Here’s a seemingly simple question: what do you call stories like the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen? What subgenre does the Theodora Goss’ Athena Club trilogy or Kim Newman’s Anno Dracula novels fit into?
It feels like there should be an answer already; the big-budget LXG film was more than twenty years ago, after all. And you know the subgenre when you see it. It features a bunch of fictional characters, often protagonists from a variety of books by different authors, who cross paths with each other in a mutual setting. It’s not like a Super Smash Bros.-type crossover where preexisting characters are just plucked out of the ether. There’s the sense that all of these different fictional stories are taking place in the same world.
This is the kind of setting I’m interested in. But there doesn’t seem to be any consensus on what to call them. ‘Crossover’ feels too broad a term; Jess Nevins catalogues seven types of crossovers in his essay on the subject here, and I’m only looking at the last type. ‘Shared universe’ also doesn’t feel right, since it’s often used to describe corporate synergy between properties they own.
Even TV Tropes, which can usually be trusted to have a definition for such things, doesn’t quite have what I’m looking for. ‘Canon welding’ probably best fits, though it places more emphasis on the act of creating a cohesive world than its existence. Ditto ‘Fusion fic’. On the academic side I like the sound of the phrase ‘Dionysian imitatio’ though admittedly it doesn’t really map onto what I’m talking about either (it essentially just means imitating other writers). But it’s fun to say.
Instead I have two candidates to describe what I’m trying to articulate. One that’s probably too fanciful and unspecific to be of much use, and another that might be more practical.
The first plays on the origins of these types of stories. While Nevins’ article extends this subgenre’s roots into the nineteenth century, the first major work was Philip Jose Farmer’s Wold Newton family. His biographies of Tarzan and Doc Savage put together a genealogy of various fictional characters from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, all of them connecting in some way to a meteorite that fell in the village of Wold Newton in 1795. For example, he charted how Tarzan’s great-great grandfather was the Scarlet Pimpernel, and how Nayland Smith and Nero Wolfe are cousins. The Wold Newton books were influential, with Moore, Newman and others citing them as a big inspiration on their own fictional cosmologies.
As for Farmer, he was inspired by William Baring-Gould’s fictional biography ‘Sherlock Holmes of Baker Street’. This in turn was built on the fan activities of the Baker Street Irregulars, a long-running literary society. There, Doyle’s stories are treated as if they were accounts of real events, and it is up to the Irregulars to figure out how to make them all fit together. This is helped/hindered because Doyle was not terribly interested in keeping things consistent, leaving aspects like Watson’s marital status (and how many wives he had) a debatable question, to say nothing of whether his Afghan war injury was in his collarbone or his leg! (See here for a funny summary of the prevailing theories.)
This activity, of treating the stories as if they were real and patching them together into a cohesive whole, is known (among other names) as the Great Game. As Dorothy Sayers puts it, the Game “must be played as solemnly as a county cricket match at Lord’s; the slightest touch of extravagance or burlesque ruins the atmosphere.”
The Great Game is exactly the same kind of fun that Farmer, Moore, Goss, Newman et al are tapping into, only expanded to a much larger scale.
Which leads me to my thought: if assembling the 56 Holmesian stories is known as the Great Game, reconciling the fictional worlds of many creators should surely constitute a Greater Game, if not the Greatest Game.
It makes a certain sense. But I dislike the superlative. As the above authors have shown, there are many different ways to assemble the same stories together, so the superlative feels empty. Besides, if you use either term without context, most people are probably going to assume it refers to sport. Or possibly politics, depending on how you translate daes dae’mar.
So let’s move onto my other suggestion.
You may know that what we think of as the legends of King Arthur and his knights were not originally written about a single group of people, but a patchwork of stories of different knights and kings – some created centuries apart – that have all been recast as members of the Knights of the Round Table. Well, back in the twelfth century a French poet, Jean Bodel, classified all important literature into three categories:
The Matter of Rome: Greek and Roman mythology, along with legendary stories surrounding Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar etc.
The Matter of Britain: All the legendary kings of Britain with the Arthurian legends as their focus
The Matter of France: the Carolingian Cycle involving Charlemagne and his associates
Now, these names are somewhat out of date, though the categories are still in use in certain circles. But I think this concept is well worth updating for the present.
For instance, the aforementioned Great Game would be a Matter of Sherlock Holmes. The Anno Dracula books, which incorporate practically ever vampire ever committed to fiction, would be a Matter of Vampires. ‘The Society of Infallible Detectives’, Carolyn Wells’ parodic series where Holmes, Dupin, Raffles and the Thinking Machine all rub shoulders? A Matter of Detectives.
And for things like the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, attempting to work every story into a single universe? A Matter of Fiction.
It may be too overly descriptive, too much of a marketing label, but I like it. As Iain M. Banks showed when he titled one of his novels simply ‘Matter’, it’s a word with multiple meanings and connotations that contrast each other. It describes a fundamental building block of reality, but it’s also a word more associated with casual conversation, like ‘matter-of-fact’ or ‘doesn’t matter’.
And I think it plays into that po-faced solemnity Sayers was talking about. These literary games need a touch of seriousness. A desire to treat stories as chronicles of events to be changed as little as possible, even as we pick apart their seams to better sew them into a single unified quilt. Calling the game a Matter gives it a sense of self-importance, too much, so that at the same time it tips into ridiculous territory. And this ridiculousness reinforces that all this literary noodling around is just a game, that none of it matters in the grand scheme of things.
Except, to those invested in playing such games, of course it matters.