discussion: Retellings, Canon, & Fanfiction

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!

17 thoughts on “discussion: Retellings, Canon, & Fanfiction

  1. Fanfiction does seem to have a bad reputation in some circles. Personally, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with it. In fact, it’s a great way for new writers to explore their craft. Having said that, I’m firmly on your side in this debate. Retelling mythology is not fanfic. Although, to be honest, I’m not sure why I feel that way. Nor do I know what actually makes fanfic fanfic. Interesting debate!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I know what you mean, I’m finding it hard to articulate my thoughts about this! I’m a huge advocate of fanfiction for the reasons you mentioned so I would hate to sound like I’m trying to dismiss it, but I still wouldn’t consider something like The Song of Achilles to be fanfiction… Maybe because it’s published? Maybe that’s where I’m drawing the line.

      It’ll be interesting to see what everyone else thinks about this!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Interesting post. It’s not something I’ve thought about although I’ve seen similar debates about other works. I think I might fall somewhere in the middle, because while using characters from other stories is kind of what fanfiction does, in the case of mythology and retellings, the originals might just be the inspiration for new stories?

    Liked by 1 person

    • That definitely makes sense, I like how you phrased it that retellings are inspired by older stories. And something else that adds another layer of complication is how we place so much more value on originality in fiction now than they did hundreds of years ago… I’m still not sure what conclusions to draw from this!

      Liked by 1 person

      • Me neither. Good point. Maybe it’s because of society and the way things have changed that we’re obsessed with being original and can’t admit to being inspired by other things.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. This is interesting, because it also brings up the question: what is fanfiction in the first place? In my head, fanfiction is something unofficial, produced purely for fun, and at most, shared amongst friends and likeminded readers via blogs, etc. By definition then, a piece that’s been published for sale/profit, and is therefore an ‘official’ work of sorts (like Madeline Miller’s books, for example) cannot be considered fanfiction, because they weren’t written purely for recreation. I guess to me, works like that would be termed reimaginings, retellings, reworkings, interpretations, spiritual sequels, or something more along those lines. That may well just be me though! (I’m also not trying to bash fanfic at all. It’s just always been a very different thing from a reimagining in my head.)

    I’m very much with you on new versions of myths not being strictly fanfiction and still being perfectly valid. In a lot of ways, I’ve always felt the whole point of myths and fairy tales is that they constantly evolve. Some ‘canon’ myths and fairy tells are in themselves already retellings or alternate versions of other stories (like The Robber Bridegroom and Fitcher’s Bird being linked to Bluebeard).

    Myths and fairy tales so often exist to impart thematic or moral meaning, so it’s only natural that new interpretations intended for modern sensibilities or that explore the content from another angle will emerge with time. The more the better, I say.

    I also think you could well be on to something with the notion that some people might try to use the label of fanfiction to discredit other versions of a story, because of the somewhat negative connotations the term has. And I wouldn’t be at all surprised if it’s levied against women more often. Let’s face it, men have been treating women like trash since long before mythology was even a thing 💁🏼‍♂️🙃

    Great post! (And apologies for the mammoth comment, haha)

    Liked by 1 person

    • Don’t worry, I love it! This is the kind of comment I was hoping for, you’ve brought up a lot of interesting points to think about.

      I’ve also been struggling to put my finger on how exactly to define fanfiction, but I like the idea that it can be defined by intent – for fun vs. for profit. That puts a really solid criterion on it. But it’s strange to think that if The Song of Achilles had been posted on AO3 rather than submitted to a traditional publisher, my classification of it would shift even though it’s the exact same text. This is giving me a lot to ruminate over. Also, I’m thinking about how this relates to The Cursed Child, which until now I’ve sort of mentally dismissed as fanfiction… but it was published and produced, so should we not be accepting it into Harry Potter canon? I mean… maybe not in our hearts, but in our heads, at least? Or is that different?

      Part of what inspired me to rant on Twitter about this in the first place is how often I see comments about how retellings are like fanfiction in order to denigrate them and ultimately try to render them unnecessary. Because when people say ‘The Song of Achilles was just Iliad fanfiction’ they’re basically saying ‘we don’t need this story, we already have the Iliad.’ Which, yes, the Iliad is great. But it also introduces so many characters and themes that are ripe for exploration through a contemporary lens, and I think it’s so exciting when authors jump at that opportunity. What’s the point of reading classics if they don’t inspire us, and if we don’t interact with them in this way?

      Also, I’ve read two really excellent retellings of Medea in the last year – both were sort of feminist retellings that endeavored to reclaim her narrative, but in one of them she was a victim and in the other one she was a villain, and I think that’s so exciting, how the same character’s story can be told in so many different ways. And there’s so much literary value in a feminist retelling in particular, that I found myself objecting to the classification of fanfiction because it made it seem smaller, somehow, and because you never see someone reviewing I, Claudius and saying it reads like fanfic. It would not surprise me at all if there’s something insidiously misogynistic about this, about how fanfiction is seen as a predominantly female activity and how we like to devalue the work of women.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Oh, yes, that’s a very good point! I’ve contradicted myself really because The Cursed Child is far more akin to fanfiction in my head and heart, although I think that came about predominantly because of the frustration I felt that it wasn’t what it promised to be (not being written by Rowling, and messing around with existing canon). Hmm, interesting! I guess we need a clearer guideline on the difference between canon, fanfic and retelling.

        It’s true that fanfic can be used as a dismissive term (I suppose I did it myself somewhat in choosing to consider The Cursed Child more like fanfic than canon.) BUT, now that I think about it, I suppose the difference there is that I felt The Cursed Child should never have been published as an ‘official’ Potter story, because it wasn’t written by Rowling, which perhaps brings back the idea of ‘written for fun vs written for official publication’. I would have been much more accepting of it if it had been marketed as a standalone spin off or ‘what if’ scenario, rather than ‘book 8’.

        Whatever the case, I’m all for retellings and such like. Reimagining an existing story for a modern gaze and thus highlighting new takes on the meaning is what the tradition of storytelling is all about to me.

        Liked by 1 person

      • I am right there with you on Cursed Child messing up my entire stance on this. And I suppose we should throw Fantastic Beasts in there too. Maybe the difference is that Harry Potter has a very fixed, 7-book canon? So consequently instead of comparing Cursed Child to The Song of Achilles (whose canon is very murky), maybe we should compare it to something like Wide Sargasso Sea, and think about how we categorize that? Is WSS accepted as Jane Eyre canon? That’s an interesting example too because WSS itself has started gaining status as a classic, which probably makes us place more value on it than something like Cursed Child or that 2015 Wuthering Heights retelling Nelly Dean. But WSS was still Jean Rhys using Charlotte Bronte’s characters and inventing scenarios… this is making my head hurt. Mostly in a good way I think, but. This is deceptively complicated.

        But that’s a very good point about how saying ‘this is like fanfiction’ doesn’t necessarily mean ‘this is worthless,’ just, ‘this should have been produced for fun and not for profit.’ And I guess it’s very subjective, determining what should be published and what shouldn’t….. but the fact that Cursed Child blatantly contradicts a lot of HP canon can probably be used as an argument here.

        But then this is further complicated by Fantastic Beasts, because obviously you can’t produce a big-budget movie just for fun in the way you can write a play script and post it online. So I’m really not sure what to do with this. Does its existence automatically make it canon then? HM.

        Liked by 1 person

      • You’ve opened up such a can of worms! Haha. It’s definitely an interesting topic, one that’s clearly far more nuanced and complex than we first thought.

        It seems to be something far more subjective than I realised as well, as it seems personal response and preference is bound to influence each individual’s opinion. Using Cursed Child as an example again, someone who loves it will more likely accept it as canon, whilst someone who dislikes it is more likely to label it as fanfic. That brings us back to your notion of the term ‘fanfic’ being used to discredit work. So, in a very roundabout way, we seem to have somewhat proved one of your suggestions as least – however confused we may have become in the process, haha.

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  4. I have thoroughly enjoyed all of the book reviews you post, your views on various experiences, etc. And this bit of food for thought is fantastic for Saturday discussion. The comments are also wonderful. This is the content I enjoy finding on WordPress. Cheers!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I saw this post a few days ago but didn’t have time to properly devote my thoughts to a comment, but I had to come back because I love this discussion. I don’t really have any concrete definitions for what the differences between fanfiction/retellings/published works are, but when I think of fanfiction vs. published books, the relationship between plot and character is what immediately comes to mind. Fanfiction is much more “I’m writing this to explore how these characters would respond to this situation,” while I find published work “I’m writing this plot, using these characters.” NOT to say that this is how every fanfic and published work is, of course (I know “published work” is really broad but I don’t know how else to put it lol). But like, I always turn to fanfiction when I want to spend more time with characters, never because I’m expecting a great story full of plot twists (on the contrary, I’ll turn to fanfics when I’m in the mood for certain tropes (fake relationship, etc) because…we’re looking for a fun time with characters, and perhaps an extension of what the original writer has given us.)

    Retellings I’m finding even harder to define. Is Percy Jackson a retelling? My first instinct is to say no because it’s…for children, which is silly (almost like…if something is for kids, or women, it’s less “literary” hmmmmmm). It’s retelling the myths using a more modern world kids can relate to, with characters, who are kids, that the author created. The storylines pertaining to his original characters are his original stories, but the mythological aspect of it isn’t anything he’s made up himself, just expanded on. I mean…if we just go by the definition of the word, all these books you’ve mentioned simply RETELL the story, just in different ways and with different interpretations. Which I’d say goes for Song of Achilles, because the author didn’t just make up an entirely knew story with Patroclus and Achilles, she just interprets and it in a new way and expands on it. Which isn’t to say it isn’t fanfiction, either, because these authors are fans, playing with characters that they did not come up with, offering an expansion on them. I don’t think retelling and fanfiction need to be two different things, really. It’s just the stigmas surrounding both of those words are so very different.

    But then I think….An Arrow’s Flight, Till We have Faces. Those are much more different from the original canon than SoA, but the plots have their base in the original stories, even if the authors have taken more liberties in expanding them. But it’s like…they play so heavily with literary devices and such that I don’t like saying they’re fanfiction, because of what fanfiction is in my mind. BUT like we’ve talked about before, there are fanfics that are better than published books. There are fanfics that are very “literary.” Maybe I’m being to lenient but I’d say that these stories are a mix of retelling and fanfiction and original stories, all in one. I don’t know why people are so against these things, either….it’s so much FUN to take characters and stories and see the different ways they can be interpreted and written and characterized, and the ways different people choose to portray them. Even seeing the different ways people choose to portray characters in fanfics – characters we have canon for, we have personality and background for – is fascinating.

    I’d also just like to add that there are 100000000 published works using Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy from Pride and Prejudice. In like, every single genre. I once went around a bookstore to see how many Pride and Prejudice…retellings, expansions, spin offs (Is a spin off fanfiction if not written by the original author?) I could find. We’ve got our “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies”, vampires, we’ve got 2034982038 modern retellings of Pride and Prejudice using characters with names like Eliza and Liza and Beth. I found a book of P&P Christmas stories that was essentially a compilation ~~fluffy~~ Christmas one shots set after the book (going against my definition of “published work” above). We’ve got our mythology retellings, but there is SO MUCH stuff playing around with more modern literature out there (Bronte sisters, Dickens, Shakespeare, etc).

    I don’t know if I’ve really come to any conclusions…but the thing is I think these things get written simply because we love stories and characters, when it comes down to it. We keep these stories alive because they’re GOOD and they’re stories that speak to us no matter what the time period, universe, etc., is. And kind of like with Tommy Falk/Gabe, we just want more?? Whether it’s because we don’t feel satisfied by the ending we got or we just want to keep exploring beyond the ending? THERE IS SO MUCH in this stuff it fascinates me and I love it.

    Anyway I hope you enjoyed my essay.

    Liked by 1 person

    • ALSO I need to add that there are “mythology aus” in fanfiction, like “Harry is Persephone and Draco is Hades.” So like. A fanfic that is a retelling that is a fanfic.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Re: plot vs. characters and how that informs this discussion that is a GOOD THEORY, and I would definitely agree it’s the same for me, when I read fanfiction it is all about the characters. BUT then what about those AUs that are like… all original characters but they’re set in the HP universe?? I mean obviously it’s still categorized as fanfiction because it’s blatantly borrowing from JKR’s world, but those stories tend to be quite plot-heavy??

      The most illuminating part of this discussion for me so far has been realizing how many of my perceptions here are rooted in certain stigmas. Like how I don’t want to call this fanfiction because fanfiction in some way Isn’t Good Enough to be… real….. even though I love fanfiction??? But I still kind of see it (subconsciously I think) as lesser~ and I would not be surprised if this perception were in some way informed by how fandom is such a female-dominated space. This reminds me of how arts and crafts are considered ~lesser~ because they’re women’s work even though they take a tremendous amount of technical skill. I would not be surprised if internalized misogyny were at play here.

      But I TOTALLY know what you mean about An Arrow’s Flight and Till We Have Faces, the latter in particular because in and of itself it’s already gained status as a classic, so I feel weird being like ‘CS Lewis wrote fanfiction’… but maybe that’s because ‘fanfiction’ is an anachronistic term in this context?? But maybe that’s exactly what he was doing?? Actually, that’s a whole new dimension to this discussion – maybe I’m uncomfortable using ‘fanfiction’ for stuff like Paradise Lost because it’s an anachronistic term?? Like how I don’t like to call Jane Eyre ‘feminist’ because FEMINISM WAS NOT A THING YET but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t contain certain values that dovetail with contemporary conceptions of feminism…

      And that is a great point about all the P&P retellings/spin-offs, etc., I think this brings me back to my original point that I’m more likely to call those fanfiction because P&P has one very strict canon, whereas mythology’s canon is like… lol nonexistent. But that brings me back to something I said in my convo with Callum – does a P&P retelling stop being fanfiction as soon as it’s published?? Does the publication lend it a certain legitimacy that it wouldn’t have if the exact same story were just posted on AO3?? Who decides whether a retelling is ~legitimate~ enough to publish?? Maybe ‘legitimate’ is the wrong word, too. Like… An Arrow’s Flight is kind of off the walls, batshit insane, and clearly the criteria for getting that published was not ‘ah yes, a very faithful retelling of Homer and Sophocles.’ But there’s so much literary and thematic value in it…… I’m just confusing myself even more lol I am coming to absolutely no conclusions here.

      Also I love everything you said about the universality of stories and why we write fanfiction/retellings/what the fuck EVER we want to call them to begin with, because we want to spend more time with the characters and explore the stories in different ways like YES I will read a hundred different books about Achilles and Patroclus in this lifetime I will never have enough of them

      Why are we not getting class credit for this 😦

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  6. I definitely think some of my conceptions of fanfiction as ~~lesser~~ is because fandom, or the ones I’ve been in, have been so female dominated, and I have some sort of internalized misogyny/fanfiction bias because of the stereotype that the type of fanfiction girls write is “Justin Beiber wattpad” kind of stuff. And like?? I have read MASTERPIECES by girls and women of all ages. I will argue in favor of fanfiction forever, and I know that fanfiction is really no “lesser” and yet it’s so ingrained? I don’t even like to talk down on people write “Justin Bieber wattpad fanfics” because I feel it keeps perpetuating these ideas and honestly? A lot of them are just young girls and I HAATE when older people come at young girls for these kinds of things.

    It’s strange to think that every time I read a fanfic I’ve assumed it’s been by a female, or at least, NOT a straight male. Because there’s this idea that when a man writes, it must be Serious. And like, again that’s just another concept that’s been beaten into my mind. AND there’s this idea that only females read fanfiction, which is…dumb. My brother has read fanfiction for books he’s liked, and I have a male cousin who has shown me fanfiction he’s read for movies, and I know they don’t Represent all males, but like…the males are there. I might guess that gaming fandoms would have more stuff by men, or at least consumed by men (but I am NO gaming expert I have no sources and I know women play games too, making a statement on an industry I know little about feels Risky but I’m going to keep it here).

    My brain is going wild with how fanfiction is an anachronistic term, but I totally see what you’re saying. Can something still be something before the term for it exists??? Just because C.S. Lewis didn’t write Til We Have Faces with the intention of it being fanfiction, is it not fanfiction to some degree? When people call museum painting of the last supper Bible fanart, are they not wrong?? Is it wrong to label older things with more modern terms if it fits the definition, at least to a degree?? I’m fascinated but also this is a little too intense for my brain.

    As for what make a story legitimate, whether it be how literary it is or simply that it’s published…………..I truly cannot say. Like, if fanfiction simply means that it’s fiction of something you’re a fan of, I’d say the only thing publication really signifies is that it’s able to overcome copyright laws somehow?? Like the ones surrounding P&P must be pretty lax?? (I literally have no idea about copyright laws so again don’t quote me) Is it all from the mouth of the author?? JK Rowling said Cursed Child is canon…and even if it was fantastic and I loved it, I think I’d still feel strange calling it canon because she didn’t write it. Sure, perhaps she helped (I still have my doubts because it’s so atrocious), but it just doesn’t feel right in my gut to call it an extension of the Harry Potter story. Knowing that she wrote the screenplays for the Fantastic Beasts movies makes me feel like those are more ~legit~ when it comes to the Harry Potter universe. And perhaps because it has the JK Rowling touch that Cursed Child lacks? Idk…IT CAN’T POSSIBLY ALL COME DOWN TO A FEELING BUT THAT’S WHERE I FIND MYSELF ENDING UP.

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