Monday, 16 February 2015

Monday Musings: A story within a story

Can this literary device ever work? I should make it clear from the start that I am not talking about:

1. Nesting or framing narratives: for example, in Susan Hill's The Woman in Black, where the narrator decides to tell us about the awful experiences he had at Eel Marsh House.
2. Two interlinked narratives about 'real' characters, even if they live in different time periods: for example, in AS Byatt's Possession, where one set of characters are researching the other set.
3. Fictional novels* that turn up within novels, but which are not extensively quoted from (if at all) and which serve as plot objects, not as stories. For example, the famous Necronomicon in the works of HP Lovecraft, or, to a lesser extent, the novels of AN Dyer in David Gilbert's & Sons.

*this is, for once, not a tautology. I am referring precisely to novels which do not exist in the real world - they are fictional fictions!

I have a very specific type of story in mind, one which perhaps explores the craft of writing and storytelling much more deeply than these earlier examples, but is extremely difficult - if not impossible - to pull off. These stories feature excerpts from novels that their own characters are writing - so they 'nest' one set of fictional characters inside another set, but not in the sense of a traditional framing narrative. For the purposes of this blog, I'm going to consider how this is tackled in Rainbow Rowell's Fangirl, which I've recently re-read.

Fangirl focuses on eighteen-year-old Cath, who is reluctantly heading off to college with her twin sister Wren. Cath and Wren used to write Simon Snow (Harry Potter) fanfiction together, but for the last year or so, Cath has been pursuing this hobby on her own. For Cath, this means writing a novel-length story about the romance between Simon (Harry) and Baz (Draco); a romance that is never going to happen in the published book series, but which she wants to explore on her own terms. Throughout Fangirl, Rowell includes excerpts from both the original Simon Snow book series, and Cath's fanfiction, including some fanfiction that she wrote in collaboration with Wren. Reading reviews of this novel, this device does not seem to have worked for the majority of readers, even those who liked the book. Personally, while I didn't mind reading the excerpts, I felt that they added almost nothing to the story, and this is coming from someone who actually wrote some Harry Potter fanfiction between the ages of fifteen and seventeen, so I could understand where Cath is coming from. (These works of genius are archived here.)

There is actually Simon Snow fanart.
So why did these excerpts hinder Fangirl? There are a number of obvious problems with the way Rowell uses them:

1. While there are some discernible differences between the style of the 'real' Simon Snow books and Cath's fanfiction, there are no differences at all between the stories Cath wrote at a younger age, the stories she wrote with Wren (even though we are explicitly told that Cath is good at dialogue, Wren at action) and the fanfiction she writes now. This misses an important opportunity to say something about Cath's development as a writer.
2. The Simon Snow excerpts are totally irrelevant to the story, while Cath's excerpts are often trying to say something a little too obvious about how her real-life experiences are expressed in her writing. (Indeed, the story falls down too heavily for my liking on the idea that real-life experiences need to inform your writing if it is going to be any good). Rowell is stuck between a rock and a hard place; irrelevant excerpts are irrelevant, whereas the ones that link to Cath's real experiences seem like they are telling the reader what to think.
3. The excerpts are not dynamic. We don't get to see how Cath wrote them, even in a series of scenes where she reads out one story to her boyfriend, Levi. I think this would be the biggest improvement - if we got to see Cath editing and changing things, or even commenting retrospectively on her work, they would serve more of a purpose, as we would see how she works as a writer.
The fictional Simon Snow series.

However, although I feel Rowell could have tackled this issues within Fangirl, there's a fundamental problem with this type of story within a story that I'm not sure she could overcome. The reviews of Fangirl continuously come back to the same issue: why should I care about these fictional characters? At one level, this is a bizarre criticism; Cath, Wren and Levi are also fictional, as these readers very well know. But at another level, these objections (which I share, to some extent) tap into something very fundamental. They suggest that Fangirl, and books like it, break the fourth wall, and that the reader is simply never able to invest as deeply in characters that are explicitly made-up. Does this mean that it's impossible to deal with a nested story? I'd like to think not, but I'm struggling to think of a counter-example (I don't think Cloud Atlas counts.)

There's a final twist in the Fangirl story. Rainbow Rowell recently announced that she is actually going to write the love story of Simon and Baz. The question is, will readers be able to connect with these fictional characters - which are explicitly modelled on Harry Potter? Much as I want to read Ampersand and other fictional novels, I think it's a risky idea. Perhaps the key to creating a successful fictional series is to say as little about it as you can.

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