Kafka and the Kafkaesques: Close Reading Online Fan Fiction / by Bonnie Ruberg

Kafka and the Kafkaesques: Close Reading Online Fan Fiction

Bonnie Ruberg

“Gregor pushed against the door and undid the lock with his jaws. As it swung open… his father grabbed a poker from the fireplace and stabbed it through Gregor’s shell again and again. ‘But what happened to Gregor?!’ shouted his mother. After Gregor died, Gregor’s father sold his monstrous body to the circus.”

In online fan fiction communities, literature’s most canonical stories are being rewritten. They are getting new plot points, new characters, and new endings — composed not by literary greats like Kafka himself, but by his readers. These fan-written stories bring into relief issues of authorship and textual authority that have long sat immutable at the heard of studies on the literary auteur, issues that are now shifting as the seat of contemporary art and language transfers to the digital. No writer has been more highly praised for his individual, irreplaceable genius than Kafka. However, ironically, it’s his very stories that resonate with this new breed of author, inspiring them to replicate and mutate the work of the master. If Gregor Samsa’s body can be sold to the circus, we’re left to ask: whose stories are these new creations? What happens to the classics that we’ve long revered when they twist and evolve in the hands of fan fiction writers? Have we finally found the “death of the author,” or has Kafka in fact been resurrected, reborn? Though scholars like Henry Jenkins and Abigail DeKosnik have done extensive work on the sociological side of pop culture fan fiction, surprisingly little work is available on the intersection of fan fiction and literature, which destabilizes the boundaries between auteur and admirer, both of whom wrestle for domain over the same medium: text.

By juxtaposing two Kafka spin-off stories with “Die Verwandlung” itself, I will demonstrate an approach to scholarship in the digital age that reconsiders the line between legitimate and the illegitimate art objects, between literary greats and literary “nobodies.” Standing in opposition to Franco Moretti’s recently popularized approach of “distant reading,” I will be pushing back toward close reading: not the close reading of the canon as we know it, but a close reading that considers Kafka’s original next to the work of his fans, a close reading that offers agency and creative depth to the illegitimate art object by exploring it through the same careful lens we would apply to a text by one of German literature’s most one-of-a-kind authors.

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