Jane Austen has been dead for almost 200 years, and yet almost every few months, a new Darcy-themed novel is published: Mrs. Darcy's Dilemma, Mr. Darcy's Refuge—and the naughtier Mr. Darcy Takes a Wife. Austen is hardly the first and only victim of posthumous character adaptations; there have been more Jason Bourne books written since Robert Ludlum’s death than Robert Ludlum wrote himself; a recent novel imagined Emily Brontë’s Heathcliff as a vampire; Sherlock Holmes, due to the popularity of the BBC show, has been perhaps the greatest victim of late. Even Pulitzer-winner Michael Chabon wrote a Sherlock Holmes character (admittedly, well before the show aired).
The most recent example of this phenomenon is a new book by John Banville, writing as Benjamin Black, resurrecting Raymond Chandler’s famous private eye, Philip Marlowe. The Black-Eyed Blonde was given the green light by Chandler’s estate, and the book tells a plausibly Chandler-like story of a woman who hires Marlowe to find one of her old flames, sending Marlowe into a web of intrigue as he uncovers the truth to a larger, deeper mystery. Although Banville makes a real effort to invoke Marlowe, the book ends up seeming more like film noir parody. The Black-Eyed Blonde is not a new Philip Marlowe novel so much as it is a printed version of fan fiction, the largely online amateur practice of adapting and reimagining stories from popular TV shows or novels. This of course raises the question: At what point does a work of supposed literary merit simply become fan fiction?
First, however, it’s useful to outline the differences between the two genres. Works of literary impersonation, like Banville’s, are often given a seal of approval by the original author’s estate. The books are written with the intention of carrying on an author’s legacy; they are both a way of capitalizing on an established writer’s fame and a genuine literary endeavor that aspires to supplement a character arc or an entire canon. Venerable houses like St. Martin’s Press and Faber and Faber publish works of literary impersonation; the books are given spots on tables at Barnes and Noble, and, occasionally, appear on the marquee of Amazon’s kindle download homepage. Their authors are frequently independently famous writers like Banville or Michael Dibdin; even Neil Gaiman penned a famous H.P. Lovecraft-inspired story. Most of all, however, these works often adopt an even-keeled, tempered approach, staying essentially faithful to the constraints imposed by the original work. If the original story does not have zombies, the subsequent work of literary interpretation probably won’t either.
Fan fiction, on the other hand, lives primarily on the unruly internet, where it is generated by anonymous (or at least un-famous) fans who write their own narratives. It generally doesn’t share the same fidelity to the author’s style and often stretches the limits of plausibility. Fan fiction can include backstory (meant to act as a prelude to the original work) or the creation of an alternate universe (an offshoot from original storylines). Fan fiction even has its own terminology: “warm and fuzzy feeling” is a story that ties up loose ends after a cliffhanger; “shipping” is the act of pairing two unattached partners in a romantic relationship. One of the most famous fan fiction plotlines imagines a deep, torrid romance between Harry Potter and Professor Snape. Other plotlines cast Twilight characters as characters in the movie Avatar or send Steve Urkel on an adventure with ALF. Fan fiction is not only less faithful to the original source than literary impersonation, but it is notoriously untethered to any sense of reality established in the original works, even with regard to the most extra-stellar, magic-filled sci-fi examples like Star Wars, Harry Potter, or Twilight.
But despite the lines that can be drawn, the world of literary impersonation is coming to look increasingly similar to the world of fan fiction. Perhaps the most obvious similarity is the awkward relationship that literary impersonation still has with the language of the original text. Banville, for instance, tries to write in Chandler’s dark, detached tone, but never quite manages to invoke Marlowe’s heady, hardboiled introspection. The internal monologues of Banville’s Marlowe sound more like confused observations: “She smelled nice, as you’d expect” doesn’t have the psychological weight of Chandler’s: “She looked back at him with one of those faint half deprecatory, half seductive smiles women are so good at.” In one scene, Banville has his Marlowe describe a gem by comparing it to a Boysenberry. Marlowe drank whiskey, ate steak, and smoked cigarettes in his dark office to pass the time. He wasn’t exactly a fan of fresh produce.
This distorted notion of the original author’s style is not the only similarity between Banville’s novel and internet fan fiction. Most strikingly, The Black-Eyed Blonde is framed as a sort of sequel to Chandler’s The Long Goodbye, involving many of the same characters. Banville even has a “warm and fuzzy feeling” storyline, reintroducing Marlowe’s good friend Terry Lennox and applying a chummy conclusion to what was originally an emotionally ambiguous relationship. (At the end of The Long Goodbye, Marlowe announces that he never saw Lennox again.) The story is also over-saturated with trademark elements from the original work: Gimlet drinking, walks on Cahuenga Boulevard, cameos by Marlowe’s old police friends.
The distinction between literary impersonation and fan fiction isn’t just fuzzy for Banville. A league of new Sherlocks all stumble through a series of banal and predictable insights into various crimes: “Although why anyone should wish to murder Woodforde Soames, probably the most popular man in England at the moment, must be regarded as something of a puzzle!” Austen impersonators are prone to use many fan fiction tropes, too. They stylize their work with an affected stateliness in an attempt to write Austen-like dialogue. They introduce nearly every Bennet and major character of Pride and Prejudice (in the fan fiction universe, this technique is called the “universal-adaptor cast”). Mr. Darcy’s Diary simply retells all of Pride and Prejudice from Darcy’s perspective—fan fiction simply calls this “alternate point-of-view.”
It is hardly surprising that literary impersonation converges with fan fiction. Both literary impersonation and fan fiction, whatever differences they may appear to have, attempt to resurrect work that has already put to rest. Apparently dissatisfied at how Chandler left off, Banville took it upon himself to see Marlowe and Lennox resume their gimlet-infused friendship. And both are thus rooted in an inability to realize that when it comes to a character like Philip Marlowe, Raymond Chandler should be the beginning and the end. The impulse to rewrite—whatever the genre—betrays a sort of fanaticism that can be a confused form of contempt; the original was not good enough for the fan-fiction writer. And yet perhaps this is simply the fate of all great writers—after all, literary immortality seems meaningless until someone tries to copy you.
Alexander Aciman is the author of Twitterature. He has written for The New York Times, Tablet, The Wall Street Journal, and TIME. Follow him on Twitter at @acimania.
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