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In Defense of Fanfiction

May 23, 2022 02:16PM
A few days ago, in my reading, I came across an essay by the late GK Chesterton (29 May 1874 – 14 June 1936), who is one of the two greatest influences on my writing. I was absolutely tickled by the subject and thought I should share it, though I couldn't find a digital version anywhere, so I had to reproduce it from my book. I hope you find it as amusing as I did:

Rewriting Our Novels

May 23, 1936

Somehow or other, my mind drifted the other day towards the fancy that every famous novel, especially every quiet and domestic novel, might be rewritten as a detective story. There is something pleasing in the thought that “Cranford” might be republished with the title of “Crime at Cranford.” It might be agreeable if Miss Mitford, returning to a troubled world, should give us a revised version of “Our Village,” which should do justice to the darker and more violent side of the village; indeed, doing justice is a terrible term in such a connection, suggesting the black cap at the assizes or the gallows in the prison-yard, in the best traditions of Hardy and Housman. Yet Miss Marple, quite as meek and spinsterish as Miss Mitford, actually is a creation of modern detective fiction; a modern maiden lady who plays the demure detective in some excellent stories by Agatha Christie; and gives her own more grim or gory picture of “Our Village.”

Anyhow, the fun would be to apply this rather destructive reconstruction chiefly to the tales that are supposed to be particularly bland and blameless; the tea-table comedies of those writers who deal in trifles, even when their writing is very far from trivial. For a book as good as “cranfos” is in fact far from trivial; and it is even more true about fiction than about fact, that any such person who sweeps a room “as by Thy laws” may make both the room and the writing fine.

An obvious instance, though a sort of inversion, may be found in the case of Jane Austen. THat exceedingly fine comedy, “Northanger Abbey,” turns entirely on the idea of the heroine suspecting that there is a murderous mystery, and then finding out after all that there is only a humdrum or mildly humorous household. What fun it would be to write it all over again backwards; and let her first admit that it was only a humdrum household, and then find out after all that it was really a murderous mystery. For my part, I confess that I closed the book with very dark and lingering doubts about General Tilney, that very discouraging gentleman; and, without taking any actual steps about exhuming his wife’s body, I can never get rid of the notion that he did murder her after all. But the mind refuses to linger of the admitted melodrama of “Northanger Abbey”; or to follow tamely the ironical suggestion about the memoirs of the wretched Matilda.

It would be even better fun to transfer the atmosphere of crime to the other more quietly realistic stories of Jane Austen. “Persuasion” would be a good name for a murder story; especially of the sort that dwells upon terrorism and torture; and a subtle and delicate ethical and psychological question might be raised, about whether a really callous crime would be more probably the result of Sensibility or merely of Sense.

The most probable problem raised in the case of “Pride and Prejudice” is obvious enough. Lady Catherine de Bourgh is murdered. Nobody could possibly take social precedence of her on that social occasion. All would rejoice that she would go out of the room before the rest. In every other way, the grouping of the rest of the characters seem deliberately designed for a detective story, of the older and more melodramatic sort.

The first suspicion must necessarily fall on Mr. Darcy (who was, if I remember right, her nephew and her heir): a dark, sinister, solitary figure, already unpopular by his unsociable habits and seemingly inhumane arrogance. Yes; the first suspicion of the first detective must be that the crime was committed by Mr. Darcy, possibly helped, or hindered, by Mr. Bingley, as a very reluctant and wavering accomplice. Effective scenes might be made out of the police examination of Mr. Bennet, whose sardonic answers leave the detective in great doubt about whether Mr. Bennet means that he did commit the murder, or merely that he is sincerely repentant for his negligence in not doing so. A grand finale in which the crime was finally brought home to Mr. Collins, who had rebelled at last against a life of servility and humiliation, would satisfy poetical justice, but I fear would not satisfy the extremely prosaic truthfulness of Miss Jane Austen.

It is our duty to hope and pray for all the immortal souls of men; but, while abjuring absolutely the detestable determinism of Calvin, I doubt in the common human sense whether Mr. Collins could ever rise so high in the moral scales as murder. Yet I would rather have the crime committed by Mr. Collins than by Mr. Wickham, who is the nearest approach to a villain who can be found in such a novel. Mr. Wickham floats over our heads in a sort of upper air of triviality and trickery, like an elf; he cannot be convicted as a criminal except perhaps as a sort of aerial pick-pocket, exactly fitted to the euphemism about “the light-fingered gentry.” Those light fingers were never made for the necessary but repugnant task of strangling Lady Catherine de Bourgh; those little hands were never made to tear out those august and malevolent eyes.

In this case, so far as I am concerned, I confess that my mystery is still a mystery. I do not know who killed Lady Catherine de Bourgh; indeed, it would be a slight exaggeration to say that I have any full and final authority for saying that she was murdered. But there is just as good evidence for it as there is for a vast number of the most fashionable and popular theories of evolution, origin of ethics, comparisons of religions, and descriptions of prehistoric man. It has just come into my head, which seems to be all that is necessary for a really promising scientific hypothesis. Perhaps a psycho-analyst will rewrite all of the novels and show that the apparent wak-mindedness of Mrs. Bennet covered a subconscious violence or a sadistic psychosis that was bound sooner or later to terminate in gore.

This is all a very idle and rambling speculation, which I hope is quite free from all that poison of controversy or propaganda, of which I am sometimes accused. Nobody, I hope, can regard a love of Jane Austen as a controversial matter, or a thing in dispute among intelligent people; and as for a taste in battle, murder, and sudden death, I should say it was fairly well distributed, as the professors of comparative religions would say, among all the myths and mystical movements of mankind.

But it might at least supply something in that nature of a new game. It would be amusing to go over some familiar work, like “David Copperfield” or “Vanity Fair,” and reconstruct the relations of all the characters, in the light of their relation to some hidden crime that does not occur in the existing story. It would be amusing to find that the recorded conduct of Pendennis or Pickwick was really explained more intelligently by tracing a crime or digging up a corpse, which had entirely escaped the notice of Thackery or Dickens.

Indeed, the new game seems to give new possibilities to the old game about choosing a book for a desert island. The Robinson Crusoe who took one book might turn it into ten or twenty versions. He might be said to possess a whole library, by the time that he had found fifteen explanations of the curious conduct of Pendennis. Nor, indeed, has this method of the variety of explanations been entirely neglected. AS it is exactly what has been done with the Bible and Shakespeare, and the world’s most important works, we may be excused for extending it to a few comedies of the teacups.

I hope I never ridicule what is wise or good. Follies and nonsense, whims and inconsistencies do divert me, I own, and I laugh at them whenever I can.


In Defense of Fanfiction

KathyMay 23, 2022 02:16PM


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