October 21, 2016

Genre Convention: Phong Nguyen on the Literary Spin-Off

Genre Convention is the Missouri Review’s new blog series exploring literary genres and subgenres, written by those who love or loathe them. Upcoming entries will include apocalyptic fictions, locked room mysteries, and gothic children’s stories.

The literary spin-off is a venerable genre. To browse listicles online at Flavorwire and Reader’s Digest, one would think that it all began in the 1960s with Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea, grew into maturity with John Gardner’s Grendel, and reached its apotheosis a couple years ago with Sena Naslund’s Ahab’s Wife. But as Zachary Mason points out in his Preface to The Lost Books of the Odyssey (a literary spin-off), “Homeric material was formless, fluid, its elements shuffled into new narratives like cards in a deck,” containing far more apocryphal than canonical texts; and the Greek tradition of epic poetry constituted an ongoing, multi-generational collaboration in which certain characters were elaborated upon and began to figure larger in the story as the subsequent storytellers got hold of the narrative. In fact, you might say that Homer’s The Odyssey is itself a spin-off of a relatively minor character from The Iliad.

My recently released first novel, The Adventures of Joe Harper, is a spin-off from The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, in which Joe Harper plays the part of Tom Sawyer’s best friend and first mate. It was inspired by this quote from Tom Sawyer: “As the two boys walked sorrowing along, they made a new compact to stand by each other and be brothers and never separate till death relieved them of their troubles. Then they began to lay their plans. Joe was for being a hermit, and living on crusts in a remote cave, and dying, some time, of cold and want and grief; but after listening to Tom, he conceded that there were some conspicuous advantages about a life of crime, and so he consented to be a pirate.” The Adventures of Joe Harper imagines that Joe Harper has returned to his hometown of St. Petersburg, Missouri, after a failed life of piracy, and, finding it full of strangers, decides to fulfill his lifelong dream to become a hermit and find a cave to die in. Instead, he meets a cast of characters on the hobo road who give him reasons to live: Lee, a Chinese-American railroad worker; Ruth, an Amish woman fleeing a forced marriage; and eventually Tom Sawyer himself.

When I first read the above quote, which forms the epigraph of my book, the character of Joe Harper—his potential for story-worthiness—seized me so powerfully that I could not put away the character for three years. I imagine this is how most literary spin-offs are written—in frenzied response to another’s genius, as though this offshoot of the book were what the author had intended all along. It was important to me in the writing of The Adventures of Joe Harper that the result felt inevitable, because that is how the process felt—as though it were more a matter of channeling than authoring. This is perhaps the most critical difference between a conventional novel and a literary spin-off: in the latter case, one knows precisely where his or her inspiration is coming from. It is a full-on embrace of what Jonathan Lethem called “The Ecstasy of Influence.”

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is itself a spin-off from The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, and has inspired more spin-offs than perhaps any other American novel (Finn by Jon Clinch, The Further Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Greg Matthews, Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer Among the Indians by Lee Nelson, and My Jim by Nancy Rawles, to name only a few). The fact that, as Ernest Hemingway famously said, “All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn,” suggests that the literary spin-off has been a central part of the culture from the earliest articulation of a distinct American culture. It is not, therefore, a literary fad that started in the 1960s.

My own contribution to the tradition of literary spin-offs from The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is to revisit Twain’s antebellum characters in postbellum America. The Adventures of Joe Harper takes place 22 years after the events described in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, shortly after the end of the Civil War, and after the completion of the transcontinental railroad, during the early days of hobo culture. It concerns Tom Sawyer’s best friend Joe Harper, of course, but like Huckleberry Finn, it also concerns Tom Sawyer himself, and the trouble he makes at the expense of the weak and the marginalized, all in the name of a good adventure. The heaviest burden I carried in the writing of this book was the pressure I put on myself to live up to one of the greatest, most controversial endings in literary history. Yet that is one of the hazards of the literary spin-off: that you become so daunted by the greatness of the original that you are paralyzed. It was important not to get carried away with this line of thinking. So, to ward off this impulse, I devised an antidote, which was that I would dedicate the book thusly:

“To Mark Twain, who, though I stand knee-high to his genius, would not, I believe, try to shake me off his leg.”

Phong Nguyen is the author of The Adventures of Joe Harper (Outpost19, 2016), Pages from the Textbook of Alternate History (Queen’s Ferry Press, 2014), and Memory Sickness and Other Stories (Elixir Press, 2011). He teaches fiction writing at the University of Central Missouri, where he serves as editor of Pleiades.

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