This post is inspired by a brief series of tweets that I wrote earlier, followed by an interesting conversation with a friend that got me thinking about this even more critically… I’ll start with my tweets, which are as follows:
I get unreasonably annoyed when people refer to mythological retellings as fanfiction. There is no hard and fast canon for mythology – that’s the point. Even Sophocles and Euripides told the same stories in different ways.
Mythology belongs to everyone. We have fragments of stories and glimpses of these characters from 3000 years ago and we all draw different conclusions. That’s the magic of it. Every interpretation is valid.
Side note – I am not bashing fanfiction! I love fanfiction. But in reviews of contemporary mythological stories, it’s used as a pejorative to try to undermine legitimacy. What exactly makes something a valid contribution to a canon which isn’t fixed to begin with?
I also think there’s probably something gendered in this….. you see the fanfiction criticism leveled against Christa Wolf and Madeline Miller much more often than Robert Graves or Colm Toibin.
Anyway, as I said, I then got talking to a friend who admitted that she’s referred to things like Paradise Lost as fanfiction, not to discredit the legitimacy of Paradise Lost, but to uplift fanfiction, which we both agree is a perfectly valid form of storytelling. We realized we were coming at the exact same conclusion from two different vantage points – I was saying ‘none of it is fanfiction; it’s all valid’ and she was saying ‘all of it is fanfiction; it’s all valid.’
Where do you guys fall on that? In general do you think published retellings should be considered fanfiction?
Anyway, what adds a level of complication to this when you’re talking about mythology is that mythological canon itself can be so hard to pin down. What do we consider ‘canon’ in Greek mythology? The Iliad, certainly, even if that story was around before Homer. What about the Aeneid? Even though it was written 900 years after the Iliad and uses many of its same characters? What about Dante’s Divina Commedia – do we accept that Odysseus/Ulysses burning in hell for his trickery is the definitive conclusion of this character’s narrative?
Fast forward several thousand years – let’s look at something like The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller, or Medea by Christa Wolf, or Bright Air Black by David Vann. None of these novels are ‘retellings’ in the sense that they, for example, take the story of Achilles and set it on the moon. They’re all set in the same time period as the original stories, and they attempt to expand on the characterizations that we’re familiar with. Do we classify any/all of their interpretations as fanfiction? Or do we embrace them all into an ever-expanding concept of mythological canon, even if Medea and Bright Air Black contain contradictory interpretations of Medea’s character?
And finally, what do you think of the gender argument – do you think the fanfiction criticism is more often leveled against female writers (whether consciously or not) in an effort to undermine their credibility?
Sorry, I know I’ve asked a lot of disjointed questions here… I just thought this was some pretty interesting food for thought. Do you guys have any thoughts on this? Let’s discuss!