Among its many other splendors, the Web has created a market for a strain of ancillary fiction that takes the characters and themes of an existing story – George Lucas’s Star Wars, say, or Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight – and creates a new story designed to shed light on the existing one. Fan fiction, it’s called. So far, fan fiction has focused mostly on genre stories, especially sci-fi and fantasy, but there’s no reason literary fiction can’t have its own fan fiction – and perhaps the quickest way to kick off the trend would be for literary authors to write a little fanfic of their own.
To a certain degree, this appears to be what has happened with the publication of Adelle Waldman’s “New Year’s,” a Kindle Single timed for the paperback release of her 2013 breakout novel The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P. “New Year’s” is a fully rendered work of literary fiction, just short of novella length, but the story, helpfully subtitled, “Nathaniel P. as Seen Through the Eyes of his Friend Aurit,” almost certainly wouldn’t exist, at least not in this form, were it not for the paperback release of Nathaniel P. Genre writers have been releasing these add-on stories for some time now, but this is among the first I have seen from a literary author, and it’s illuminating, both in terms of the risks a talented writer takes in rushing out a story to meet an artificial deadline, and more broadly, as an object lesson in the risks writers face when the traditional obstacles to publishing a work of fiction fall away.
I am, for the record, an admirer of Waldman’s writing and of Nathaniel P., though I recognize it isn’t for everybody. Waldman’s characters live in certain self-consciously liberal neighborhoods in Brooklyn and are nearly all upper-middle-class, attractive, well-educated, and to some degree freakishly successful in the arts. There are people out there, one is given to understand, who are not quite so lucky in their intellectual capacities or their socio-economic circumstances – a phenomenon Waldman’s characters respond to by writing sympathetic essays, which they hope will land in prestigious magazines and further their careers.
Waldman’s fictive universe is, in short, a bit hard to take. But she possesses a rare gift for dramatizing psychological insight, and in Nathaniel P., her first novel, she focuses on Nate Piven, a thirty-year-old novelist, who like so many young Brooklyn artists, lives in mortal terror of having to one day grow up. In Nate’s case, this terror takes the form of an abiding fear of commitment in romantic relationships – which, after all, lead inevitably to marriage and children – and in the pages of the book, we watch Nate skillfully manipulate a girlfriend into breaking up with him.
It’s riveting in its way, especially since Waldman is so good at exploring the ways intelligent people can be so blind to their own monstrousness. In “New Year’s,” Waldman’s emotional radar remains quiveringly intact, but the story itself is as slack and shapeless as a Sunday morning at a Brooklyn coffee house. The plot, such as it is, turns on whether Nate and Aurit, an Israeli-born writer who was a minor character in the original novel, will become a couple. But Waldman seems only intermittently interested in this central narrative, and instead fills page after page with backstory about Aurit’s school years, which too often reads like one of those background histories actors write for themselves to help them get into character.
We learn, in excruciating detail, how after her family’s immigration from Israel, Aurit was desperate to fit in with the crowd at her suburban Boston middle school, but clueless about fashion and American pop culture, found herself passed over by her classmates who saw her as hopelessly “bespectacled, bookish, [and] brown-skinned.” Later, thanks to some savvy clothing and hair choices, Aurit pulls off a “punk-inspired asexual, alternative look,” and following a pre-college weight loss, she acquires an actual boyfriend. None of this is unconvincing as social detail, nor does it make Aurit seem less worthy a subject for fictional treatment, but it does make one hanker for the, um, story to begin.
When it finally does, it’s over before the reader has a chance to savor it. While hanging out together after a New Year’s party, Nate tells Aurit, “You give me feedback I don’t get anywhere else.” This is as close as a man like Nate comes to a statement of undying love, and it gives Aurit reason to think they might become more than friends. Then, all too quickly he returns to form, an overgrown man-child incapable of a mature relationship with a woman – and we’re done.
What’s most maddening about this is that, setting aside that long dry spell about Aurit’s teen angst, there is a kernel of a great story here about the difference between romantic love and the platonic kind. Everyone has had a close relationship that works better as a friendship than as a romance, and at some half-drunken moment of intimacy, everyone has wondered why. “New Year’s” seems a story poised to answer this very human question, and then, for some reason, it simply doesn’t.
Writing great fiction is a little like hitting Major League pitching – even the best in the game fail to get a hit seven times out of ten. But here one can’t help wondering if the ease of its publication may not have also played a role in the story’s failure to fully engage. In an analog world, Waldman might well have wanted to tell a story from the perspective of a minor character that provided insight into the protagonist of her recently published novel – to write a bit of self-initiated fan fiction, as it were – but she would have faced some thorny logistical problems.
For one thing, virtually no one publishes stand-alone novellas in print. Perhaps Waldman could have trimmed it to a more standard story length – pruned some of that backstory about Aurit’s formative years, say. But even then she would have had to find a literary journal willing to take the story on its own terms, not merely as an online add-on to a paperback release, or she would have had to wait until she had enough other publishable stories to make a full collection.
It is unwise, of course, to make too much of one misbegotten story. We are still in the experimentation phase with Web-only publication, and the point of experiments is that they don’t always work. One can only imagine what a restless mind like William Faulkner’s would make of a world in which an author wishing to fill in extra detail about an existing literary world need only write up the story, slap a title on it, and post it to the web.
At the same time, though, when it comes to literary fiction, perhaps we should be mindful of the special demands of print. The cost of printing and distributing physical books has never stopped bad books from being published, but it does raise the barrier to entry. It creates an intermediary rank of editors, agents, and publishers whose job it is to be rigorous with authors, forcing them to make their work as strong as it can possibly be. If the Web is the future of fiction – and how can it not be? – we don’t want to stifle innovation. Still, it’s a mistake to make it too easy for writers to reach readers, because part of what makes a story good is how many hurdles it has had to jump before it finds its way to a reader’s hands.
In my freshman year of college, I learned that a kid down the hall had never seen Star Wars. None of it. He had actually never heard of Luke Skywalker or Darth Vader or R2-D2 — I don’t know how; he seemed normal enough. Once my roommates and I overcame our shock, we plopped him down in our common room for a marathon viewing: A New Hope, The Empire Strikes Back, Return of the Jedi, with no digital enhancements — the complete series, at the time.
We sat like anthropologists, observing our perfect test subject, completely silent to avoid spoiling anything, watching him discover this strange new world. “Wait, this is the beginning?” he asked as the intro scrolled across the screen “Why does it say Episode IV?” And then: “Whoa, they just blew up the whole planet?” And: “He can strangle people with his mind?” And: “Oh my god, they’re freezing Han?”
By the time we got to the most famous line, the line, the spoiler it’s virtually impossible not to hear at some point growing up — “Luke, I am your father” — the look on my friend’s face was one of pure wonder. I could not remember a time when I didn’t know who Luke’s father was, and I envied the excitement he was feeling, the unadulterated thrill of discovering something that, though verging on the cliché for me, was completely fresh territory for him. I kept thinking, How lucky he is to get to see this for the first time now.
As adults, it’s easy for us to feel that everything fun is already finished, that all the worlds have already been thoroughly mapped, especially when it comes to books. The last time I felt that childlike glee of discovering a new world was with Harry Potter, and by that time I was already in college. Now Harry has vanquished Voldemort. Aslan has fought Last Battle. Frodo has destroyed the One Ring. Katniss has — well, in case you’re waiting for the movies, I won’t spoil it for you.
But really, you don’t have to be young to experience that excitement. Here are five children’s series you might have missed when you were younger (and please add your favorites in the comments, too). Each offers a thoroughly imagined world that’s immersive enough to make you feel like a kid again, with writing sharp and smart enough to satisfy a book-loving adult. If they’re unfamiliar, I envy you: how lucky you are to get to read them for the first time now.
1. The Wolves Chronicles by Joan Aiken (12 books starting with 1962’s The Wolves of Willoughby Chase)
Aiken’s series is set in an alternate version of 19th century England, in which James II was never deposed and the Hanoverians — that would be the ancestors of today’s royal family — scheme against the rightful ruler, James III. Stay with me.You don’t need to know or even like history to enjoy this series, which centers around a plucky, streetwise Cockney girl named Dido and her younger sister, Is, and includes a healthy dash of fantasy while still being grittily real.
Wolves roam London at night. There are hot-air-balloon chases, plots hatched on Nantucket whaling ships, and hypnotic puppet shows. In The Stolen Lake, Dido journeys to a strange country ruled by Queen Ginevra — better known as Guinevere — who has been awaiting the return of her husband, King Arthur, for hundreds of years. In Is Underground, Is ventures into the terrifying mines — worked by kidnapped children — to rescue her missing cousin. Aiken’s series is hardly known in the U.S., and I don’t know why: she’s the forebear of steampunk and all kinds of other historical-fantastical mashups.
Oh, and did I mention that Edward Gorey did the book covers? Yeah.
Can two books count as a series? I vote yes, because these are too good to leave off the list. Howl’s Moving Castle was made into an animated film by Hayao Miyazaki in 2004, but even the master couldn’t capture all the incredible flourishes of the book. Sophie, the eldest of three daughters and certain she’s therefore doomed to be a failure, is transformed by an angry witch into an old woman. Forced to flee her home, she talks her way into in the moving castle of the title: inhabited by Howl, a youngish, temperamental, and very vain wizard; his apprentice Michael; and a curious and powerful fire demon named Calcifer. Sophie and Calcifer strike a bargain: he’ll take the spell off her if she can break a mysterious bargain he’s made with Howl — but what is the bargain, and what will it cost to break it?
The novel is slyly funny, with gentle sendups of both fairy-tale tropes and modern-day life — at one point, Sophie and crew end up in a small town in Wales. (Don’t ask; just get the book, trust me.) Lit-nerds will delight in the John Donne poem that plays a central role in the plot. It’s clever and deeply satisfying, as is its sequel, Castle in the Air, which gives the same treatment to Arabian Nights territory.
Zilpha Keatley Snyder is surprisingly unknown, given how prolific she is: she’s written more than forty books (three of them Newbery Honor books) and is still going. As a kid, I read all of them I could find, but my favorites are — and still were — the four books about the kids in the Stanley family: sensible David, precocious Janie, stolid Esther and her eccentric, prescient twin Blair, and cranky, adolescent stepsister Amanda, whose arrival shakes up the family.
In the first book, The Headless Cupid, Amanda arrives at the Stanley house, bored, bitter at her mother for remarrying, and — wait for it — obsessed with the occult. Her prosaic new stepsiblings decide they want to learn about the dark arts as well, but things start to get a little creepy when they learn about the poltergeist that once haunted their house. Snyder’s vivid characters keep the series firmly grounded in reality, though, and the series could be a master class for writers in any genre: create interesting and dynamic people, put them together, and let the sparks fly. In the following books, there’s a kidnapping in rural Italy, a (possible) monster roaming the neighborhood, and a mysterious rash of dognappings, but at heart the focus is always on the dynamics of this quirky family.
The three series I’ve mentioned above could be considered YA from a time before “YA” was a thing, but the Half Magic series by Edward Eager are clearly meant for children Despite the younger audience, though, adults — especially book-loving adults — will still adore these stories of unabashed magic.
Each takes a traditional chestnut of children’s lit — the magic talisman, a wish-granting animal, time travel — and gives it a fresh twist. For instance, in Half Magic, four brothers and sisters find a magic charm that grants them exactly half of what they ask for, and in Knight’s Castle, a boy discovers that his toy castle comes to life at night. Jo and the Little Women, Merlin, Ivanhoe, and many more literary figures have cameos, making these books parents and kids will enjoy on different levels. Each book stands alone, but figuring out how the stories are connected — and then watching them overlap—is part of the fun.
5. The Vesper Holly series by Lloyd Alexander (Six books starting with 1987’s The Illyrian Adventure)
Many people know Alexander’s Chronicles of Prydain, including The Black Cauldron (and if you don’t, get thee to a bookstore or library). But fewer people are familiar with his marvelous heroine Vesper Holly and her adventures. Vesper is a teenage orphan, ferociously intelligent, insatiably curious, and completely unfazable; picture a teenage, female, red-headed Indiana Jones. She drags her elderly and devoted guardian, Brinnie, across the globe to just-barely-made-up lands — Illyria, torn by centuries-old civil war; El Dorado, where Indian tribes grapple with encroaching industrialization; Jedera, a desert land with an immense, ancient library under siege. In her first adventure, she makes an archnemesis, Dr. Helvitius; in each book, she thwarts another of his plots. These are fun, smart books, with witty characterization and sparkling writing. Growing up, I wanted to be Vesper, and now that I’m grown up, I still kind of do.