What a whirlwind March and April have been with the release of Fearful Symmetry! And yet, as a mom of young kiddos, May somehow completely floored me. Again. Like it does every year. End-of-school-year activities, summer scramble, Mother’s Day, graduation events–it all hits at once. I apologize for neglecting this blog for so long!
For those of you not on social media, you might enjoy a chance to see what I got up to this spring during the book’s big release: a blog tour! And quite a tour it was. Here’s where I went:
I had way too much fun visiting all these pages–some for dropping book excerpts, some for interviews, and all for good fun and spreading the word about Fearful Symmetry!
(Please note that any competitions mentioned are now closed. Big thank you to the blog mavens and Quills and Quartos Publishing, my publisher, for putting it all together!)
It was quite a fun/busy time, followed by ALL the nail-biting as I absorbed reactions to the book from readers after it launched. That kind of feedback was SUCH a rewarding way to spend my spring! Thank you for your patience with me. I think I’m just now catching my breath!
As a writer and reader of many categories of literature—including fanfiction—I’ll admit I’m biased on how to answer this question: is fanfiction really literature, or is it just play-acting off of the “real thing”?
Based off the historical practice for variation storytelling which set several precedents for fanfiction being accepted within the accepted canon of “classic” literature, I’m going to answer YES, it can be.
Wait? Hold up! What ‘historical practice’? Isn’t fanfiction a fairly recent phenomenon? Something found in fan-magazines from the mid-20th-century, and then circulated farther and faster with the introduction of the internet?
No. Fanfiction is far, far older than our modern memory serves. I could even argue that the knack for it generates from age-old practices of oral tradition and the tendency of storytellers to embellish and alter familiar tales for novelty’s sake, even as their audience enjoys the well-loved repetition of the older tale on which the embellishment takes shape. But it might be impossible for any modern scholar to pinpoint the earliest occurrences of “fanfiction” in this case, or even to specify the occurrences, as oral tales robustly overlap in the retelling.
Written literature may guide us better, since there, we have a paper trail. In looking over past works, we might be able to identify the fanfiction-like practice of story variation built upon what Linda Hutcheon in ATheory of Adaptation calls a phenomenon of “adaptations as palimpsests”—meaning new works of writing that hold traces of the original work while imposing intertextual elements of alternate viewpoints and plot. These feel much like what we experience when writing words on a literal palimpsest, which is a used writing surface on which the imprint of what has already been written before is still visible or perceptible as an imprint on the surface, even as one writes down something newer over it.
A few examples of this might be helpful. Some of the most easily recognizable works of adaptation-based fanfiction in Western culture are those which pull variants from stories and themes from the Bible—which is the most widely read literary source-text of all time. Consider Dante’s Inferno, with its fresh representation of Hell, which pulls many of its imaginings of the infernal realm from Virgil’s Aeneid in addition to the frightening visions in the Book of Revelation and the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus in the Gospel of Luke. In this first part of his Divine Comedy spent in Hell, Dante even presents himself as a sort of “Mary-Sue” (as fanfic writers call it) by adding himself through self-insertion as a character. He then entertains guest appearances and interactions in what fanfic writers would call a “cross-over” by featuring characters from the stories of Virgil alongside a pantheon of well-known Greek heroes and philosophers, all alluding to their own histories and storylines, which the audience recognizes as retold within the new Hellscape setting.
Consider also John Milton’s fresh take on the Fall of Creation in Paradise Lost, an epic that attempts to retell the creation story of Genesis 1-3 while working to layer in, and then to fill in the “gaps” left in the scanty biblical narrative to explain the presence of evil (taking form as the serpent) in Eden. To do this, Milton pulls key plot points from the prophecies in Ezekiel 28 and Isaiah 14, which scholars and church traditions have long considered symbolic retellings of Satan’s fall after a war in Heaven. As Milton writes imaginatively in and around these biblical narratives, the characters grow more fully sketched, with more “screen time” given especially to Satan, who portrays a kind of anti-hero. Through Milton, Satan’s story is finally fleshed out, and with it, the “gap” in the narrative as to why he came into Eden to betray mankind, and therefore the Creator, is better understood.
While today’s fanfiction is not accorded the literary honors of Dante’s Inferno or Milton’s Paradise lost, the creative drive they embody is the same—this need to fill in or even to explore and alter the “gaps” of a well-known story. This “gap”-filling pattern is something that essayists Nora Nachumi and Stephanie Oppenheim observe that Jane Austen’s particular breed of fanfiction writers capitalize upon because the “gaps” in Austen’s original narrative are so striking, so inviting, and are gaping with wide-open emotional space:
In Pride and Prejudice, we argue, the narrator manipulates the reader’s perspective to reveal gaps between the protagonists’ thoughts and emotions and how they can express them. These gaps generate tensions, which are often erotic, that require release. . . . the sexual tension in Austen’s novel springs from repression. It exists in the gap between the characters’ thoughts and emotions and what they can say or do about them given the mores of the society in which they live. These gaps create the urge for disclosure, a process that sometimes requires the assistance of others.
(Nachumi & Oppenheim, “Sex, Love, and Austen: Was It Good for You?”)
This need for “assistance” in exploring the emotions of Austen’s characters is most often fulfilled by the active imagination of the reader. This reader might, say, read a line in Chapter 31 of Pride and Prejudice in which Elizabeth teases Mr Darcy for approaching her as she is playing the pianoforte at Rosings (“You mean to frighten me, Mr. Darcy, by coming in all this state to hear me?”), and decide for themselves what her motivation might be for speaking to him in such provoking way. Perhaps it is simply irritation mixed with a subtext of flirtation, one might guess—because, of course, Jane Austen does not say, precisely, what Elizabeth is thinking at that very moment beyond giving us the clue that she wore an “arch smile” as she turned to him and spoke.
These gaps of emotional omission on Austen’s part are very skillfully done. By leaving invested readers in the dark during these fascinating interactions, she invites readers to reach farther into the text with our own emotions than perhaps a more overtly descriptive book might merit as we attempt to fully understand the scene. Indeed, if Austen’s readers are to be satisfied with such teasingly vague interactions between Elizabeth and Darcy as this one, they must engage the text at this level of emotional speculation in order to feel the characters as fully bodied entities.
And here is where we find lively room for Austen fanfiction: it presents a space to meet the shared need for this kind of emotional exploration and fleshing-out, guided by a reader-writer of Jane Austen who has invested themselves in the original (the prior impression of the palimpsest) enough to competently render bright emotion in the characters in a new, exciting way in a variation story.
As a form of participatory literature, that’s exactly where we find fanfiction’s value: it feels familiar, but so enticingly new, and by re-layering the tale with twists and turns, it teaches us something altogether different than the original.
It’s here! The cover for Fearful Symmetry has been released! Many thanks to Meredith over at Austenesque Reviews. This is such an honor.
Also, I unabashedly claim that this is the most visually appealing cover I could ever imagine for this book. Susan Adriani, the designer (and herself an author!) did a wonderful job creating an evocative and thrilling image! Check it out below!
Netflix must have satisfied some real craving in today’s viewers when it debuted Shonda Rhimes’ “Bridgerton” at the very end of an exhausting 2020: the season is now on track to become one of the biggest shows ever produced by the streaming service (Forbes).
As a longtime lover of fiction set in the Regency Era, I can understand the appeal of stories told in the framework of that time in history. The beautiful language, the exquisite clothing, the absurdities and whimsies nurtured on the pillow of a sumptuously wealthy upper class. And most of all, that genteel behavior: the careful greetings, the bows and curtsies–and yes, the sexual tension created by the very fact that interaction between the unmarried was curated by structures and strictures like chaperonage.
Entering works of Regency romance for either reader or viewer is an experience rather like landing on a new planet where all normal human behavior must pass through a sieve of care and thought. “Bridgerton” includes all these alien elements of courtly conduct, but these polite conventions are set against a harsh background more familiar to our modern-day sensibilities: scandals, gossip, rivalries, and backstabbing–all laid atop more silent warfare with the invisible powers of sexism, racism, and imperialism.
In our urge to escape the ugliness of 2020, it’s hardly surprising that viewers would flock to a costume drama where the beauty we see and hear softens those jarring moments where the plot resembles so much of the struggles of our day, and yet seems to defy them all. After all, what could be more satisfying than to be caught up in a swirl of fictional society when we ourselves can’t leave our homes without taking COVID-19 precautions?
These dissociations from our reality become even sweeter when they play upon the ironies within our real world, too, and give us a sense of victory over them. There’s a certain sweet delight for women, especially, in moments like the grand-finale of episode one when the heroine Daphne, glittering in her ball regalia and delicate as a swan, hauls back and punches her would-be betrothed, Nigel, to repel his unwanted advances.
Or earlier in that opening episode, when body-positivity icon Penelope faces teasing from the thin and elegant women at the ball, only to be rescued by the gentlemanly offer to dance from Colin Bridgerton, who presents his request in a moment of Mr. Knightley-like grace.
Or in episode four, when after weeks and weeks of polite games of pretend while in company with others, Simon finally gives in and kisses Daphne in a moment when they seem to be alone (only to be discovered!).
Or that girl-power moment when the Bridgerton women work together to turn the tide of gossip, and by so doing, rid themselves of the unwanted Nigel once and for all.
The fantasy such a world presents to us–and particularly to women–is irresistible. If we could but feel so beautiful, speak so eloquently, and seek the “connexions” of power so available in this fictional realm, what wrongs in our world could we set right?
And goodness, if the men in that world could speak and act so well, and would value and preserve such things as ” honour” in their strangely appealing (when benevolent) patriarchal power set, what good might they do if similarly motivated today? What would our male-dominated political realm look and act like (maybe dignified?)? What might our family lives feel like (more secure, we could hope)?
And yet, “Bridgerton” and other works of Regency Era fiction show us that the problems common to us and to their day never did go away, despite all that lovely language and elegant dress.
But the beauty set before us in the balance of such strife is incredibly appealing. When it’s offered up with the spell-like promise of a happily-ever-after trope, stories like these give us the perfect fantasy we need to face the hardships of reality.
I’m a thirty-something Millennial that was force-fed technology just long enough to view old books as a treat. Jane Austen, Charlotte Brontë, Elizabeth Gaskell, George Eliot, you name it, I had it for dessert after long days cramming school work through word processors and clunky, quickly developing software systems in the ’00s.
As a grown-up now out of college for some years, I have several loves: my little family (hubby and two boys, ages nearly-six and two), cats (two of those!), big hats, big hair, dancing, singing, and writing. The last is something I have turned to, often, when life seemed to press in and I felt the need to press out with something–a story, a poem, a journal entry, a random post here and there. Work in the non-profit realms and motherhood made these endeavors fewer and far-between as time went on, and I missed it with a fierceness not unlike one grieves (and that is something I know by experience as well, but that is another story).
You might imagine my surprise when, just before the “Pandemic shutdowns” happened in the US in the early spring of 2020, I received an email about a piece of JAFF (Jane Austen Fanfiction) I had half-completed and posted on the Derbyshire Writers’ Guild Board some five years before. It was from Jan Ashton at Quills & Quartos Publishing, asking if I’d be interested in finishing, then publishing the work.
After some due diligence, I committed eagerly, and then spent nine months balancing what was to come, which was a challenge to me (and many other women): the COVID-19 closures, with two small children, feeling rather adrift from reality on an island made busy with bored children, where there was a lot of hand sanitizer and involved planning for even small forays to the grocery store.
Out of this bizarre realm, I produced the manuscript for Fearful Symmetry at last: a work that celebrates the triumph of love over unforeseen difficulties, set down upon the palimpsest of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. It felt like a purge at times as I wrote, and as I shaped the story and “listened” to the characters interacting with the challenges set forth, I felt the stirrings of recovery as their courage rose to the occasion. After all, how can Elizabeth and Darcy, united against adversity, ever disappoint?
As I enter 2021, I’m happy to say that I’ve added this novel to my list of favorite things. I hope it becomes one of yours. Check it out on the “Novel Works page.”