Framing questions & imitation art

photo by Grafixar,
photo by Grafixar,

My daughter has been reading the “Hornblower” books this summer. Though I haven’t read C.S. Forester’s series, I’ve gathered that it’s about a naval officer in the Napoleonic Wars. There’s a love interest named Lady Barbara, lots of seafaring adventure, and that sort of thing. Hornblower moves up the ranks quite steadily (a little too steadily, my husband complains): midshipman, lieutenant, commodore, lord, admiral. And all the titles seem to have “Hornblower” in them.

That last part seems to have driven my husband a little wacko, because this morning, he stuck a note inside the front cover of Admiral Hornblower in the West Indies.

Rejected titles by Forester:

Hornblower and the Unblowable Horn

Hornblower and the Leaky Canoe

Hornblower  Up a Creek Without a Paddle

If he hadn’t been off to work, I’m sure he would’ve come up with plots to go along with the titles. Given his antipathy toward the series, the plots would have Hornblower being demoted or something.

I’m not certain what it is, but something about novels (particularly classic ones) make writers long to re-write that book or use the same characters in a new plot or satirize what was originally serious.

Look at Shakespeare. I’ve seen Hamlet written as a YA novel set in 20th century Britain and twisted in postmodern style, Lady Macbeth given her own first-person narrative, and countless R & J knockoffs. Richard III became a Nazi-ish figure, the swastika replaced by a white rose on his flags, representing the House of York. Melville’s Captain Ahab owes a great deal to King Lear. (Nobody has taken on Titus Andronicus, to my knowledge.)

Jane Austen has her own industry. P&P with vampires, Emma in an American high school, I don’t know how many other variations. And just this past weekend, I read a retelling of Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte.

There’s a variation on this that I encountered on a writer’s review website: fan fiction. The fan fiction writer uses another writer’s characters and creates new stories for them. (I’ve heard that Fifty Shades of Grey started out as fan fiction of Twilight, and E. L. James changed the names of the lead couple once her work built an online audience. I don’t know if that’s true.)

As someone who’s never had difficulties with conjuring up fictional people in my head, I read about fan fiction and was baffled. So I decided to take my question to the website discussion forum.

What’s the appeal?

I was told that it’s partially a way of developing fiction writing skills. The scaffolding and framework of the story are there–someone else has done the work of imagining the characters–but the aspiring writer has to construct the rest of the building-story. I read variations of the fan fiction theme: writers who wrote a prose version of a television series episode, writers who took a famous and/or beloved (by her) story and rewrote it from another point of view, writers who did all sorts of, um, interesting things with their favorite movies or plays.

(I never did “get” it. I’ve never loved someone else’s characters like I love my own.)

Honestly, it was mostly crappy stuff. Generally, the writers were beginners and didn’t know how to write fiction well. (The best ones moved on to original projects and dabbled in better-quality fan fiction as a fun diversion or writer’s block-buster.)

The other issue was the quality of what they were imitating. Somehow, these writers gravitated toward trash, things not worthy of existing in the first place, much less worthy of being the framework for someone else’s creative endeavors.

Imitation can only rise to the level of the model; it doesn’t rise above it. If it rises above the model, as Shakespeare did with his source material, it isn’t true imitation at all. It’s art on its own, existent apart from the source. That’s why the best retellings of classic stories use the original as a framework, not a plot dictator.

The novel I read this past weekend, The Flight of Gemma Hardy, was a retelling of Jane Eyre. But while the author used the same basic structure, character relationships, and some key events, she didn’t adhere rigidly to everything in Bronte’s original novel. Some characters are more sympathetic; some events are altered; she fleshes out Gemma’s ancestors’ relationship to their native land in more detail. But Gemma still has questions about her identity, still longs for financial security, and still has to fight for a voice and empowerment in a world where money and gender determine power.

It’s a fun read, and part of the fun is seeing how Margot Livesay, the author, uses various elements in fresh, modern ways, explores the same questions that Bronte did, and adds questions that she didn’t (or couldn’t) explore. The framework helped provide the means to ask those questions and provided a way of viewing the answers. It provided a way of organizing the often chaotic quality of our questions about power (and who does or does not have it), gender, and equality in romantic relationships.

photo by kblount,

But the effectiveness of the questions and explorations are determined partially by the quality of the framework. If Livesay had decided to explore these same issues and used a crappy, trashy novel as her framework, I doubt the result would’ve been art. But she chose Jane Eyre, an intelligent novel (original reviewers believed the book “too intelligent” to be written by a woman!) and the result is satisfying.

So the moral of the story is this: be careful what you imitate and who you imitate. Some things and people aren’t worth your while. Others are worth more than life itself.



6 thoughts on “Framing questions & imitation art

  1. Laura, your conclusion surprised me and satisfied me at the same time. Who we allow to mold us is so important, and I think the Shakespeare example is wonderfully brilliant. This is a great post on imitation and originality, and in that spirit I am going to use it by way of linking it on Twitter and Facebook.


    1. Thanks, Tim, for linking it on Twitter and Facebook. When I wrote this, I wasn’t certain if this ending “worked”, if readers would know what I was saying, and so it’s good to know that it did! 🙂


  2. This is great, Laura. Right now I’m reading “Longbourn,” a novel by Jo Baker; it is the story of Sarah, who is a housemaid for the Bennet family from “Pride & Prejudice”. It’s consistent with the timeline of P&P but it could stand alone even if one hadn’t read the original. It’s also really well-written (without in any way trying to reproduce Austen’s style) and provides a very interesting take on what *might* have been happening behind the scenes as the plot of P&P unfolds — as well as on the realities of servants’ lives, something that tends to get sanitized if it’s mentioned at all.

    “The Flight of Gemma Hardy” sounds really good — I must make a point of reading that. I’ve read a couple of others by Margot Livesay and liked them.


    1. Jeannie, thanks for the book recommendation. I will definitely have to check it out. I appreciate when authors look behind the scenes of beloved novels and we get to see what historical reality looked like from the perspective of the poorer classes.


  3. I’ve often been tempted to do fan fiction, and write stories as continuations or completions or fill-ins for some of my beloved authors or series. While I’m of the opinion that there is no totally new story, in that there are universal elements and genre elements that work in any story, fan fiction despite being alluring doesn’t inspire me as much as trying out a new story with my own characters or new poem or thinking through a critical analysis of things. I suppose I’m more the philosophizer than story-teller. You make an interesting case that imitation is dependent on what and who one imitates, and you appear to make the argument that imitation is inferior to creative art itself. I’m curious about your opinion of what makes creativity, creative?


    1. I agree that there are no new stories; I’ve read that all stories (if they truly hang together as stories and aren’t mumbo-jumbo messes) can be boiled down to 36 “masterplots.” Some stories are more obviously dependent on a masterplot than some other stories are. For example, compare a formula romance novel to Romeo and Juliet. One follows a predictable path (two people meet, fall in love, bad stuff happens, they overcome bad stuff), and the other is brilliant. But Shakespeare, though inspired by certain other works, didn’t imitate those works; he created something that stood all on its own. I’d argue that if the “imitation” rises above what’s imitated in matters of quality, then it isn’t really imitating; it’s only been inspired by the other work. As far as what makes creativity creative, I’m not certain. It’s one of those things that I’d have to think about! 🙂


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