travelling histories

Research, thoughts, links

Dead Authors

In October, before I left the UK for my fellowship at the Kluge Center, my supervisor and I were discussing the idea of character afterlives. This topic of conversation came about from our reading of a study by David Brewer called, appropriately, The Afterlife of Character. This book has framed much of my thinking in the past months and has influenced to a degree how I am approaching my archival research into Sherlockian fans writing about travel and mobility. In his exploration of eighteenth-century reading practices and reader-led extensions of the fictional adventures of popular characters such as Lemule Gulliver, Brewer has done what I would like to do, in part, with my thesis. He presents a literary history of the period combined with a social history of contemporary readers and their more-than-textual reading practices. What I find most interesting about the book is that so much of what Brewer has discovered about eighteenth century ‘fan’ reading looks remarkably similar to nineteenth and twentieth century fan readings of Sherlock Holmes; yet Brewer explicitly draws a line under his findings as being unlikely in the modern era of authorial ownership of character and robust copyright laws. He even uses a quote from Doyle about Holmes’s apparent non-afterlife to illustrate this. This line of research, however, will be the subject of a later post (and paper).

For the time being, my supervisor and I were chatting about the examples we could think of from literature after Brewer’s period that would count as character afterlives, including of course the many times Sherlock Holmes has appeared in tales written by people other than Doyle (like JM Barrie and Mark Twain, for instance). In the midst of this, my supervisor threw out a question about author afterlives. Were there any examples of authors living outside and beyond their own work (and their own lives)? Some authors and writers make cameos in other people’s works or adaptations. Stan Lee is famous for doing this in the Marvel films adaptations of comics that he has written, including the Avengers, X-Men and Spiderman. Paul Auster has written himself  into his own fiction as a supporting character, most notably in The New York Trilogy. Still, I couldn’t think of an instance of the top of my head where a writer had given life after death (or after publication) to an author by making them a character in his or her fiction.

That evening, looking for some non-academic reading but not wanting to stray too far off topic (once I go down the route of Frozen watching there’s no escape from that back hole) I picked up a collection of Doyle’s lesser known stories that I had recently got my hands on in trusty Heffers and found just what had eluded me earlier in the day – an example of the afterlife of authors in print. Called Tales of Twilight and the Unseen this volume collected a few short stories written by Doyle in his later years and dealing mainly with mysticism, the occult and spiritualism. Though not very convincing in terms of plot and content, the stories are still marked by Doyle’s ability to turn a pithy line and draw the reader in with a compelling narrative.

Among these lesser-known tales (and Lot No. 249 which I really recommend) I found Cyprian Overbeck Wells, a short story with the curious subtitle: A Literary Mosaic. Writing from the point of view of our unidentified narrator, a struggling writer who has moved to the countryside to finish his book yet can’t seem to find any inspiration, Doyle presents a classic example of the afterlife of authors. Desperately seeking inspiration, the writer named only as ‘Smith’ sinks into a dream sitting at his kitchen table. In his sleep, he hears a tumult of voices and raising his head discovers that he has been visited by the ghosts of a host of famous, long-dead literary figures. He teases the reader with the identities of his illustrious literary company, identifying a few on sight but waiting for others to speak before making the big reveal. In this way, Doyle allowed himself free rein to imitate his literary heroes’ prose style and focus.

Intent on helping the hapless Smith to construct a workable narrative, the literary luminaries agree to go around the table one-by-one and, “make a start to his story which”, as Dickens says, “is I believe the reason why we were assembled”. With each author, “contributing a little as the fancy seizes him”, the narrative moves from the sea narrative of Defoe, to the romance of Smollett and the mediaeval meanderings of Walter Scott before landing in a curious fashion in Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s lap. After Lytton has recited a paragraph of two of prose that neatly brings together the stylistic strands of the preceding authors, he gets chastised by Scott for doing so. As Scott says, “We want a touch of your own style, man… The animal-magnetico-hysterical-biological-mysterious sort of story is all your own but at present you are just a poor copy of myself”.

Doyle’s depiction of these authors, all from different times and as different literary traditions, presents a distinct departure from his opinion, quoted by Brewer, that characters don’t have these kinds of post-publication, post-author existences precisely because they are the property of the author. In writing of these historical authors as if they have come from some kind of lively spirit world, instead of the ‘kind of limbo’ which he proposes for characters, Doyle is of course channelling the Christian idea of an afterlife for people, where it might be plausible that these authors would meet and know about each other’s work, even if they died many centuries apart. Yet he is also negating his ‘kind of limbo’ in favour of an afterlife of authorial ‘voice’ which, as he demonstrates by his free adoption and adaption of each of his authors’ signature styles, he apparently believes if fair game for satirical copying, and migrating to other settings, locations and media.

Doyle’s short story raises two interesting questions that I want to leave here. First, is there a different between characters, locations and other ‘tangible’ or perhaps ‘phenomenal’ properties of narrative and an author’s style or voice? Brewer’s eighteenth-century readers seemed to think that the two were entirely bound up, that one was a part of the other, and that characters were ‘fair game’ for textual appropriation, creating ‘afterlives’. Doyle’s contradictory words and practice, however, seems to suggest that they are separate entities, one (character) a type of ‘production’ legally protected, the other ripe for the writerly picking. Second, Is there a difference between ‘character afterlives’ which appear to extend the ‘existence’ of a literary character by the adding of new text, new words to their corpus and which appear to be predicated on the idea that no single text can hold them, and ‘author afterlives’ which, as they bind living (or once-lived) humans into paper appear to reduce these people from their full complexity into textual ciphers, mere authorial voices? I am not so sure that the ‘expansion’ on one hand and ‘reduction’ on the other is as clear cut as that nor as opposed as they seem. I think this needs more research.

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This entry was posted on December 16, 2014 by and tagged , , , , , .
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