It is possible to say of Jane Austen, as perhaps we can say of no other writer, that the opinions which are held of her work are almost as interesting, and almost as important to think about, as the work itself.
If we include texts related to or derived from Austen’s work as part of what Trilling calls “opinions,” then we come close to the present era’s obsession with appropriating, reworking, transcoding, and recycling her novels. In this context, it is a truth not always, or not easily, acknowledged that student engagement with Austen’s novels today is always already mediated by film adaptations as well as the wealth of sequels, prequels, and rewrites, or “post-texts,” the collective name that I find most useful for these productions.1 The students who took my most recent course on Jane Austen—at the same time as Lost in Austen was serialized on TV—are part of the Generation-Y audience that Laurie Kaplan notes is “most likely to see an adaptation first and to read the novel after having been impressed with someone else’s vision of the characters and setting.” Indeed, my own reading of the novels is now inextricably bound up with this Austen culture, so that it is sometimes difficult to keep the canonical and the recreated securely separate.
Partly because of my own hybrid relation to Austen, as well as the cross-over influence of my teaching in American Cultural Studies, I included a fan fiction assignment on my course, “Jane Austen: Fiction, History, Fans.”2 The present essay gives an account of this experiment and aims to contribute to the ongoing conversation about the “customization” and teaching of Austen that has been taking place recently in Austen Studies.3 Like Diana Birchall, I claim that “a new understanding of Austen’s works can be gained by the unorthodox method of writing pastiche.” However, I argue that this phenomenon has specific modalities when it takes place in a pedagogic context. In producing their own post-texts, my students affirmed both their own identities and their collective investment in Austen today—any expectations of gentle ‘Janeism’ are demolished by their witty, ironic, sophisticated takes on Austen’s novels.
Before we get to the stories themselves (found in the Appendix and accessible by clicking on the titles), some contexts are necessary. After a brief description of the course in general, and the assignment in particular, I’ll focus on the theories that framed and legitimated the production of the students’ stories and on the templates offered by internet fan fiction. The course examined the six major novels in a predominantly historicist way, reading them alongside a range of contextual documents, available in the Norton and Bedford editions, as well as selected critical material. In addition, the course also aimed to give insight into the Austen culture industry and the ways in which Austen’s novels have functioned to secure or subvert the boundaries between high and popular culture. To this end, we analyzed a number of film adaptations, notably the 2006 Pride & Prejudice, Kipling’s “The Janeites,” Paula Marantz Cohen’s Jane Austen in Boca, and some fan fiction on the Republic of Pemberley website, and discussed audience/reader responses to these varied texts.
In addition to regular academic essays and presentations, the students wrote collaborative pieces of short fiction that respond in various ways to one or more of Austen’s novels. The students had to demonstrate their familiarity with Austen, their deep knowledge of her plots, characters, and language, as well as their own creativity and imagination. Just as they read Austen within the context of a popular culture of recycling, now they had to produce their own mediations of her texts. They presented/performed their stories at a final workshop, where they were assessed by an American Idol-style jury of my colleagues (but without the audience text message voting). The assignment was worth 20% of the final grade. From the outset, I described the assignment as “fan fiction.” Inspired by the work of Henry Jenkins on fan cultures, I wanted to construct a space where academic insight into Austen’s work and the participatory modalities of fandom could converge. I envisaged the exercise as a form of “serious fun.”
There was some degree of resistance to the whole idea at first. Most students had not done any creative writing before (and asked if there were alternative options). Some feared the performance aspect, some the idea of working collaboratively rather than individually, that is, all those aspects of the task that crossed the boundaries of normative academic work. An important, though unarticulated, anxiety related to how this unorthodox assignment might impinge on their status as (respectable) students. In other words, though they might be fans outside the university, of Austen, or a TV series, or a movie or a musician, inside the academy they had expectations about academic discourse and indeed had often run up against its constraints.
Rolf Breuer suggests that in the realm of postmodern cultural criticism, it is no longer bad taste nor a sign of confusion about the ontological categories of literature and reality to speculate about the number of children Lady Macbeth had (as in L. C. Knights’s parody of character-based Shakespeare criticism), or whether Scarlett and Rhett get back together. But I wonder if this license is really true in the classroom? I suspect that while we have added Austen adaptations and post-texts to our syllabi, we continue to respect the borders between the original and the secondary (even if the secondary texts have become primary texts in their own right), and thus implicitly to disallow precisely the “what if” question that impels both published post-texts and fan fiction. Certainly, I’m aware that during the seminar discussions of Austen’s novels I did not encourage speculations about Austen’s life and feelings, nor readings of the characters that thought of them like real people. Most of the students had been trained to value critical distance as the predominant sign of academic capability, quite the opposite of the affective transformations and emotional investments of fandom. Despite much recent rebranding, fans continue to be ridiculed or pathologized (except when they are the object of ethnographic study). So the students were understandably a little reluctant to turn themselves into fans.
However, various theories about active reading and consumption and recent cultural work on fandom served to frame the assignment, and helped students to forge more hybrid identities.4 Some of the group had been reading Wolfgang Iser and reader-response theory in another course and so were familiar with his theory of the unwritten implications in a text, that is, the “gaps” or “blanks” which need to be filled by the reader’s activity: “Whenever the reader bridges the gaps, communication begins” (293). I supplemented Iser with a range of theories about readerly creativity, beginning with Roland Barthes’s distinction in S/Z between “readerly” texts, which construct the reader as the receiver of a pre-determined fixed meaning, and “writerly” texts, which construct the reader as the site of the production of meaning. There was general agreement that Austen’s “writerly” novels invite a plurality of interpretations and thus fulfill “the goal of literary work (of literature as work) . . . to make the reader no longer a consumer, but a producer of the text” (4). In this vein, Paul Willis moves away from the idea that meaning inheres in the act of production, claiming instead that consumption is itself an act of creativity. His notion of “grounded aesthetics” foregrounds the social positions, feelings, and experiences people bring to their encounter with cultural commodities as well as the combination of cognitive and emotional work that symbolic consumption involves (21).
Critics continue to celebrate the empowerment of the reader, often in memorable terms. Thus, Michel de Certeau describes the act of consumption as “secondary production” (518) and calls reading a form of “poach[ing],” a type of mischievous expedition into the literary “jungle” that takes away only the things that seem pleasurable to the reader (524, 521). Disassembling and reassembling the bits and pieces of the text to make sense of their own lives, readers assert their ownership of texts. Henry Jenkins’s ethnographic investigation of a fan community in Textual Poachers is the most sustained application of the poaching paradigm. Jenkins argues that fan reading involves, first, a specific type of creative absorption where the reader privileges “the world she has created from textual materials” over “the preconstituted world of the fiction” (63) and, second, public, communal display rather than solitary acts of reading. As Jenkins puts it, “Organized fandom is . . . an institution of theory and criticism, a semistructured space where competing interpretations and evaluations of common texts are proposed, debated, and negotiated” (86).
Perhaps most usefully for my purposes, Jenkins offers a list of ten ways of rewriting a text (162-77). Though his focus is on TV, his typology was readily applied to Austen’s novels, with the following paradigms proving most productive for the subsequent student fan fiction: “Recontextualization” (basically, filling in the “gaps”); “Expanding the series timeline” (exploring the background of characters or future developments); “Refocalization” (marginal figures are moved center stage); “Genre shifting” (in this mode a text is read “through the filter of alternative generic traditions” ; thus characters from a romance are relocated to a western, for example); “Cross-overs” (blurring the boundaries between different texts so that characters from one TV program, or in our case, novel, appear in another); “Emotional Intensification” (characters experience emotional crises); “Moral Realignment” (the moral order is inverted, so villains become heroes or vice versa); and “Character Dislocation” (characters get new names and appear in new narrative situations, as in Clueless). Other modes of rewriting seemed to have less appeal for the class: “Personalization” (the author of the fanfic appears in the text), and “Eroticization,” of which the most notable subgenre is “slash” fiction which depicts same-sex relationships (e.g. Kirk/Spock). Overall, Jenkins endows fans with an enviable aura, as they resist the values and norms of the ordinary world inhabited by “mundanes,” the slang word for non-fans (283).
Jenkins validates fan culture’s struggle to create “a more participatory culture” as an alternative to passive modes of consumption (284). Of course, my student writers were neither “mundanes”—they were not “ordinary” readers—nor authentic fans in Jenkins’s sense, for they operated under the constraint that their fiction was assessed for course credit. The questions then arise: How do the Austen post-texts produced within an academic context differ from fan fiction posted on the internet? Are there differences between the communities engendered by these cultural productions? And, finally, what did we all get from the experience?
The internet is home to a number of fan fiction sites, some focused entirely on Austen and some with special sections on her. The “Bits of Ivory Archive” at the Republic of Pemberley contains “fan fiction written by Pemberleans from 1997 to 2008.” There are hundreds of stories relating to Pride and Prejudice, while Northanger Abbey has accrued the least number of stories (ten in total at the time of writing); the stories are set in the same period as Austen’s novels. There is very little recent material. After a posting peak in 2002, Austen fans seem to have moved to other sites, including Austen.com, the home of the Derbyshire Writers’ Guild.
Austen.com claims that its archives contain more than 2500 stories (this includes complete and incomplete contributions, as well as non-Austen-related stories). Epilogue Abbey contains “stories that stay within the historical period in which Jane Austen’s characters lived” while the Fantasia Gallery archives “stories that stray from the historical period in which Jane Austen’s characters lived or contain irreverent or silly elements.” In the period from January through June, 2010, Pride and Prejudice dominates in both areas, with nineteen completed stories in “Epilogue” and seventeen in “Fantasia”; especially those in the former tend to be somewhat Harlequinized versions of the Elizabeth/Darcy relationship. In the same period, there are eight “Epilogue” stories on Emma (all by the same author), including one inspired by the 2009 miniseries, and two “Fantasia stories.” Northanger Abbey and Persuasion attracted only a couple of writers (and the Northanger Abbey story appears in multiple categories as it deals with several novels); Sense and Sensibility has three entries in “Fantasia,” as does Mansfield Park, but none in “Epilogue.”5
Stories are often submitted in parts, and get feedback from other readers (especially on their punctuation). The site has two chatrooms, the “Jane Austen Tea Room” and the “Chatsworth Room”; author biographies are listed on “The Baronetage,” within which primary information comprises: Location (of the writer); date when they joined DWG; “Favorite Jane Austen novel,” and, since this is almost always Pride and Prejudice, “Favorite that isn’t P&P,” and, finally, “Favorite JA Adaptation.” The authors generally list their email addresses, or websites/blogs, which are often Austen-inspired.6
Austen.com aims to classify the stories posted on the site, so that visitors can distinguish between respectful rewrites and more playful contributions, but even the non-historical stories seem to encode a high level of fidelity to their original text. As the home page explains its mission, “We make no claims to be able to reach the literary heights of Miss Austen, but, because we all wish that she had lived longer and written more, we feel the need to expand on the world, the characters and the stories that Miss Austen created.” Thus, “Performing to Strangers” by Suze, which moves between past and present and is archived in “Fantasia,” is prefaced by an extract from Chapter 31 of Pride and Prejudice (Darcy’s conversation with Elizabeth about his lack of conversational talent). Another “Fantasia story,” “Bus Stop,” written by Jennifer H., features Fitzwilliam Darcy, the CEO of Pembergy Power, who meets teacher Elizabeth Bennet while waiting in a bus stop queue. It combines an updating of Pride and Prejudice with homage to the Hollies’ song Bus Stop (with a link to the song at the end of the story), and the author says it was “written in honor of the 40th anniversary of Earth Day,” thus the focus on energy issues.7 In the latter story, especially, it would seem that the reader’s pre-established values and interests (in music and environmentalism) are “as important as those preferred by the narrative system [of the original text]” (Jenkins 63), but ultimately they accessorize rather than compete with those narrative values (Darcy and Elizabeth are instantly recognizable, and not even renamed). The many references to “Miss Austen” confirm a respectful investment in Austen herself as a cultural icon, and the allusions to Chatsworth and the Baronetage suggest an allegiance to heritage versions of Austen, however playful and ironized these allusions may be.
Austen is well-represented on FanFiction.net, which claims to be the “World’s largest fanfiction archive and forum where fanfic writers and readers around the globe gather to share their passion.” Again, Pride and Prejudice is overwhelmingly the most popular source text, with 1334 stories at the time of writing (some of which are novel-length—“Briars in the Road” comes in at 73,014 words, and “Orgueil et Prejuges: la suite” comprises 56 chapters, totaling 172,658 words).8 Second most popular are Emma stories (191), then Sense and Sensibility (95), Persuasion (66), and Northanger Abbey (17). As on Austen.com, writers often note that they have been inspired by adaptations as well as, or in place of, the novels themselves.9 There are lots of updatings and “crossovers” (which are archived separately).
Authors request and receive reviews and criticism, and they update their work in the light of comments received. The scale of this participatory community is astonishing: of the two stories mentioned above, the first has been reviewed 124 times, and the latter 242 times. The site operates a film-type ratings system (from “K” for a general audience age five and up, through “T” for teens, to “MA” for mature adults), and stories carry generic keywords (“romance,” “humor,” etc.). As well as writing, reading, and responding to stories, visitors to the site can link to a multitude of online Austen communities and discussion forums, including “The Romantic Jane Austen Community,” “Jane Fans,” and “Talk P&P,” a discussion forum dedicated to “anything pride and prejudice. Scenes, Mr. Darcy, characters, Mr. Darcy, romantic scenes, Oh and did I mention Mr. DARCY?”10 This is a huge site, so it is hard to generalize about the stories themselves, but, given the number of responses, it seems likely that the whole process of posting and responding is as important at the fiction produced. Overall, as perhaps might be expected from a multiple author/text site, it is more populist than Austen.com or the Republic of Pemberley, as evidenced in part by the monikers adopted by contributors (thus, “PrettyLittlePLotter” is the author of “P&P Goes College” and “alice-in-vunderland” contributes “Ten Years”).
Darryl Jones has argued that internet discussion of Austen fan fiction “tends to be naïve and uncritical, though . . . touchingly supportive” (94). Jones gently mocks such commentary, but he fails to note that the sharing of feelings and thoughts within a supportive “community” is the main point of fan fiction sites. Moreover, there are differences among these communities. Commentary on FanFiction.net more or less lives up to Jones’s stereotype: responses to “Ten Years,” a Pride and Prejudice story, include “Awesome update,” “Cute,” and a number of “LOLs.”
In contrast, responses on the DWG Message Board tend to be less colloquial and frequently offer sophisticated textual analyses. For example, a recent story entitled “The Inheritance” by ValT, premised on Mr. Bennet’s death and the arrival at Longbourn of the new heir, one Mr. Bingley, elicited nine responses on the day Chapter 3 (the proposal scene between Bingley and Jane) was posted (14 July 2010); these range from general appreciation, especially of the romantic scene, to detailed critical observations. Thus, in the first vein, “AllisonOM” notes, “How nicely the two come to a resolution without any mothers or friends interfering. Lovely. Jane’s happy moment was just perfect,” while in the second mode, “Nikki N” comments,
I love this Bingley, and I love these altered premises. I find it fascinating when JA characters are put in different circumstances and yet “in essentials” retain their personalities—it is very likely that a Bingley whose father had failed in his attempt to make a fortune would develop in this way. . . . And from what Elizabeth said—even she would have been willing to marry him, she was not in love with him but she had some regard for him. In canon, E could not possibly accept Mr Collins not because E did not love him, but because Mr C was a stupid man whom she could have no esteem or regard whatsoever—canon E is not really so romantic as to want to marry only for the deepest love.
This response thoroughly deconstructs naïve preconceptions about fan communities. The respondent discriminates between the recreated and the canonical, via the clever concept of “canon E,” and comments on the latter as well as the former. She knows the original intimately enough to play with Austen’s language, quoting Elizabeth and Wickham’s conversation in chapter 41 about whether Darcy has improved “in essentials” (and clearly expecting her readers to get the reference). If Nikki N’s knowing allusion to the original text is not essentialist, it nonetheless hints at her allegiance to a type of fidelity discourse, while the speculations about what Elizabeth felt and the discursive register (“I love this Bingley, . . . I love these altered premises”) confirm her fan identity and distinguish her reading from less emotive academic ones.11 Support of another fan’s fiction remains the primary function of her response.
The boundary between internet fanfic and that produced for my course is permeable, as might be expected given the students’ own investments in popular culture and their engagement with Jenkins’s typology of rewriting. However, I think there are some illuminating differences of emphasis and tone, as well as a specific engagement with (or disengagement from) academic readings of Austen novels. Most interestingly, the cultural dominance of Pride and Prejudice in the popular imagination is spectacularly undermined, as only one story explicitly addresses this novel, focusing on a minor character (and demoting Darcy to an offstage bit part). Similarly, there are no stories about Emma, the second most popular Austen novel for the production of fan fiction on the sites discussed above. Emma was many students’ least favorite heroine (too bossy), and the famous screen adaptations (especially Clueless) were felt to be a disincentive to the creation of new versions of Austen’s own “imaginist,” though traces of other film adaptations are evident in the student fanfic. At some level, the (relative) absence of these two hyper-canonical novels speaks to the students’ resistance to getting involved in cultural fields already perceived as over-colonized, especially within popular culture. None of the stories took Austen as a character, though many recent texts have done so, such as Stephanie Barron’s Recency detective fiction, which was briefly discussed in class.
There is no modernization, no time travel (though many were watching Lost in Austen), no landscapes (which may simply have been a pragmatic choice related to the requirement to read/perform the stories), and no guilt-ridden postcolonial/post-Saidian negotiations with history (a perspective much in evidence in the Norton edition of Mansfield Park). With one exception, the texts are resolutely unromantic, though one group, the authors of “Pomp & Fanciness,” did consider giving “Miss Bates a happy ending with a handsome man, as [they] all thought she deserved it.” While there is some engagement with sexuality as a theme, including cross-class and cross-generational liaisons, as well as more dangerous human/vampire ones, there is no “slash” fiction. No story realigned the sexuality or sexual preferences of Austen’s characters though such a move could have been legitimated both by Jenkins’s category of fanfic “eroticization” and recent academic interest in Austen and homosexuality. We had read Eve Sedgwick’s famous contribution to this debate, but there are no gay figures here nor “unheterosexuals,” as D. A. Miller dubs Robert Ferrars (16). If sexual recoding is possible within the privacy/anonymity of internet fan fiction, and in the critical readings of professional critics, the performance aspect of my assignment perhaps inhibited the students. Moreover, I surmise that they do not feel they have the same latitude as academics (or fans) to play around with Austen’s sexuality or that of her characters.
So much for what is not in the stories—what is there has much to tell us about student investment in Austen today. “Louisa Makes a Match” is a “recontextualization” and “refocalization” story. It takes two minor characters from Persuasion and fills in the missing moments of the courtship of Louisa and Captain Benwick. The story rehabilitates Benwick’s character: his fondness for Byronic poetry, so often dismissed as merely self-indulgent mourning, is here the medium of social connection. The recreation reminds us, too, how central the validation of second attachments is to this novel. Unlike the other four stories, this one closes conventionally with a romantic proposal, but playfully with a reference to Louisa’s “fortunate fall.” “Pomp & Fanciness” is also a “refocalization” story and a form of “moral realignment,” offering a blackly comedic take on Austen’s most debilitated character, Anne de Bourgh, who turns out to be an avid Gothic novel reader.
“Whispers at Woodston” expands the time line of Northanger Abbey to consider the now-married Tilneys and turns the hero into a villain: mortifyingly disabused by Henry of her Gothic fantasies in the original novel, Catherine is much too trusting of her pragmatic husband, who is well aware that England does harbor dark secrets of adultery and murder, even in parsonages. “Suffering and Seduction” is, as the title suggests, a sequel to Sense and Sensibility, though its primary homage is to Northanger Abbey. It is set in Bath and focuses on the near-disastrous encounters between Miss Eliza Brandon and Willoughby. The wannabe heroine has read The Monk (a nod to the 2007 film adaptation of Northanger Abbey, in which it replaces The Mysteries of Udolpho) and is ready to wander some suspect paths. The final story, “A Cautionary Tale,” also extends the time line, of Mansfield Park in this case, into the next generation, creating a hybrid text in its combination of Austen’s novel and Anne Rice’s The Vampire Chronicles.12 Again, the novel-reading heroine is as intertextually related to Catherine Morland as she is to her own (fictional) mother, Fanny Price. The story is a revenge fantasy against a Fanny who was just good (riffing on Lionel Trilling, AnneMarie and Joanna did not find “it possible to like the heroine of Mansfield Park”).
As this brief summary reveals, contrary to its marginalized status on the worldwide web, Northanger Abbey haunts the fan fiction produced for my course. Unappealing to those who read and want to rewrite Austen’s texts as romances, it offers instead the horrid delights of mystery and mayhem, as well as an ironic, quirky narrator (resurrected in several of the stories). Northanger Abbey’s parodic gothic sensibility seemed modern to students used to a TV diet of Buffy and True Blood. While there are Gothic abbeys and murderous husbands in their fan fiction, it’s the figure of Catherine as a devourer of popular gothic fiction who recurs again and again (a form of “Character Dislocation” in Jenkins’s scheme). Students majoring in English recognized a kindred spirit in the youthful avid reader and her desire to consume what might not be good for her. Thus, AnneMarie and Joanna on their heroine: “since as 15-year olds we very much enjoyed vampire fiction and were intrigued by those who had first hand knowledge of the darker novels that tended to lie outside our reach, we assumed that Ophelia would be likewise inclined.”
Like much internet fanfic, the responses to Austen’s texts are indebted to popular culture in both Austen and non-Austen mode, but they are also infused with the class’s scholarly reading, especially Barbara Benedict’s essay “Sensibility by the Numbers” (which we read alongside Northanger Abbey). As Benedict notes, Austen’s intertextual references, self-consciousness, tonal fluidity, direct narratorial address, and formulaic opening chapters suggest that she “conceived of her novels in the context of current fiction, as a part of popular literature” (64). Purveying (and parodying) fictional formulas, Austen’s texts, especially Northanger Abbey, hail circulating library readers and demonstrate her bond with them. The insight that Austen herself was an early literary “poacher” gave a special credibility to the students’ own acts of intertextuality. In other words, through pastiche they could demonstrate their bond with Austen’s novels.
The Gothic in general dominates the stories, not just Northanger Abbey-derived Gothic. Again, popular culture was inspirational—as well as screen vampires, the rampaging undead are a current obsession in Austen sequels (Mr. Darcy, Vampyre and Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, for example). The fan fiction retains much of the campy feel of the pop cultural phenomena to which it alludes, but it also offers displaced commentary on the dark shadows of Austen’s novels. Thus, Anne de Bourgh’s murderous sexual rivalry is as much a product of her stifling environment (closely modeled on Austen’s version of Rosings) as of her exotic reading. Henry Tilney as serial killer is gruesome comment on his managerial style in Northanger Abbey. In “Suffering and Seduction,” Marianne’s daughter is the third Eliza in the sequence that begins with the two seduced and abandoned women in Sense and Sensibility; like Austen, the authors save their own heroine, but although they turn the episode to parodic effect, they also remind us of the bleak sequence of female vulnerability and exploitation in their pre-text. The final pages of Mansfield Park are saturated with a lexicon of “horror” (440), “sickness” (441), “wretchedness” (442), “guilt” (449, 464, 467), “vice” (451, 465), and “punishment” (464, 465), and this rhetoric is literalized in the disfigurements of “A Cautionary Tale.” While critics routinely claim that “few writers are so obviously un-Gothic as Jane Austen” (Miles 135), these fan fictions claim otherwise.
Another discomforting feature is how young, silly, and vulnerable the protagonists are: Eliza is fourteen, slightly younger than the second Eliza in Sense and Sensibility, as is Ophelia/Fanny. In this, the stories reverse the dominant cinematic trend towards casting actresses older than their roles, reminding us that many of Austen’s heroines who must endure all sorts of horrors—sexual, emotional, and economic—are effectively adolescents (seventeen then is closer to fourteen now, both physically and psychologically).13
While they mix and match allusions to the novels, to Austen adaptations, and to contemporary popular culture, all the stories are nonetheless historicized, set either in the period of the original novels or in the next generation, fifteen to twenty years later. Asked for their post post-text comments, students felt that too little of Austen’s original texts remained in most modern updatings, and that their own attraction to Austen was intimately bound up with her historical period; having been immersed in Austen-world for the duration of the course, they felt more secure about writing a historical piece than modernizing or moving between time periods (“plus time travelling is so last year,” as Anneke Westra observed). Several noted the appeal of pursuing additional historical research for their fiction (into early nineteenth-century treatments for syphilis, for example). Of course, in so doing, they could accrue cultural capital by demonstrating their historical/literary knowledge. Some students commented that they tried to elide their own style and language to capture something of Austen’s language and tone; others embraced the opportunity to engage in a fan-cultural validation of their own existing interests, such as Gothic and Victorian cultures, or to write semi-autobiographically.
These writers strove for “authenticity” (a word used by several students in their email correspondence) rather than “fidelity.” This is an important and productive distinction, for the students’ preference privileges credibility and an entitlement to acceptance over notions of constancy and exactitude of reproduction.
Collectively, the stories are defined by a resistance to nostalgia, that dead culture of quotation that so offends Fredric Jameson in his work on postmodern pastiche (here one might think of the uncritical nostalgia for the past of some Austen adaptations, paraliterature, and internet fanfic). Through playing with narrative conventions and historical sensibility, they enable an “active nostalgia” that rewrites the past and reactivates it for the reader/audience (Brooker and Brooker 7). Two stories are written (and were performed as) plays, a generic switch that allows their witty narrators to play around with received notions of omniscient narration. “Whispers at Woodston” disconcerts in killing off Austen’s most endearing character, while “Pomp & Fanciness” parodies Austen’s famous endings, leaving us with “a knock on the door” and no knowledge of what happens to Charlotte Collins. “A Cautionary Tale” exposed the mechanics of mediation: set about twenty years after the marriage of Fanny and Edmund, it was presented with a framing story in which the two authors posed as Mr. Darcy’s great-granddaughters, who needed to sell a family manuscript because they had squandered the family fortune on laudanum and absinthe. As well as an opportunity for the authors to show off their decadent wardrobes, the frame tale flaunts a self-reflexive take on the past and uses characters from one novel to comment on those from another.
As these references to performance suggest, the Austen fan fiction produced an analogue to the participatory communities of internet fandom. All of the students commented on the value of working and writing as part of a team, something unusual in an academic setting in humanities disciplines. The collaborative production and the final performance constructed sociable spaces for informal, communal learning—an appropriately eighteenth-century ideal as well as a twenty-first century one. Many stories and performances included experiences from class sessions, which worked to bond the audience. There were many “in jokes”: the reference to The Pope (instead of The Monk) in one story, a mistake deliberately retained for the amusement of the authors and the audience; the allusion to the theatres des vampires, and vampires in general, was predicated on the knowledge that several classmates were familiar with Anne Rice or were researching vampire fiction for their dissertation projects. Thus, the students displayed what one might, grandiosely, call their subcultural capital, that is, their specific cultural knowledge of Austen and each other and their cross-over, liminal identity as student/fans.
Assessing the pedagogical value of the fan fiction assignment clearly shows that students acquired some transferable skills (notably working collaboratively, which many thought would be useful in their future jobs) and literary-critical skills (such as a new sensitivity to subplots), in other words, achievements that could be readily expressed as “learning outcomes.” These are not necessarily Austen-specific skills, but I cannot think of another author who could inspire the same level of commitment.
There were also other less quantifiable outcomes. Perhaps not least, students say they had lots of fun, as did I. Early modes of fan fiction have been around as long as the novel itself. For example, the epistolary network that surrounded Samuel Richardson functioned much like an internet fan community today, with citizen critics who read his work in progress, admiring or challenging his plot developments according to their own interests and desires. Thus, Clarissa’s first female readers inveighed against the necessity of the heroine’s death and, notoriously, in a form of moral realignment, wanted Clarissa and Lovelace to get married. Readers have always been compelled to appropriate the author’s role by completing or supplementing the original text; in Austen’s case, this phenomenon, as Marilyn Francus observes, dates back to nineteenth-century attempts by her nieces to finish Sanditon and The Watsons.14
The fan fiction exercise helped to forge living connections between the past and the present, so that the students perceived themselves to be not only related to contemporary fan fiction writers but also part of a long tradition of novel reading and rewriting. It enabled the translation of reading into a shared cultural activity and helped the class to have a collective sense of possessing and being possessed by Austen’s novels. As de Certeau puts it, “This mutation makes the [original] text habitable, like a rented apartment. It transforms another person’s property into a space borrowed for a moment by a transient . . . [and] furnish[ed] with their acts and memories” (524). Students’ fanfics constitute interesting opinions about Austen’s work in their strategic engagement with the discourses of academe and fandom.
However, I don’t want to romanticize our participatory community. At the start of the course, AnneMarie Fix observed that she did not “love” Austen but “appreciated” her. Her Tilneyesque discrimination might serve as a metacomment on the identity politics at work in the fan fiction assignment. Some students moved from the aesthetic distance implied by appreciation to a more affective relationship with Austen’s texts; others from the over-identification of love to the recognition of otherness, difference, and distance. Though the theories of reading and fandom helped to legitimate the exercise, all the students had continually to negotiate the permeable, complex boundaries between being a fan and being an (aspiring) academic. The conflictual semiotics of intimacy and detachment defined their relationship to Austen’s texts. The stories themselves are a tribute to the creative poaching of the students and their tribute to Austen.
Louisa Makes a Match
Pomp & Fanciness
Whispers at Woodston
Suffering and Seduction
A Cautionary Tale
1. The term is Ralph Breuer’s.
2. I’ve taught individual novels or courses on Austen for more than twenty years, at the University of Glasgow, Brown University, and the University of Groningen, The Netherlands. The present course was at MA level at the latter institution in the academic year 2009-10.
3. See recent essays by Laurie Kaplan, Juliette Wells, Marilyn Francus, and Brandy Foster, as well as the accounts by Phyllis Roth and Annette LeClair, about the creation of library exhibits on Austen’s legacy as part of a course requirement, and Natasha Aleksiuk Duquette on “culinary pedagogy” (whereby students learned about Austen’s world and their own through preparing and consuming Regency recipes. See also Celia A. Easton’s account of how dance and movement in the classroom can help illuminate Austen’s plots.
4. Of course, from one perspective, this theoretical framing simply replaces one set of conventions with another, and still requires students to take a certain distance from the material, but perhaps this is an inescapable feature of an academic context. Brandy Foster’s memorable, media-savvy exercise in “Pimp My Austen” will be an invaluable segue into the theoretical concepts in future classes.
5. The story that features in several novel categories in “Fantasia” is entitled “Sense and Sensibility and Mr. Darcy and Sharks in Space Riding Motorcycles Plus There is a Time Machine.” The most engaging story on Austen.com that I read during the course of my research for this essay was a witty update of Mansfield Park—”Mansfield Park (with a few small changes)” by HLeigh (last updated 30 April 2010).
7. “Performing” was last updated on 21 May 2010 and “Bus Stop” on 20 April 2010.
8. This French fan fiction, which deals with Elizabeth and Darcy after their marriage, claims to be a translation from the Spanish version by “Jo Darcy.” The translator says the text is based on the 2005 film and on Austen’s oeuvre. The author is in a venerable tradition: even the first French version of Austen’s novel, published by the Bibliotheque Britannique in 1813, departed from the original to produce its own version of the text (a more didactic, feminine fiction). See Valérie Cossy’s account of this target-oriented rather than source-oriented translation in Jane Austen in Switzerland.
9. For example, “Half Agony, Half Hope” is described as a “Persuasion story inspired by the 2007 film for the BBC”; “Heaven’s Last Best Gift” is “Inspired by MP—the novel and the ITV adaptation.”
10. Accessed 14 July 2010.
11. Not all academic readings are unemotional: see Mary Ann O’Farrell’s analysis of the complex discourses of friendship in Austen’s novels, the critical and popular traditions of reading Austen as a friend, and her own investment in this affective structure.
12. The invocation of Rice’s novel by the authors of “A Cautionary Tale” is ironic, given Anne Rice’s famous disaffection for fan fiction. See the “IMPORTANT MESSAGE FROM ANNE ON ‘FAN FICTION’” on her website: “It upsets me terribly to even think about fan fiction with my characters. I advise my readers to write your own original stories with your own characters. It is absolutely essential that you respect my wishes.”
13. See Jones 19.
14. See Francus 129.
AnneRice.com. The Official Site. http://www.annerice.com. Accessed 12 July 2010.
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