A common "subgenre" of fan-fiction is the one that retells a famous story from someone else's point of view. I recall my 5th grade t**spoiler alert**
A common "subgenre" of fan-fiction is the one that retells a famous story from someone else's point of view. I recall my 5th grade teacher waxing enthusiastic over a retelling of the Three Little Pigs from the wolf's point of view. Other examples I know of include Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, or Wicked by Gregory Macguire.
Such a concept works very well for parodies and jokes, and/or for creative thinking/writing exercises, but I remain deeply ambivalent over their use in serious fiction. Such an undertaking suggests implicit criticism of the original author and an inherent arrogance to the re-writer.
There is an inescapable air of "Oh you liked that story, huh. Well, here's what REALLY happened. And everything you know is wrong. Let me enlighten you." I don't mind this in a comedic re-write, because the very idea and any arrogance are part of the joke. When a re-write is done seriously, though, that's troublesome.
Longbourn by Jo Baker takes Pride and Prejudice and re-writes it from the servants' point of view. While paralleling the classic in many ways, it also opposes it in many others. Where Pride and Prejudice was concise, Longbourn is verbose, full of what my English teacher called "sensory language," overflowing with sights, smells, touches, and descriptions of the weather. Everyday routines and chores are gone over with great detail. Whereas P&P was silent as to the more unpleasant aspects of everyday life (probably because Jane Austen didn't know enough to realize that they were unpleasant), this author peppers her narratives with descriptions of washing, scrubbing, chamber pots, periods, mud, excrement, profanity, bad food, poor light, wartime atrocities, pedophilia and all sorts of things that Jane Austen never deigned to notice.
All that detail, all that exploring another era is perfectly fine (even welcome) for an original historical novel. In this context, it feels more like a sneer, because it is not done for fun, but for enlightenment.
Furthermore, I was annoyed when Longbourn goes above and beyond the original text, inventing back stories, motivations, and even characterizations, in order to make someone else's story what She wants it to be. These extrapolations from "canon" that she makes are frequently irritating, being born not of the text but of the author's (understandably) modern attitudes about class and sexism.
It's like she is saying "Oh, modern reader, you like reading about the Bennet sisters, do you? Did do know how overworked the servants were in that era? Did you know how much WORK went into keeping up the Bennets' frivolous lifestyle? Do you? Do you! Let me enlighten you. Oh, you yearn for a Bingley of your own, do you? You do realize that ALL those rich British families got their money from slavetrading, right?"
Sigh. Many historical families probably did. But Pride and Prejudice is literature, not history. And since there was no hint of slavetrading in the LITERATURE, then there no reason to assume it now. Except, of course, for the reason that the author wants to show off her knowledge (and opinions!) of prior eras.
Even worse. She gives Mr. Bennet an illegitimate child! This is inspired from the incident in the original book where... um... Mr. Bennet grew exasperated by his stupid wife... so... women were downtrodden... and he is a man... and rich and white... and therefore... yeah...
It was written well enough, and in spots very interesting, and even enjoyable. But the underlying attitude, the arrogant assumptions of it, kept breaking through the narrative like an erupting infection, ultimately making this an unfulfilling read for me. ...more