Fanwork Done Right

In terms of explaining fandom, and especially fanworks, to outsiders, 2012 hasn’t exactly been a banner year. Gawker and Jezebel—and, briefly, io9, though they ended the feature and apologized for it—have mocked fanfiction and by extension those who write it. The self-insert One Direction one young fan is writing is going to be turned into a book.

And, of course, there was 50 Shades of Grey.

I’m not going to touch on the fact that it is a smutty novel, because one of the positives of fandom, at least in some areas, is that it provides a safe and healthy environment for learning about sex, sexuality, kinks, and so forth. There are plenty of people who read and write fanfiction, at least in part, because of the openness about sex and generally sex-positive culture that fandom often has.

However, generally speaking, I can’t think of anyone who reads fanfiction for bad writing, dangerous mispresentations of BDSM culture (link is to a not very safe for work video), and outdated and misogynistic narratives about just sticking with the bad boy because your love will make him change. Certainly, those are not reasons I would give my mother if I were attempting—again—to make her understand why I’ve been doing this for so many years.

Instead, I would talk to her about the things that transformative works can do, how they can reinterpret the original material, make it relevant (or even just more relevant) to a different audience, flesh out secondary and tertiary characters, and explore the dynamics of putting characters in different settings.

In short, I would talk to her about all the things The Lizzie Bennet Diaries is doing.

For the uninitiated, The Lizzie Bennet Diaries is a modern reinterpretation of Pride and Prejudice, told through the video blogs of graduate student Lizzie Bennet. There are new episodes twice a week, always with enough story to be enjoyable but not so much I’m not left flapping my hands and yelling that I need the next one.

Basically, The Lizzie Bennet Diaries is a thing that’s existed in fanfiction for ages: it’s a modern AU. Meaning that it’s a rethinking of a historical story familiar to the reader, with the characters—and often plot and thematic parallels—transposed into a modern setting. For instance, a modern AU of the Robin Hood story might have Robin as an employee embezzling from a corrupt corporation and giving that money to the nonprofit house he runs to help homeless kids, while the Sheriff of Nottingham is his manager and Prince John is the tight-fisted CEO.

In a similar, but much more complex and well thought out, way, LBD repositions Pride and Prejudice in the 21st century United States. Instead of the Bennets’ house being entailed away from the female line, Lizzie’s parents are in danger of having their house foreclosed on. Marriage proposals become business ones, or—well, I don’t want to spoil anything. But it’s all fantastically done, staying true to the source material without making it implausible in a modern setting or so predictable that it undermines the inherent suspense of the serialized format.

Lydia Bennet, in Jane Austen’s original novel, is little more than a cautionary tale about the perils of excessive flightiness, irresponsibility, and wild behavior. Charlotte Lucas, by contrast, is a foil to Lizzie who values the security of a respectable marriage over romance; she is not punished, per se, for her choice to marry Mr. Collins, but she isn’t rewarded either. Beyond being characterized as more sensible than romantic, her personality is not deeply fleshed out.

However, in The Lizzie Bennet Diaries, both Lydia and Charlotte have become three-dimensional characters. Charlotte, especially, is thrown into sharper focus in her role as Lizzie’s video editor and oldest friend. Her departure from Lizzie’s immediate surroundings, which was never especially moving in the novel, is heartwrenching in this new context. Lydia is also a far more developed character, an energetic young woman who frequently crashes—against Lizzie’s will—into her video blogs and, who, in Lizzie’s absence, started her own YouTube channel. Instead of just seeing Lydia’s story as a moralizing one in which Lydia gets what was coming to her, we get to see her make choices and face the consequences of them—and grow up because of them. As I write this, I’m terribly concerned about what’s going to happen to Lydia, whose fate in the novel is distinctly unfortunate.

Obviously, the dynamics of the story are very different in a modern setting, but in a lot of ways that’s made them more relatable. I love Pride and Prejudice. It is, probably, my all-time favorite book. But I can related to The Lizzie Bennet Diaries in a way that I can’t to Pride and Prejudice, because 19th century Lizzie’s worries about finding a husband to keep her from poverty and homelessness are not like anything I have ever experienced. 21st century Lizzie’s worries about student debt and what type of person she’s going to be and growing up, though? Those speak to me on a much more personal level.

Oh, and this should probably go without saying at this point, but the series is really good. It’s sharp, well-paced, funny and heartwrenching in turns, and oh-so-accessible. The episodes, posted on YouTube, have captions and are mostly under four minutes. I could ramble for several hundred more words about why video blogs, with many characters seen only through Lizzie’s reenactments of them, are a perfect medium for interpreting a story about learning to reevaluate others, but I shall control myself.

Instead, here’s the first episode so you can waste a day watching them all. Think of it as a way to escape family during the holidays. Or show them to your family!

(Of course, I wrote this whole thing and I failed to convince my mother to watch them because she doesn’t understand video blogging. Some people may just be lost causes.)