Literary Fanfic

October bookmarks
Lithograph of Thomas Mann, 1924 (Lithographie von Emil Stumpp/Wikimedia Commons)

A certain style of novel is on the rise. Let’s call it “literary fanfic.” Before describing this hybrid form, we should first understand its components. What is literary fiction? Answers will vary: fiction that concerns itself with style above plot; fiction that arises from, and is taught in, MFA programs; fiction that defines itself against “genre fiction.” (Of course, literary novels have their own generic conventions. My wife has come up with a Mad Libs for this kind of writing: a sad young BLANK travels to BLANK where he is betrayed by BLANK and discovers that BLANK is not all that he thought it was.) But we all know, or think we know, what literary fiction is when we see it. Jonathan Franzen and Louise Erdrich, yes; Sue Grafton and Stephen King, no.

Fanfic, or fan fiction, or simply fic, is fiction written by, well, fans: fans who take characters either real (Harry Styles) or imagined (Rey Skywalker) and create new stories, even new existences, for them. These stories are then shared online for free. Want to know what Frodo and Smaug would be like if they were in love? You can find that pairing—actually, dozens of versions of that pairing, ranging from the kid-friendly to the XXX-rated—on Archive of Our Own, the web’s best fic resource. Like any genre, fanfic has its share of duds; a story about Barack Obama’s imagined crush on Vladimir Putin is even less appealing than it sounds. But it also has gems that work in their own right and refract back upon the source text. (Jane Austen fic is especially rich.)

Looked at from a certain angle, fanfic isn’t new. T. S. Eliot wasn’t on Tumblr, but he did know that “no poet, no artist, has his complete meaning alone.” Stories come from other stories, and they always have. What distinguishes fanfic is more a matter of sensibility and style. Fanfic is written by amateurs. By that I mean both that it is written by non-professional writers, though there are exceptions, and that it is written by lovers, enthusiasts who create out of affection—complicated affection, often, but affection nonetheless—for the source text. Writers of fic are emotionally invested in what they’re writing on; they want it to keep going, to never end. Media scholar Henry Jenkins argues that “fan fiction is a way of the culture repairing the damage done in a system where contemporary myths are owned by corporations instead of owned by the folk.” This reparative work can be seen in how often fic centers on queer romance, taking a character or storyline from the margins of a text—say, the erotic charge between Emma and Harriet in Emma—and pushing it forward. Sometimes, this can be clunky, a contemporary sensibility grafting itself onto an old story. Sometimes, it can be generative, revealing how the desire to reproduce and redress shapes our reading and writing.

Fanfic tends to have a distinctive style: heavy on sentence fragments, emotionally expressive actions, and one-sentence paragraphs; filled with italicized phrases, syntactical repetition, and present-tense verbs. These stylistic features arise from the genre’s particular demands. In fic, the writer’s task isn’t to create a character named “Han Solo” or “Barack Obama.” It’s to convince the reader of this particular instantiation of a character they already know. Backstory and general habits of mind can be excised without much loss; elements that intensify character presence and readerly identification—strong emotions and bodily descriptions—are emphasized. The result has a particular staccato rhythm. Everything, from syntax to narrative perspective, stresses immediacy.

In recent years, some of the most lauded works of literary fiction have begun to read an awful lot like fanfic.

Two modes of writing, then, that seem almost diametrically opposed: literary fiction, writing that emphasizes craft and wins awards; and fanfic, writing that emphasizes, and is born from, readerly pleasure and happily exists outside the prize economy. Except that, in recent years, some of the most lauded works of literary fiction have begun to read an awful lot like fanfic.

Madeline Miller’s The Song of Achilles, winner of the 2012 Orange Prize, took the hero of Homer’s Iliad and fleshed out his childhood and love for Patroclus. Her 2018 follow-up, Circe, gave us The Odyssey from Circe’s perspective. Like many writers of fic, Miller, trained as a classicist rather than as a fiction writer, took something often ignored—homosexual love in The Iliad; female experience in The Odyssey—and gave it center stage. The beats of Miller’s sentences sound like fic, too: “My hand feels empty without the garland. I watch King Peleus embrace his son. I see the boy toss the garland in the air and catch it again. He is laughing, and his face is bright with victory.”

The Song of Achilles exemplifies literary fanfic because it has both fic content (it offers a new angle on a previous story) and fic style. Some examples of this hybrid genre have fic origins but not its formal features: Edward St. Aubyn’s Dunbar (2017), which reimagines King Lear as an unhoused, broken-down media titan, doing so with the English novelist’s typical mordant elegance; or John Banville’s Mrs. Osmond (2017), which picks up where The Portrait of a Lady leaves off, and employs Henry James’s endlessly unfolding, simultaneously revealing and withholding sentences. By contrast, Carmen Maria Machado’s excellent stories often exhibit the rhythms of fic, from the clipped style of “Especially Heinous,” a high-level reimagining of characters from Law & Order: SVU, to the driving immersiveness of “The Husband Stitch”: “He smiles at me, and rubs his jaw. A little of my blood smears across his skin, but he doesn’t notice, and I don’t say anything.” In both works that have fic content and those that have fic style, though, affect is the key. Banville writes a James sequel because he loves the original; Miller wants to make Achilles, and the reader, feel all the feels.

There are a number of possible explanations for this leakage of fan culture into literary culture. Literary fiction (A sad young BLANK …) could use some of the energy and feeling that characterizes much of fanfic. Fandom now is seen less as a mark of shame than as a badge of honor. Writers and readers are frustrated with an exclusive focus on craft at the expense of readerly identification. Whatever the root cause, what used to be a hard-and-fast division—literary fiction over here, fanfic over there—has become something of a revolving door.

 

This September saw two new novels in the literary fanfic mode by two very different writers. Over the last seventeen years, Irish novelist Colm Tóibín has alternated between works of straightforward literary realism (2009’s Brooklyn; 2014’s Nora Webster) and more fan-inspired imaginings. The Master (2004) followed Henry James over the last five years of the nineteenth century; The Testament of Mary (2012) novelized Mary’s life after her son’s crucifixion; House of Names (2017) reimagined the bloody history of the house of Atreus. Now, in The Magician (Scribner, $28, 512 pp.), Tóibín considers the life of Thomas Mann. The novel opens in 1890s Lübeck, Germany, with the teenage Thomas, “alert and grave in his demeanor,” seemingly destined to be “the one who would take over the family firm into the next century.” We then move to 1920s Munich, by which time the family firm has been lost, Mann has married (despite, or because of, his homosexual desires) and become a novelist. (Buddenbrooks made him a literary celebrity.) Then we’re on to Princeton in 1939 and California in the 1940s, Mann fleeing Europe as an enemy of the Nazis, before ending in 1953, again in Lübeck, where Mann remembers a story his mother told him about Bach traveling in search of the secret to musical composition.

The Magician proceeds with exquisite restraint. Take this passage from the early 1930s. Mann has carefully avoided making political statements. He suspects that his work eventually will be banned: his wife, Katia, is Jewish; Death in Venice is a masterpiece of decadence but he knows that, to the Nazis, it’s only the decadence, not the mastery, that will matter. Mann thinks about what happens when a writer can no longer be read in his mother tongue:

He thought back to Buddenbrooks and The Magic Mountain, the books for which he was most famous, and realized that they would have been paler books, less confident, less intense, had he known when he was writing them that no German would be permitted to read them. At the time he wrote those books, he did not have to think of them as imaginative interventions in the fraught public life of his own country. Such high-flown thoughts were not necessary. The relationship between his words and the German reader had been calm and natural. There would come a time, he knew, when that relationship would have to be broken, but he wanted to postpone it for as long as he could.

The very things to which Mann has committed his life—the German language; the autonomy of art; the cultivation of an irony that is verbal and political and metaphysical all at once—are dying. He is compromising himself ethically and he can’t pretend otherwise. Yet the close third-person narration is precise, judicious, controlled. What is dramatized here, and in countless other passages in The Magician, is what is also dramatized in Death in Venice and The Magic Mountain: how the self and the art it produces are a matter of composition, the channeling and reconfiguring of dangerous feeling into legible form. Death in Venice dramatizes the push-pull between the will to order and the drive towards dissolution. So too does The Magician. Tóibín has imagined his way not just into Mann’s life but into his very moral and aesthetic sense. Most crucially, he’s found a style that is appropriate to that sense: outwardly disciplined with dark energy surging underneath.

In “Matrix,” it’s the abbey’s isolation that enables the flourishing of female intimacy and the practicing of female agency.

Lauren Groff’s Matrix (Riverhead, 272 pp., $28) is loosely based on the life of Marie de France, a poet born in France in the twelfth century who lived most of her life in England. Little is known about the historical Marie. She was recognized at the court of Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine and most likely was an abbess, perhaps Thomas Becket’s sister. She also wrote a series of lais on courtly love, making her the first known French female poet. The rest is silence.

This lack of an historical footprint gives Groff ample room to imagine. Her Marie is large in body, mind, and ambition. Shunted off from Eleanor’s court to an English abbey at the age of seventeen, Marie is immediately made prioress. (Her mother, a fierce woman who took her daughters with her on Crusade, was raped by a Plantagenet, making Marie “a bastardess sibling of the crown.”) Her fellow nuns see Marie as a “giantess.” Upon her arrival, the mistress of novices “look[s] closely at [Marie’s] privates…saying that this new prioress is so large a person with hands so great and voice so deep and face so unwomanly, it needed to be seen that she is female.” This isn’t the only way in which Marie defies twelfth-century norms. Before coming to the abbey, she sexually experimented with her servant and fell in love with the queen. As we follow Marie over five decades at the abbey—first as prioress, then as abbess—she takes on male clerics, steals moments of sexual pleasure with her fellow nuns, establishes a successful scriptorium, and has divine visions that prompt construction projects. Eventually, she dons priestly vestments, hears confessions, and celebrates Mass.

In Matrix, it’s the abbey’s isolation that enables the flourishing of female intimacy and the practicing of female agency. In an early scene, the nuns sing Lauds and Marie sees the freedom afforded by limitation:

The song rises from the mouths of the nuns in puffs of white breath, it expands as it flies, it touches the tall white ceiling and collects there until it grows so heavy that it begins to pour down the walls and the pillars and the windows in a cascade; it trickles back across the stone floor to where the nuns’ clogs press, and up through their wooden heels and it reaches their tender living skin and passes into the blood and purifies itself as it rolls through their bodies, up through the stinking entrails and the breath exhaled from the lungs. And the song that rises into them and leaves their mouth is prayer intensified, redoubled in its strength every time it pours through them anew.

It is because this prayer is enclosed within the chapel, she sees now, not despite the enclosure, that it becomes potent enough to be heard.

Groff performs the queering of an historical figure you might encounter on Archive of Our Own, and her style checks many of the fic boxes, too. There’s present-tense narration with short, single-line paragraphs. “She feels royal. She feels papal,” one paragraph reads. Another: “This is the thrill of creation. It jolts through her, dangerous and alive.” Groff makes us smell the burning peat and damp wool of Marie’s world, and she makes us see it as well. In one moment, drowned sheep are seen brilliantly as “palenesses floating in the dark.” Earlier, “a bee with sidesaddles of pollen bats its body against the wall.” Here, we can sense Groff’s command of rhythm and music, all those b’s playing against one another, as well as her interest in medieval tropes. (Bees featured regularly in devotional and literary texts of the period.) In his preface to The Aspern Papers, Henry James writes that he “delight[s] in the palpable imaginable visitable past”—a past that is “fragrant of all, or of almost all, the poetry of the thing outlived and lost and gone.” Matrix offers these fragrances and this poetry.

It also exhibits an interesting, if unresolved, tension: the desire to immerse us in medieval England (this is how it really smelled and looked) and the desire to show just how progressive medieval female religious communities could be (look at these woke nuns). As Marie accumulates power, gossip circulates, provoking a bumper-sticker-like response: “True, there had been rumors of witchcraft; but such rumors are irrepressible when it came to powerful women.” To relax after hearing confessions, “Marie likes to go down to the scriptorium and change the verbs and nouns of the missals and psalters into the feminine, for why not when they are meant only to be heard and spoken by women? She laughs to herself as she does it. Slashing women into the texts feels wicked. It is fun.” Marie here acts like a writer of fic, remaking the source text so as to redress injustice. (“Slash” is even a fic term for work that focuses on same-sex romance.)

Throughout the novel, Marie writes down the divine visions that she has received; one involves Mary kissing Eve on the mouth. After her death, the new abbess burns Marie’s writings “in a thoughtless panic” and the Church loses its chance to become a force for good: “she cannot see how much is lost in the burning: the traces of a predecessor, the visions that might have showed a different path for the next millennium. The strong stock for a new graft gone.” It’s a strange moment. Through Marie, Groff suggests that there is a tradition of female religious power, one that has been lost due to the Church’s ​​pusillanimity. Yet, by treating Marie as so singular and modern, she ends up eliding the actual tradition of the Church: a tradition that often figured Christ as mother and the Holy Spirit as feminine; a tradition that included the visionary theology of Hildegard of Bingen (Groff has mentioned her as a favorite); a tradition of which Marie, though well read and well connected, seems unaware. In short, the imagined “strong stock for a new graft” didn’t just belong to Marie, and it wasn’t really lost.

Groff wants to resurrect the past: the bad bedding and worse food, all those nuns farting and suffering from chilblains. She also wants to repair its inequities. This is a tension at the heart of fanfic, too, where affection can lead to reiteration or to radical remaking. These twinned desires are difficult for any fiction, fan or otherwise, to reconcile.

Anthony Domestico is Chair of the Literature Department at Purchase College, and a frequent contributor to Commonweal. His book Poetry and Theology in the Modernist Period is available from Johns Hopkins University Press.

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