How Writers Revise the World

Why we retell older stories, and what we gain by doing so: Your weekly guide to the best in books

painting of the abduction of Briseis
Johann Heinrich Tischbein dem Älteren; The Atlantic

Works of fiction don’t always appear out of thin air. Sometimes writers draw from older stories—myths, histories, ancient epics—when crafting new ones. One might find in that rewriting an opportunity to recast a celebrated figure as a villain, as in Daisy Lafarge’s novel, Paul, which “uses the thoroughly contemporary story of a traumatized graduate on her European gap year to boldly reinterpret Gauguin’s life and legacy,” according to Ella Fox-Martens, and forces us to ask why we’re still selling and consuming the artist’s work. Or one might choose to give a voice to those who have been silenced by history. In Pat Barker’s The Silence of the Girls, the novelist imagines the Trojan War from the perspective of Briseis, a minor female character in the Iliad who is taken as a slave by Achilles. In doing so, she highlights “how differently history treats men and women,” as Sophie Gilbert writes, and prompts readers to wonder, “How many stories like this one remain to be told?”

Authors might revisit past events through fiction as a way of examining historical trauma. In his novel, Hystopia, David Means takes us back to 1970 America. In this alternate world, John F. Kennedy is a third-term president and has launched a mental-health initiative for traumatized soldiers—one based on the notion that narrating, and reliving, traumatic events can help erase them, writes Amy Weiss-Meyer. But revisiting an existing story can sometimes be more complicated. The announcement of Neil Gaiman’s adaptation of Norse myths stirred up a debate about whether he had a right to these stories. According to Lisa L. Hannett, a “group of self-proclaimed pagans seemed to dread his inevitable misunderstanding of their religious beliefs,” although the book hadn’t yet been released.

The act of retelling doesn’t apply only to stories from the past. In the short story “Shanghai Murmur” by Te-Ping Chen, the protagonist, Xiaolei, envisions alternate versions of her life, making, for a moment, her desires into reality. Many of us, writers or not, might benefit from the practice of imagining more favorable histories, and also better lives.

Every Friday in the Books Briefing, we thread together Atlantic stories on books that share similar ideas. Know other book lovers who might like this guide? Forward them this email.

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What We’re Reading

a painting by Paul Gauguin showing a woman in blue walking in front, two women seated on the grass a woman seated in front of a house, and two women walking in the background

The Art Institute of Chicago

Tearing down the myth of Paul Gauguin

“By reconstructing one of the giants of the artistic canon as an irredeemable villain, the novel makes it impossible to separate the art from the artist. The titular character, Paul, an evocation of Gauguin, is so obviously reprehensible that we are forced to condemn him—and thus Gauguin himself, by extension.”

A first-century fresco depicts Briseis (right) being led from the tent of Achilles (left)

Naples National Archaeological Museum / Wikimedia Commons

The silence of classical literature’s women

“Would women’s stories be believed more often if hearing women’s stories at all wasn’t such a novel phenomenon? If narratives about women hadn’t been disregarded and erased for so many centuries, while songs and plays and books lionized the valor of the men who abused them?”

A photo of David Means in front of a picture of Hystopia's book cover

Max Means / Farrar, Straus and Giroux / Zak Bickel / The Atlantic

Hystopia: an ambitious, dystopian retelling of the Vietnam War

“Some stories, Means suggests, are so explosive that they invite countless retelling, shedding new light—and darkness, too.”

In this illustration, Odin rides to battle and aims his spear towards the gaping mouth of the wolf Fenrir, Thor defends against the serpent Jörmungandr with a shield while wielding his hammer Mjöllnir, Freyr and the flaming Surtr fight, and an immense battle goes on around and atop the rainbow bridge Bifröst behind them.

Wikimedia Commons

The politics of retelling Norse mythology

“The seeds of these stories were planted so long ago now, there’s no way of telling what branches shot up from which roots—only that the passing centuries haven’t stopped them from growing. Gaiman’s retelling adds another leaf to this ancient tree: It’s not a new species in its own right, but rather a fresh sign that the old one is still thriving.”

a photo of flowers and the skyline of Shanghai

Li Hui

Shanghai Murmur

“Back in the village, when she was not yet a teenager, she had watched a popular television show that depicted the lives of two women in a big-city apartment upholstered entirely in white—white-leather couch, white tufted rug, white lilies—and she pictured his apartment like that too. They would sit beside each other on the couch. He would press against her like her boss from the bottling plant, only this time, she would not resist.”

About us: This week’s newsletter is written by Maya Chung. The book she’s reading next is Strangers to Ourselves, by Rachel Aviv.

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