Friday, May 28, 2010

Who are you calling derivative?

One of the criticisms commonly levelled at J. K. Rowling is that her Harry Potter books are 'derivative'. By this people seem to mean that they are like countless other 'off to boarding school' books, in the great English tradition, or that they are like The Sword in the Stone, or that they're like The Little White Horse, or The Magic Faraway Tree, or The Lord of the Rings, or or or.

Why yes. Yes they are. They are a clever and loving pastiche of precisely all those things, and of a whole lot of other things. That, or so I have always assumed, is partly the point of them: that much of the pleasure in reading them, and a large part of the explanation why so many adults love them, is in the recognition factor and the clever play with the texts of the past. For a well-read adult, reading the Potter books is the same kind of experience as reading a good contemporary detective novel that skilfully uses and plays with and echoes all the most established conventions of crime fiction that we the crime fiction lovers have come to know and, erm, love.

In order to secure what turned out to be one of the great conversations of my life, a conversation that I will remember till I die, I once shamelessly manoeuvred until I was seated directly across the dinner table from the late, great and much-lamented Scottish writer Dorothy Dunnett, a Renaissance woman who who went to school with Muriel Spark, married the founding editor of The Scotsman, and in terms of sheer literary talent could hold her own with both of them, which did not stop her in earlier life from making a living as a portrait painter.

I asked her starry-eyed fan questions all through dinner, but she volunteered without being asked (I wanted to ask, but it would have been rude) the information that she had found Dorothy L. Sayers' Lord Peter Wimsey's mother the Dowager Duchess of Denver a wonderful model for her own Sybilla Crawford, particularly in the matter of her relationship with her heroic son, and was taking it for granted that many of the readers who liked her work would also be familiar with Lord Peter Wimsey and his mother, and would see the resemblance and appreciate it for the playful homage it was.

Part of the point of that characterisation, in fact, is the pleasure of watching Dunnett take a model in a very different genre (though she wrote some cracking contemporary thrillers herself, as well as the historical sagas) and, with an elegant flourish, show how certain archetypes of character and family relationship could be remodelled while keeping their essence in the telling of a very different sort of story in a very different sort of way.

But I digress, because actually this isn't a post about Harry Potter, or indeed about Dorothy Dunnett: it's about the reclusive British writer Jude Morgan, whose 'novelisation' of the lives of the Brontës under the unpromising title The Taste of Sorrow, published last year, turned out, against all (my) expectations, to be really good. Normally the 'novelisation' of real people makes me very squeamish, but Morgan somehow -- I'm not sure quite how -- manages to overcome the very real and very obvious disadvantages of this kind of writing, to the point where he's made a successful career out of it and is clearly on a roll.

For, less than a year later, he has a new novel out. A Little Folly is set during the Regency (he began his career with Heyeresque Regency novels) and again 'derivative' not only of various 19th century novelists -- there's one character straight out of Dickens (who was a year old in 1813, at the time the novel is set), one straight out of Thackeray (who was two), one straight out of Charlotte Bronte (who was born five years later), one straight out of Henry James (whose birth was still 30 years in the future), and pretty much everything else is straight out of Jane Austen, who was 38 and at the height of her powers: a pastiche of various Austenesque characters, situations and conventions, as well as some pretty impressive imitation right down at the level of sentence structure and the way Austen uses grammar in the service of her wit.

Not only is it homage to Jane Austen et al, it's also, at the meta-level, homage to Georgette Heyer, who herself, of course, in a way only historical novelists can (and must, one way or another), was attempting to echo in her style and characterisation the era of which she wrote.

The word 'derivative' applies only when the deriver doesn't really know what she or he is doing, as with the numberless hordes of Candace Bushnell wannabes, vampire novelists who don't get the metaphor(s), historical novelists whose fashions in skirts and dialogue quirks are from the wrong century, and humourless fantasy writers whose furry and leathery characters all talk like Yoda and have names full of gs and ths. And neither Dunnett nor Rowling nor Heyer nor Jude Morgan could for a moment be thus described.  When you write, you're placing your work into a set of traditions that already exists, whether you like it or not; even writers who pride themselves on being innovative or original are doing so in conscious resistance to what has gone before. Writers like Morgan aren't 'derivative'; they're entering into a conversation with literary history.

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