin on an old idea, right? I would suggest part of the issue is the term itself. It implies that there is "proper" fiction which has not been written by fans, as opposed to the mere rough-and-ready bits and bobs that "ordinary" people jot down in their spare time. This is a fundamentally snobbish position, and it is also - in point of fact - a hilariously inaccurate one. Let us dispense with the word "fan" for a moment, for though it is not altogether negative (and is vastly preferable to "nut" or "obsessive"), the full form of the word is "fanatic", which has just a tinge of megalomania to it, or at the very least lack of reasonableness and perspective (and its fellow noun "fandom" sounds like a terrifying dictatorial state - which, in fairness, may not always be wrong). Instead of saying that this is fiction by "fans" of a certain film or programme or set of novels - and there are widespread Lord of the Rings, Doctor Who or Harry Potter "fan fictions" on the Internet, to give but three examples - let us momentarily turn to the gentler word "enthusiast". Sounds a bit silly, I know, but there is method in my madness. These short stories or scripts or novels, then, which people are writing in their spare time or publishing, or indeed turning into 20-part BBC1 television programmes, are written by people who are enthused by, or have a great love for, certain other bits of fiction.

Not only is there nothing wrong with this, but it has been happening since, well, forever. What was Shakespeare doing when he wrote those plays but stealing other people's characters, and indeed their obsessions and loves and interests and (often as not) their turns of speech? He was writing fan fiction. He was a fan who wrote fiction - or an enthusiast, if we prefer. What was Tom Stoppard doing when he wrote Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead (1966)? He was writing fan fiction. John Dryden, the 1668 Poet Laureate, wrote his own version of Antony and Cleopatra entitled All For Love in 1677. The current iteration of Doctor Who (2005-present), overseen as it is by people who grew up with the originals as children, is totally and utterly fan fiction, as is the modern-day Sherlock (2010-present). And in this respect, Tony Jordan's Dickensian is in pretty good company. As a lover of the works of Dickens, he has created a world in which he can play with those characters, tell new stories about them, get them to those places where their eventual fates will still befall them.

Time for some T.S. Eliot again: "immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different"[11]. That is of course the challenge, and what many would argue separates "good fiction that is inspired by something" from "bad fan fiction" (of the EL James/Fifty Shades of Grey variety). While this is a fair distinction in some ways - it is hard not to argue that the gulf in quality can be immense - it is also worth remembering that many a masterpiece begins life as "mere" fan fiction. Who knows what's being written out there on the Internet as we (proverbially) speak, some stonkingly good prose that will hit the shelves in a few years? Who knows?

Ironically for an essay on originality, this has been chock-a-block with quotations from elsewhere (I know, it's a terrible vice, but giving it up would be like Winston Churchill giving up smoking). So I implore any readers to allow me one more - and an apt one, I think, given that the writer in question passed away last week. It's something once said by Umberto Eco, the Italian academic, semiotician and novelist, and what he said was this: "books always speak of other books, and every story tells a story that has already been told"[12]. While it is perhaps a valid concern that books should not speak only of other books, and that we ensure books continue to speak of people and real-life experiences too (for if not, the books will surely come to life and start to plot* amongst themselves, and then where would we be), it is simply not possible to prevent stories from being - as it were - in communication with one another, borrowing and lending with abandon like some crazed, orgiastic library. All fiction is by enthusiasts, and all fiction is fan fiction - even if some wear their influences more proudly on their sleeves than others. And to that I say "amen".

*Yes, this is a deliberate pun, and I'm stupidly proud of it.
  2. It is interesting to note that one of Dickens' contemporaries in literature - Honoré de Balzac - actually did this, setting several different novels with different characters in the "same" Paris, with some of his characters crossing over from one to another.
  3. Wilde, Oscar, though the actual provenance of the quote is widely disputed.
  4. Compare the following - Leo, F.A. (ed), Four Chapters of North's Plutarch; Photolithographed in the Size of the Original Edition of 1595, Trubner and Company, 1878; North, Thomas, The Lives of the Noble Graecian and Romains Compared (translation from Plutarch), Thomas Vaueroullier and John Wright, 1579; and Smith, Emma, The Cambridge Introduction to Shakespeare, Cambridge University Press, 2007.
  5. Tolstoy, Leo, Tolstoy on Shakespeare (translated by V. Tchertkoff), New York & Company, 1906; see also Orwell, George, "Lear, Tolstoy and the Fool" in Polemic No. 7, 1947.
  6. Jack, Albert E., "Thomas Kyd and the Ur-Hamlet" in PMLA Vol. 20 No. 4, 1905 (among others).
  7. Mann, Thomas, Doktor Faustus: Das Leben des deutschen Tonsetzers Adrian Leverkühn, erzählt von einem Freunde, Alfred A. Knopf, 1947.
  8. Eliot, T.S., The Waste Land, Horace Liveright, 1922.
  10. Pullman, Philip, Afterword to The Amber Spyglass, Scholastic, 2000. The relevant section reads in full: "I have stolen ideas from every book I have ever read. My principle in researching for a novel is ‘Read like a butterfly, write like a bee’, and if this story contains any honey, it is entirely because of the quality of the nectar I found in the work of better writers. But there are three debts that need acknowledgment above all the rest. One is to the essay On the Marionette Theatre by Heinrich von Kleist...The second is to John Milton’s Paradise Lost. The third is to the works of William Blake."
  11. Eliot, T.S., "Philip Massinger", in The Sacred Wood, Alfred A. Knopf, 1921.
  12. Eco, Umberto, Postscript to The Name of the Rose, Bompiani/Harcourt, 1985 edition.

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