‘Imitation or Homage: Can Fan-Fiction act as Literary Criticism?’

Katie Bell is a third year PhD student at the University of Leicester. Her thesis is titled ‘The Diaspora of Dickens: Death, Decay and Regeneration’, the focus of which is the intertextuality of Dickens’s works and 20th century American texts of the Southern Gothic genre. The American authors examined in her thesis are William Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor and Carson McCullers.  She is also a volunteer curatorial assistant with the Charles Dickens Museum, London, and is currently working on cataloguing their collection of Dickens’s personal letters. She is based in the United States where she is also a volunteer docent for The Wren’s Nest, the home of Atlanta author Joel Chandler Harris most famous for his ‘Br’er Rabbit’ tales.  She can be found on Twitter @decadentdickens https://twitter.com/decadentdickens.

Charles Caleb Colton made the famous assertion ‘Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery’, to which Oscar Wilde cunningly added, ‘…that mediocrity can pay to greatness’.[1]  Wilde’s addition gives a new take on the term ‘reboot’ and he more than likely would have applied his addendum to the modern film market whose current muse appears to be the never ending superhero chronicles.  Do film and television adaptations cross the line from creatively exploring a new way of seeing a well-loved story, such as Colton surmised, or are they merely rehashing old plot lines as a way to avoid bringing a new story line to the market, as Wilde suggests?  Further, is this act of recycling truly creative or is it merely imitative; if the former, how far can we, as well-read writers, move from imitating those authors who truly inspire us?

T S Eliot theorized that Western writers are involved in the act of creation by relinquishing themselves to the pasts that created them.[2]  His theories speak of a continuation of the past into the present (at least where literature is concerned) and that this borrowing is not necessarily bad.  However, there does appear to be a line between intertextuality through being informed by the past, and ‘re-booting’ due to a lack of a new creative spark.  This last question was posed to the BAVS delegates speaking on the ‘My Dickens Project’, specifically in relation to the BBC television series, Dickensian.  Dr Furneaux mentioned that the chief complaint of viewers was that the series strayed from Dickens’s dialogue.  For myself, I felt the screenwriters made a careful examination of Dickens’s texts: Bob Cratchet said exactly what I would have predicted he would at his eldest son’s fictional wedding (by fictional, I mean outside of Dickens’s canon), and both Honoria Barbary and Miss Havisham appeared as strong-willed young women, but through the show, their character development hinted at their later descent to become social outsiders.  Therefore, I felt it stayed true to Dickens’s flavour, but strove to tell its own story of these characters’ lives outside of their texts.


Dr Furneaux defined her view of the term ‘Dickensian’ as displaying Dickens’s ‘protean qualities [and his] portability’ (a term she mentioned was coined by Dr Juliet John).  A key point she also made during the panel was that Dickens fan fiction (such as we can classify Dickensian) plays an important role as literary criticism.  What contributes to the memorable quality of his characters is that his works have been reimagined numerous times, and perhaps due to this, his characters can easily be extracted from their original works and viewed as part of our families.  So, what then does a show like Dickensian have to say on the collective works of Dickens?  I surmise that the series implies that these characters are indeed well-loved members of our families, as Furneaux outlined, because we know them well enough to be able to visualize what type of life they would be leading outside of the plots of their respective novels.  Having this relationship with the characters implies that Dickensian figures are developed enough in their texts for this type of alternative imagining to occur, therefore perhaps shattering the notion that they are mere stereotypes. This complaint that Dickens’s figures were caricatures is something he appears to have been aware of as early as Oliver Twist (1838), as he addressed this in the Preface of the novel.  In his Preface, he attempted to address his street characters, the child beggars and prostitutes, as being true to life.  Additionally, a fan-fiction piece like Dickensian demonstrates that the world which Dickens created was indeed both real and familiar. This sense of reality facilitated further reimagining of his creations.


The ‘My Dickens Project’ panel brought up the important conversation of whether fan fiction is a recycling of ideas (perhaps bringing up negative connotations), or if this type of work is valuable as it brings greater understanding to the original text via literary criticism.  The panel convened on the note of Dickensian having achieved the latter.  This borrowing happens all around us, and a popular example of a Hollywood inclusion of Dickensian motifs is the opening of the 1950 film, Sunset Boulevard.  The main character Joe Gillis’s car blows a tyre, and he randomly turns into the drive of Norma Desmond, a forgotten Hollywood silent film star.  Gillis describes the house as being ‘a great, big, white elephant of a place…it was like that old woman in Great Expectations. That Miss Havisham in her rotting wedding dress and her torn veil, taking it out on the world because she’d been given the go-by’.[3]  Norma Desmond’s neglected Hollywood mansion becomes a twentieth-century American Satis House.  The viewer understands exactly from Gillis’ description the ambiance surrounding Desmond’s house because of the way in which the character Miss Havisham (both her body and her possessions) has become the Western prototype for the lonely outsider.  From the comparison of the house to Miss Havisham, we can feel the tattered, abandoned landscape of Desmond’s Hollywood Hills home: once loved but now left decaying as an outward sign of Desmond’s own psychological deterioration, much like Satis House’s appearance to Pip is representative of Havisham’s loss.  This same symbiosis would not have occurred had the director Billy Wilder not utilized the pinnacle of decay: Havisham herself.  Thus, Sunset Boulevard and Dickensian both achieve a form of literary criticism, as Furneaux outlined, by utilizing Dickensian motifs and building upon the understanding Dickens created of the broader relationships his characters have with the reader.



[1]  Charles Caleb Colton, Lacon, Or, May Things in a Few Words: Addressed to Those who Think, Eighth Edition (Cambridge: S. Marks, 1824), pg. 114.

[2]  T S Eliot, ‘Tradition and the Individual Talent’, in The Sacred Wood: Essays on Poetry and Criticism, Sixth Edition (London: Methuen & Co. Ltd., 1948), pp. 47-59.

[3]  Sunset Boulevard, dir. Billy Wilder, starring William Holden (Paramount Pictures, 1950).


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