‘James,’ ‘Demon Copperhead’ and the Triumph of Literary Fan Fiction

One of the most talked-about novels of the year so far is “James,” by Percival Everett. Last year, everyone seemed to be buzzing about Barbara Kingsolver’s “Demon Copperhead,” which won a Pulitzer Prize for fiction. These are very different books with one big thing in common: Each reimagines a beloved 19th-century masterwork, a coming-of-age story that had been a staple of youthful reading for generations.

“Demon Copperhead” takes “David Copperfield,” Charles Dickens’s 1850 chronicle of a young boy’s adventures amid the cruelty and poverty of Victorian England, and transplants it to the rocky soil of modern Appalachia, where poverty and cruelty continue to flourish, along with opioids, environmental degradation and corruption. “James” retells Mark Twain’s “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” first published in 1884, from the point of view of Huck’s enslaved companion, Jim — now James.

The rewriting of old books is hardly a new practice, though it’s one that critics often like to complain about. Doesn’t anyone have an original idea? Can’t we just leave the classics alone?

Of course not. Without imitation, our literature would be threadbare. The modern canon is unimaginable without such acts of appropriation as James Joyce’s “Ulysses,” which deposited the “Odyssey” in 1904 Dublin, and Jean Rhys’s “Wide Sargasso Sea,” an audacious postcolonial prequel to “Jane Eyre.” More recently, Zadie Smith refashioned E.M. Forster’s “Howards End” into “On Beauty” and tackled Dickens in “The Fraud,” while Kamel Daoud answered Albert Camus’s “The Stranger” with “The Meursault Investigation.”

Shakespeare ransacked Holinshed’s “Chronicles” for his histories and whatever

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