By Pat Remick
When '60s activist Abbie Hoffman wrote the cult classic “Steal This Book,” his intent was to inspire people to challenge the status quo. I don't think he meant for people to go out and literally steal books – or their plots.
But I wonder if that's going on with authors today who use characters and plots from literature as foundations for their own work. Did they “Steal This Book” or are they merely "borrowing”?
Either way, it doesn't seem to bother some publishers. My local bookstore recently hosted an event featuring major publishing house representatives who offered reading recommendations. They not only talked about books with exotic locations and unusual characters, as you might expect, but also gushed over four novels based on literature created by someone else.
“Pride & Prejudice & Zombies: The Classic Regency Romance - Now with Ultraviolent Zombie Mayhem!” apparently is a big hit. It's described as an expanded version of "Pride & Prejudice -- only with zombies -- that's supposedly written in classic Jane Austen style by a guy named Seth Grahame-Smith.
In “The Heroines," Eileen Favorite writes about what it would be like if fictional heroines like Scarlett O’Hara and Madame Bovary attended a literary retreat in Illinois. According to the description, this “lively, fresh and enormously entertaining novel gives readers a chance to experience their favorite heroines all over again, or introduces these fictional women so beguilingly that further acquaintance will likely follow.”
Does this mean it's OK to “borrow” these characters for fun and profit if the reader then goes back to the original works? I’m not sure their creators -- the long-deceased authors like Margaret Mitchell and Gustav Flaubert -- will get much satisfaction from that.
In "Finn,” author John Clinch “re-imagines” Mark Twain’s classic Huckleberry Finn from the viewpoint of Huck’s degenerate father. And the lead novella in “Dictation: A Quartet” is about what might happen if female secretaries taking dictation from writers Henry James and Joseph Conrad meet and decide to make their own marks on those authors’ works.
"Fan fiction" is used to describe stories about characters or settings written by fans of the original work, but it generally isn't offered for sale by major publishers. These books seem to be more "metafiction” – a new term used for parallel novels "with the same period as a previous work, and many of the same characters, but told from a different perspective.”
Metafiction has been especially profitable for Gegory Maguire. He’s written three novels based on L. Frank Baum's “The Wizard of Oz” -- "Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West” on which the Broadway musical is based; “Son of a Witch,” and “A Lion Among Men.” From Cinderella, he created “Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister” while his “Mirror Mirror” is based on the story of Snow White.
This all has me wondering if I'm wasting my time creating a setting and original characters for my mystery novel-in-progress. It might be easier to just sprinkle a little imagination over someone else's creations.
First, I should pick an exotic location. Not many U.S. novels are based in the former Soviet republic of Kazakhstan so that might work and I like how the word sounds. But what classic literature should I "borrow" from? The Bible? What about “Cat in the Hat”? My mother thinks “Grapes of Wrath” might work. Maybe I could even add a character named John Steinbeck....
What do you think about the idea of "metafiction"?