Deborah Yaffe

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By Deborah Yaffe, Oct 19 2017 01:00PM

Fifty-three years ago, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart wrote that, while he could not fully define hard-core pornography, “I know it when I see it.”


Apparently, so do the wardens of the South Dakota State Penitentiary. And for them, the category includes Jane Austen fanfic.


In a case now pending in federal appeals court, a convicted murderer serving a life-without-parole sentence argues that the prison’s no-porn policy, under which his jailers refused to give him a number of items mailed to him by his mother, is unconstitutionally broad and vague. Among the rejected items were Renaissance art images, a book on Picasso and Matisse, a collection of erotic fantasy tales called Thrones of Desire – and Pride and Prejudice: The Wild and Wanton Edition. *


I take no position on the merits of the case, but based on my skim of the excerpt available online, Pride and Prejudice: The Wild and Wanton Edition has no merits of its own, even if it was written by a sometime bestselling author. (Although the book is credited to “Jane Austen and Annabella Bloom,” the “Note from One of the Authors” – guess which one? -- is signed by a writer with the comically appropriate name of Michelle Pillow.)


Taking a leaf from the eighty-percent-Austen playbook of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, the book seems to consist largely of Austen’s prose, studded with occasional not-very-good edits (Mr. Bennet’s “quick parts” become “a fast mind”) and saccharine interpolations (Jane Bennet, mooning over Mr. Bingley after the Meryton Assembly, “danced around the room, twirling in her long nightgown till it billowed about her legs.”) And lest we be in any doubt about where we’re headed, Elizabeth has barely glimpsed Darcy before she’s daydreaming about the “unmistakably mesmerizing shift of his hips beneath his jacket.”


What’s that? You want to know more about the sex scenes? I’m shocked – shocked! We’re discussing literature here!


Oh, all right. I can confirm that they exist. Lydia sneaks away from the Meryton Assembly for an assignation with a married man’s “turgid shaft,” and as Chapter 3 closes, Darcy is – ahem! – “t[aking] himself in hand” to thoughts of that distracting Bennet girl. (Not handsome enough to tempt him, indeed!)


I couldn’t help wondering, however, whether the book’s presence in the case might stem from one of those mistakes that your mom sometimes makes when confronted with the puzzling intricacies of Amazon. Turns out that the editor of Thrones of Desire, Mitzi Szereto, is the author of yet another sexed-up P&P -- Pride and Prejudice: Hidden Lusts. Could it be that the prisoner-son is a Szereto fan who never even wanted the Wild and Wanton Edition?


Tell it to the judge, I guess.



* Thanks to Devoney Looser for posting this tidbit on Facebook.


By Deborah Yaffe, Apr 11 2016 01:00PM

My next book-related event is scheduled for this Wednesday, April 13, in Princeton, NJ: I’ll be speaking at our lovely independent bookstore -- Labyrinth Books, 122 Nassau Street -- starting at 6 pm.


My talk is sponsored by the Princeton Public Library, which, later this month, will host novelist Curtis Sittenfeld. Her newest book, Eligible, which comes out later this month, is an update of Pride and Prejudice, and the latest entry in the benighted Austen Project. (Blog readers know that I’m not a fan. On the other hand, I’m cautiously optimistic about Eligible, which has some good early buzz.)


Because of the tie-in to the library’s Sittenfeld program, I’m not delivering my usual why-you-should-read-Among-the-Janeites book talk. Instead, I’m giving a talk titled “Rewriting Pride and Prejudice: The Austen Project in the Age of Jane Austen Fanfiction.” But I will be happy – nay, delighted! – to sign copies of my own book for anyone who’s been kind enough to buy one.


The web sites of the bookstore and the library have more details, as does the Events section of my own site. Hope to see you there!


By Deborah Yaffe, Jun 19 2014 01:00PM

The explosion of Jane Austen fan fiction over the past fifteen to twenty years was possible because of one salient fact: Austen’s books, published between 1811 and 1818, have been out of copyright for a century or more.


Harry Potter fans may noodle about online with the further adventures of Harry, Ron and Hermione, but if they try to publish their creative reimaginings, they will hear from J.K. Rowling’s intellectual-property lawyers, a far more frightening bunch than the Dementors. But you can do anything you want to Elizabeth and Darcy; Austen may spin in her grave, but she can’t sue.


Researching my book Among the Janeites, I often wondered if any other classic literature had inspired a similar amount of rewriting and sequelizing. One or two of my interviewees suggested that the Sherlock Holmes stories, whose fans are at least as dedicated and eccentric as the Janeites, might be the only comparable case.


But the copyright status of the Holmes stories, published between 1887 and 1927, is complicated, at least in the United States: although the earliest stories are clearly out of copyright, the last ten, published between 1923 and 1927, are not. The late Holmes stories will enter the US public domain between 2018 and 2022. (In other countries, the copyright expired much earlier.)


Relying on the still-copyrighted status of those late stories, the estate of Holmes’ creator, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, has demanded that publishers of Holmesian fan fic pay licensing fees, even though the earliest stories on which such homages are based are now in the public domain. Presumably, that’s put a crimp in production (though plenty of Holmesian homages are still out there, as Benedict Cumberbatch fans can attest).


This week, a panel of three federal appeals-court judges ruled against the Conan Doyle estate's latest effort to restrict publication of Holmesian fan fic, upholding a lower court’s decision. “The ten Holmes-Watson stories in which copyright persists are derivative from the earlier stories, so only original elements added in the later stories remain protected,” Judge Richard Posner wrote for a unanimous panel.


Can The Hound of the Baskervilles and Zombies be far behind?


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