I’ve been seeing these posters on the Tube that make me feel stabby. They’re for a novel entitled Jane Eyre Laid Bare, which is listed as being “by Charlotte Bronte and Eve Sinclair.” The poster doesn’t add “the former of whom is spinning in her grave and the latter of whom is probably really named Edith Grubstick,” but you can take that as read.
Basically, it’s a rewrite of Jane Eyre, with sexy bits added. The fabulous For Books’ Sake has reviewed it and, along with many other things, says, “turning Jane Eyre into an erotic novel is a particularly odd choice as the majority of Charlotte Brontë’s novel is based on the subtle and unsaid.”
And isn’t this part of what makes Regency and Victorian novels so popular with young women? That so much of the sexual tension is simmering beneath the surface, that the story and the anticipation are featured so heavily in creating erotic tension? I hesitate to make sweeping statements about gender, so take this with the caveat that I know this will not apply to EVERY woman, and possibly not even to a particular woman at all TIMES, but women, in general, like context to their sex scenes. This is why there are so many women buying Mills & Boon novels, and that ghastly Fifty Shades of Grey, and fewer of them buying subscriptions to quickshags.com. (No, I don’t know if that really exists – I’m on a computer in a church, for God’s sake, I’m not going to look it up.) This is why, when I have an R-rated dream about Toby Stephens, I don’t just tell my friends “yeah, me and Toby Stephens. In a dream. Yup.” No, I tell them all about how he and I had been spies, and then I betrayed him and he was exiled, but he snuck back into the country to see me, and that part was so hot, and then for some reason we had to go to B&Q, but because Toby Stephens was there, even that part was hot, and then, we started to get down to business and I unfortunately woke up, but so much hotness had already happened.
So it seems, bizarrely, that even a good erotic rewrite of Jane Eyre would make it less sexually alluring. So much of the frustrated passion, the longing, the anticipation, the slow buildup would be lost, in favour of slotting in some fireworks at the slightest opportunity. While I don’t advocate a return to Victorian sexual values, I definitely advocate a return to the idea that anticipation is sexy. In life and in literature.
But this book – to which I am giving way too much attention – has also got me thinking about another aspect of literature, which is fan fiction. Full disclosure: I’ve written fan fiction in my time. Including erotic fan fiction. If you want to find me on Fanfiction.net or Skyehawke, my username is magdalenrose. I agree with Henry Jenkins that “Fanfiction is the way of the culture repairing the damage done in a system where contemporary myths are owned by corporations instead of owned by the folk.” Hell, huge amounts of the work of Shakespeare and Milton could be classified as fanfic. And A Merry Requiem is really Victor Hugo real-life fan fic that spun a bit out of control. And yet Jane Eyre Laid Bare makes me feel stabby and then I feel like a hypocrite and get all confused about my feelings and have to eat cookies.
Because while part of me is saying “yes, all stories are public property – they are turned over and re-interpreted by the reader/hearer and that’s how they get passed on,” another part is saying, “but what about basic respect for what the author actually said?” I get irate when hymn lyrics with battle imagery in them are whitewashed because liberal Christians afraid of looking militant and violent have no concept of metaphor (and I say this as a liberal Christian), and I want to burn every copy of that God-awful sequel to Les Mis, except that it would make me look a bit Nazi if I actually did it.
So am I a giant hypocrite or not?
Here are some thoughts – and I welcome more in the comments.
1. I think there’s a smell test to be applied here. Does it feel like the writer of the fan fiction has respect for the original author? Do they seem to get what the author was trying to do, or are they trying to “fix” the original author’s work (or just failing to get it on a very basic level and writing appalling stuff as a result)? Pride and Prejudice and Zombies passes that smell test – it’s a loving piss-take of a beloved book. So does a lot of fan fiction, though certainly not all. Fifty Shades of Grey does as well – the original Twilight series deified a controlling asshole, and so does the fan fiction. Well done. Jane Eyre Laid Bare fails the smell test, as does Cosette, any story with m-preg in it, most Narnia fan fiction, and those bowdlerized hymn lyrics I mentioned above.
2. Does it add to your understanding of the original work, or take away from it? There’s an amazing Harry Potter fan fiction author named Sam Starbuck, whose work makes me see possibilities in Rowling’s books I never thought of before. He sees new angles, new meanings to symbols, new connections between the books and new depths to the relationships between the characters. In many ways, I think his writing is superior to Rowling’s – he just takes the amazing world she’s built and slams it into a new dimension. On a “historical fan fiction” note, Milton’s Paradise Lost takes the extra-canonical legend of Satan falling from heaven and adds depth of character and symbol, increasing our understanding of the nature of good and evil, our alienation from God, and the way that lust for power corrupts even the best of us.
What are your thoughts? What’s the difference between a moving literary tribute and a ripoff? Where is the line between good fan fiction and bad? What should future writers be allowed to change about your work, and what shouldn’t they? As more and more fan fiction crosses over into the mainstream, I believe these are questions all authors should think about.