For some time I’ve been threatening to write a fictional homage to P.G. Wodehouse – a statement that will induce some of you to sadly shake your heads, for there is a school of thought among Wodehouse lovers that such homages ought not be attempted. Stern words have been written on the subject. Alexandra Petri leaps to mind. She makes a sound case for the prosecution in her review of Sebastian Faulks’ homage, ‘Jeeves and the Wedding Bells is worse than bad fanfiction’ (Washington Post), in which she helpfully outlines the world of fanfiction (yes, it’s one word apparently).
I would submit that three kinds of fanfiction [exist]: the sanctioned published kind (spin-off Bonds, Star Wars sequels, many of these aimed at men), the kind you forget is fanfiction (Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Milton’s Paradise Lost) and the kind the word evokes, written on the Internet largely for and by women between 14 and the designated demographic of “50 Shades of Grey.”
However much I might fancy that my own homage might be classed with Paradise Lost, there’s no escaping the fact that I fit smack-bang in the middle of the latter derided demographic. And if that’s not enough to make the self-respecting female writer of homages think twice (or at least get herself a decent set of false whiskers), here’s what La Petri has to say about the motivation and content of fanfiction:
Fanfiction is motivated by the sense that there is something missing. Generally, what is missing is that not enough of the characters are having explicit sex, or that two of the characters that you wish were having sex with one another are not doing so, although in Wodehouse fanfiction this is not always the case. It’s a tribute, but it’s also about filling in the gaps.
The mind boggles! This was certainly not the sort of homage I had mind.
So, not only is fanfiction frowned on by some Wodehouse fans, it seems the last thing the internet needs is another sad old frump churning out homages. What was I thinking? Presumably I ought to be doing something more age and gender appropriate — whatever that might be. Shoe shopping? Planning a diet and skin care regime to address the signs of aging? Reading the aforementioned 50 Shades of Grey? Well, sneer if you will, but writing Wodehouse homages sounds like a much better way to spend my time.
And I am in good company, with at least two dedicated Wodehouse communities at fanfiction.net: a World of Wodehouse’. group and one dedicated to Jeeves stories. Enjoyable tributes to Wodehouse spring up here at WordPress too: try Wooster and Jeeves, ‘Purloined Snuff Box Retrievers’ by Shashi Kadapa, or Tom Travers’ Travails at Totleigh Towers (an homage to P.G.Wodehouse) from the Chronicles of an Orange-Haired Woman! In published form, I highly recommend The Reminiscences of the Hon. Galahad Threepwood by Wodehouse expert N.T.P Murphy, which combines Murphy’s enjoyable prose style with his research into the period of Gally’s days as a young man about town. And I can’t write this piece without mentioning the latest novel by Wodehouse lover, writer and cricket historian Arunabha Sengupta: Sherlock Holmes and the Birth of the Ashes. It’s not a Wodehouse pastiche, but a great example of the possibilities of quality homage.
Respectful imitation (the sincerest form of flattery), and homage have long been part of literary tradition, just as they are in other art-forms. Many gifted painters have learned their craft by copying old masters; musicians and composers practice their art by replicating music conceived by others. Many pop stars make a substantial living by imitation alone. Unlike these art-forms, it is not possible for writers to earn a living in this way, but there is much that a developing writer can learn from imitating a beloved author. It is also possible for gifted writers with a strong, original idea to successfully and legitimately appropriate another writer’s characters. My favourite example of this is George MacDonald Fraser’s Flashman series.
If we want Wodehouse’s legacy to extend beyond his own work, as an influence on future writers, we must not close our minds to imitation, adaptation and appropriation — as a starting point. This is particularly important given the lack of an emerging ‘Wodehouse tradition’ in current fiction. As the shortlist for the last Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse Prize demonstrates, between Wodehouse and modern comic writing there is a wide and substantial difference. This isn’t censure — I usually enjoy the books shortlisted. But there is little on offer for Wodehouse fans looking for something new and original in the Wodehouse vein. It’s worth remembering that many modern readers have discovered Wodehouse through later authors like Douglas Adams and Terry Pratchett, both sadly no longer with us. A continuing ‘Wodehouse tradition’ in comic fiction would provide ‘an entry’ to Wodehouse for future readers.
This brings us back to the matter of Sebastian Faulks and his homage. It hasn’t been a universal hit with Wodehouse fans (although we’re not all as scathing as Alexandra Petri). I don’t know that it has brought many new readers to Wodehouse either — certainly no one has cropped up in our Facebook group or any other forum that I follow, claiming to have found Wodehouse through Faulks. But as homages go, it’s a sound effort and I have no objection to Faulks attempting it (you’ll find my review of Jeeves and the Wedding Bells here.), particularly if it makes homages more acceptable — or at least gets the conversation going.
My own homage-in-progress has been an exercise in developing my skills as comic writer by imitating the style of a master. I’ve adopted a similar approach to N.T.P Murphy and G.M Fraser, writing an original piece that avoids Wodehouse’s central characters and settings (there are no Jeeves or Woosters, Psmiths or Emsworths). I think this is where Faulks made his bloomer. We are simply too close to these characters. As imitation Wodehouse, my story has many faults, but as a stepping stone from imitation to original fiction, I have high hopes for it.
I look forward to sharing it with you here in due course, once I’ve finished reading Sherlock Holmes and the Birth of the Ashes.
7 thoughts on “50 shades of Wodehouse homage”
I wish you favorable winds in this project. All the harrumphing directed at Sebastian Faulks strikes me as being contrary to the kindly spirit of Plum. And, truth be told, Faulks’ book is pretty good. As you know, it begins with Bertie waking up in bed, but as a servant rather than a gentleman — the central tension of the novel. Plus, the opening pages are in medias res which, with all respect, can be superior narrative technique to a simple chronological rendition.
Certainly, Wodehousians who wish you ill in this work have the option of not buying your book and simply rereading Code of the Woosters. Or they could BOTH buy your book AND reread the Code.
I can already see the tracer bullets headed my way, so I will duck back into my foxhole.
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Thanks for the encouragement Scott. I’m glad you poked your nose out of your foxhole. I am all in favour of a kindly spirit of community and generosity among Wodehouse readers, and for the most part I find this genuinely does exist. I’ve never received a harsh word from anyone.
While there may be some head-shaking about Faulks and the less successful dramatic adaptations, I have some sympathy with those who despair — it’s hard to see something you love being appropriated by others. Fanfiction and homages will never appeal to everyone, and that’s fine.
The problem (I think) is that this attitude discourages people who’d like to pen homages from penning homages. I’d like to encourage greater acceptance homages — good and bad — as an acceptable avenue for fans to express and share their love of Wodehouse.
The matter of publishing and selling a homage is quite different. Permission from the Wodehouse estate would certainly be required. Most fans are content to write a few hundred words. My short story is currently at 6000, several scenes away from being finished, and the scale of the enterprise is starting to alarm me.
What I can say, is that after reading Wodehouse, ‘writing Wodehouse’ is the most enjoyable hobby I’ve found.
I am very much looking forward to reading your Wodehouse homage! I don’t know if I would ever dare attempt something similar myself, but I have read one or two short pieces of Wodehouse fan fiction that I was very impressed with, so it obviously can be done. It just, as you pointed out, requires the right kind of approach.
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Thanks so much. I used to feel that way, but one day was struck with an idea and I wanted to try it. It may be terrible, but the act of writing it has been very enjoyable.
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If you love doing it, then you have every reason to keep at it. The fact that others (viz., us!) are really very excited to read what you’ve got cooking, well, that’s just icing on Vladimir Brusiloff’s cake.
Just remember to secure the copyright in all languages, including the Scandinavian!
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What ho! Like all your fans, one would watch your future progress with great interest. One quivers with a sense of keen anticipation. One is also sure that the Plumtopia fanfiction would not fall into the second category.
Any assistance that a lesser mortal may provide?
Topping stuff Mrs Plum and you are a sporting gal to bring us a Woodhouse classic but your version. Love your blog, keep up the good work.