“There’s a time and place for everything, and I believe it’s called ‘fan fiction’.” – Joss Whedon
Nowadays it seems there are some wonderful fan fiction sites out there for every television, movie, and book in existence. And I have no problem with fan fiction or people who write it. What bothers me is when I see them passed off as original works on the shelves of bookstores and it seems the most popular target, though by no means the only target, is Jane Austen.
For each of the six novels Jane Austen wrote, there seem to exist a thousand rip-offs about her beloved heroines and heroes, their hypothetical children, and even the minor characters. Though some of the premises are amusing (a Mansfield Park murder mystery where the judgmental Fanny Price is the unfortunate victim) and some prove to be more the influence of other trends (such as the Zombie craze which has led to Pride and Prejudice and Zombies or the fascination with vampires that has turned every character from Mr. Darcy to the authoress herself into children of the night).
For the most part though, the sequels focus on placing Austen’s characters with a few new ones of the author’s own (to claim some sense of originality) into overly sensationalized situations that even soap operas wouldn’t air. Many of these authors turn up the sex and/or disregard Austen’s signature style entirely. Why can’t they use their plot ideas and create characters and settings all their own to populate them? Because they won’t sell. The reason they sell is not because they’re good, it’s because they’re associated with Jane Austen (though she had no say in creating or maintaining the acquaintance).
So now, posthumously, Jane Austen has crossed into the realms of science fiction and fantasy, trashy romance, mystery, and even graphic novels. I can’t help but wonder what she would have made of it all? Would she have been flattered or disappointed by her imitators? Would she see it as trying to make money off her work or as attempts at homage?
There are ways to pay homage to classic works without ripping off their characters. Modern adaptations, when done correctly, tend to be very successful and entertaining. Bridget Jones’s Diary may have used the Darcy name but manages to be a delightful modernization on its own. The Jane Austen Book Club shows how elements of Austen’s novels can be seen in everyday life but the characters and their troubles are Fowler’s own.
And as I said before, Austen may be the first that jumped to my mind, but she is by no means the only one. Shakespeare’s work has undergone such transformations many times over. Myths and fairy tales continue to be remade. From a more historical side, one would think the War of the Roses ended a decade or two ago and the Tudors were still on the throne. I’m not even going to get started on biblical stories.
The new is rarely as good as the work it references, but there are those that are strong enough to stand on their own. Gregory Maguire’s Wicked and other reexaminations are well developed and definitely original (though sometimes over the top). Perhaps my favorite modern adaptation is simply titled The True Story of Hansel and Gretel by Louise Murphy. I doesn’t rely on the allusions to support it. They’re the trim work that makes the house look finished, not its foundation or weight-bearing walls.
So I guess my point is that we need to call these unauthorized sequels what they are, fan fiction, and put them in their place. Stop shelling out money for weak imitations and encourage not just creativity but originality. I know it’s hard to let beloved characters go, but let them live on in your own minds (or online as fan fiction). Austen and the others ended their work where they did for a reason and it should be respected as they left it, not exploited to make a quick buck. Few people would try to get away with something like that for a writer still living, so it shouldn’t be encouraged just because a writer is dead and can’t object.