A Catholic perspective on the world and all the good things therein, especially books and food. Literature cum chocolate is the order of the day at The Crockery.

Location: A Collegetown, Undisclosed Location, United States

No longer a graduate student, Teresa is now a professional know-it-all.

Sunday, June 04, 2006

Literary Borrowings

I recently finished Book Four of the Nameless Mystery Series I'm currently reading in my spare time. I found it it to be the best of the books thus far, perhaps because the rural setting appealed to me more than the seedy city life settings of the previous two books. Too, it may have helped that the "atmosphere" of the book was the spooky atmosphere of a ghost story or a dark fairy tale, and we all know that I like spooky stories.

Before I move on to Book Five (hey, it is the weekend! Sunday is a prime day for reading books I can't justify reading during "working hours"), I wanted to comment on the authors' inclusion of real life individuals and, perhaps most intriguingly, other people's literary characters. Book Four of the series centers around a real chap, a collector of folk songs, an antiquarian, and a writer of hymns, including "Onward Christian Soldiers." Book Three of the series, perhaps even more intriguingly, introduces a cameo appearance by Lord Peter Wimsey. He isn't named fully: he's simply called Peter. His description, however, as a man with a "foolish, slightly lopsided face" who wears a monocle, plays the piano, and collects first editions, is a give-away to Dorothy Sayers fans. But since he's never even called "Lord Peter," I doubt that one who hadn't cracked open a Wimsey mystery would recognize him. (As a result, I found myself wondering if I were missing references to real or fictional characters simply due to lack of familiarity with the relevant literature. I guess I'll never know.)

While I appreciate the nod to Sayers, I do wonder about the literary ethics of incorporating another author's character into a modern work of fiction. I don't mean the copyright issues, either: I mean the issue of respect due to another's creation. It must be a delicate business. A good author would have to avoid the pitfall of turning a "living" character into a caricature or shadow of its former self, but the causing the character to develop in unlikely or unreasonable directions is also just as problematic. This is part of why sequels to classic books flounder so often. Much as I enjoyed Carrie Bebris' Pride and Prescience and Suspense and Sensibility, I didn't think that the protagonists of either book really resembled Austen's Elizabeth and Darcy. Part of this may simply be due to the difficulty of Austen's style: Bebris tried to make her Darcy wittily snobbish, but his "wit" came across as decidedly flat all too often. I might recommend these books to admirers of Wrede and Stevermer's regency fantasies, but not to Austen purists.

The Jane Austen mysteries of Stephanie Barron may be more successful ultimately not just because Barron is a better writer, but because Austen as a person is not as familiar to most of her readers as her characters are. Apparently it is easier to get away with a recreation of a real person as a character than it is to make use of another person's fictional character. That itself is rather strange, isn't it? One would not think that art imitating life was easier than art imitating art. Moreover, one would think that the moral difficulties of depicting a real person in fictional events would be trickier than whatever artistic ethics surround the use of others' characters. Indeed, I recall a course from my undergraduate days in which a fellow student complained against Truman Capote's capitalizing off the lives of the criminals and the sufferings of the Clutter family in In Cold Blood. The fact that most of the people involved were dead at the time of writing did not seem to mitigate what my fellow-student saw as irresponsible use of others' lives. At the time, I thought he was being too conscientious, since, if the publishing world adhered to his vies, historical fiction could never exist. I still think that he was extreme, but I must concede that the issue was more complicated than I was willing to grant at the time.

I don't have any guidelines to lay down about how fiction should or should not make use of real people as characters. Nor do I have any suggestions as to how to make use of another person's intellectual property with both respect and creativity. But I do think that these are both real "problems" of which readers ought to be aware. In short, let me end with a plea: please, oh mystery readers (if there be any among ye reading), support responsible use of intellectual property! Thank you, and good night.

P.S: If anyone can guess the Nameless Mystery Series from what I've said above, let me know- thus far, no one has responded to my Mysterious Challange. It's really a pity, as I think this series is worth reading. The author and narrators' theologies (assuming they are at all related)may be wrong, but the very fact that the author and characters have theologies may be refreshing to "readers of faith."


Blogger Leopoldtulip said...

P.S: If anyone can guess the Nameless Mystery Series from what I've said above, let me know

I can guess the nameless mystery series, and what's more, I can guess it correctly.

11:12 AM  
Anonymous Becky said...

e-mail me the answer, John!

11:30 PM  
Blogger Teresa H.T. said...

For John to reveal the answer would be cheating. However, I may cave in and eventually reveal it myself.

12:18 AM  

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