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Call Francis Spufford's Narnia book what it is: fanfiction


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If I had to pinpoint one book which made me into a story-lover, I’d be able to name it without hesitation.

Admittedly, it was more a television adaptation which grabbed me initially, when I wore out a VHS from watching it repeatedly one summer, drawn in by a lion, a witch and, yes, a wardrobe. C S Lewis’ masterpiece is the text which awakened my imagination and made me into the reader – and writer - I am today.

Image credit: MorningbirdPhoto on Pixabay

I’m not alone. It was the ninth most popular read in the BBC’s 2003 survey ‘The Big Read’ and was named in TIME Magazine’s ‘ALL TIME 100 novels’. Generations have been taken through that wardrobe, into the snow-covered forests of Narnia.

Which is why news of Francis Spufford’s unauthorised and unpublished return to Aslan’s country has caused such a stir amongst readers. Praise has rained down upon it, with critics noting its accurate mimicry of Lewis’ style and how neatly it fits into the chronology. There have been calls for the Lewis estate to authorise it in order that it can be officially published long before 2034, when the original copyright expires. Spufford has been hailed as some kind of second coming, if you’ll forgive the rather too-apt religious metaphor.

Yet, if we evaluate what he’s really done, there’s a whole other way this novel can be looked at. Spufford picks up the tale in the summer after The Magician’s Nephew, when the protagonists of that novel, Digory and Polly, return to Narnia via the tree they planted in Digory’s back garden. He’s borrowed Lewis’ characters, Lewis’ setting, creating a narrative which fills in a silence in Lewis’ narrative.

He’s written fanfiction.

In certain circles, fanfiction is a dirty word, code for poorly-executed tales of wish fulfilment. Many see it as plagiarism or lazy writing. It’s an issue Rainbow Rowell raises in her novel Fangirl, where Cath, an internet-famous fanficcer, has her passion dismissed by serious creative writing lecturers. Yet it’s a community which thrives online and in many ways is one of the purest forms of writing: pieces written for no other reason than a desire to write, play with characters and connect with others.

Which is why Spufford’s request to monetise his Narnia novel seems somewhat unfair. On AO3 and, two of the biggest repositories of fanfiction, there are already collectively over fourteen thousand entries into the world of Aslan. Even if only one percent of those works was of publishable quality, that would still be 140 new Narnian adventures shared completely free, just because the authors felt like writing them.

To see the acclaim Spufford is receiving as reflective of the patriarchy could perhaps be a cheap shot, given that so much is seen as reflective of the patriarchy in 2019. Yet it’s not so long ago that E L James’ ground-breaking Fifty Shades trilogy was lambasted for being thinly disguised Twilight fanfiction. Given that she at least had the good grace to erase the sparkly vampires and change the names, it’s hard to see what the big difference really is, aside from the quality and, perhaps, the gender of the author.

I can completely see what has gripped Spufford by Narnia, because it’s a world I too have been gripped by, and one I too have dabbled in, with varying success. Yet what I cannot quite understand is his reluctance to share his new tale, for free, for no commercial gain. The outpouring of affection in response to Frank Cottrell Boyce sharing the first few chapters on Twitter demonstrated precisely how much people want this adventure to happen. The comments left by fans reminded me of nothing more than the reviews left on a great piece of fanfiction, urging the writer to ‘update soon!’, ‘give us more!’ and ‘post the next chapter!’

Should Spufford be given the okay to officially publish The Stone Table, I can guarantee I’ll be pre-ordering. But what I’d really like to see is this already-critically acclaimed author getting his boots dirty with the amateurs, sharing his story just for the sheer joy of it. Narnia belongs to him no more than to any other man, woman or child who has dreamed of stumbling across a secret doorway and finding themselves face-to-face with Aslan. It’s only fair that his fic should be treated the same as all the rest.

Or maybe he’s just scared of the competition.

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