To Expand the World or to Not Expand the World, That is the Question: On Nghi Vo’s ‘The Chosen and the Beautiful’ Among Others

I have been known to bristle at an author (or other creator) expanding their created world. I first felt this reaction when I learned that William Faulkner filled out the rest of the characters’ biographies after the end of events in The Sound and the Fury. (They were, as you might expect, universally miserable.) It felt like bad form. And it felt controlling, violent even, like the author trying to seize hold of something and pin it down and call it “mine.” But that’s not how fiction, or any other art really, works. Once it’s out in the world others will bring their perspective and experience to co-creating what it is and what it can be. The author gets the lion’s share of credit for bringing the work into the world in the first place, but I don’t believe a work of art exists until an audience has engaged with it. Until that happens, it is mere creativity, potential alone in the wilderness.

I had the same feeling after reading Margaret Atwood’s mediocre The Testaments, a sequel to her influential The Handmaid’s Tale, that has some admirable aspects but not really enough to justify its existence. The Testaments also seemed like a money grab, capitalizing on the popularity of the television series, which mirrors the Hollywood trend of creating biographic sequels for characters such as Han Solo and Cruella de Ville. What all these storytellers seem to miss is that part of the pleasure in stories lies in not knowing everything, in needing to do the creative work yourself of filling in gaps and speculating on what might have been or what might yet be.

So why, then, did I love The Other Bennet Sister by Janice E. Hadlow, which expands upon the world of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice through the experience of oft-overlooked middle sister Mary? And why did I get such a complete kick out of Nghi Vo’s The Chosen and the Beautiful, a manifestation of The Great Gatsby told from the perspective of side character Jordan Baker, only in this version of the world Jordan is a Vietnamese “adoptee” in a New York full of magic and selling of souls to the devil and queerness and all kinds of other fun and delightful additions.

The Chosen and the Beautiful,' by Nghi Vo book review - The Washington Post

The Chosen and the Beautiful follows the events of “Gatsby” quite closely but fills in the gaps of what Jordan would have seen and experienced that we do not get in the original text. And as a woman who is wealthy and beautiful, but also East Asian she occupies a unique space in Gatsby and Daisy’s world, a charming curiosity to most of the characters who is also able to see what others miss. Vo embeds events in the novel that mirror realities from the time period of the original, most notably the Manchester Act which will expel Asian from the United States and which has resonances with legislation like the Chinese Exclusion Act and the Immigration Act of 1924, among others.

Jordan gets to be a fully realized person in this story, a queer woman who loves sex, and a person with the magical ability to turn paper cuttings into real world manifestations. She also sees people for who they are, most notably Gatsby who oozes malevolent charisma that mesmerizes most people but not Jordan. Seen through this Jordan’s eyes, the world of The Great Gatsby remains just as sparkling and full of temptation but also scarier and more threatening.

Lest it seem that I think original authors cannot add to their worlds, I’ll point to an additional example: Ursula LeGuin’s Earthsea Cycle, the second round of which came 20 years after the original trilogy and these books were deliberate attempts to expand the world beyond the limitations LeGuin felt she had baked into it in the first round. LeGuin’s new additions gave readers new insight into the world of Earthsea, which then functions as a new invitation to build in response.

My appreciation for these expansions to literary worlds by Vo and Hadlow comes, in part, from how clearly the authors are fans of the original text. They are thus taking that co-creation out of their individual brains (or the form of an interpretive essay) and manifesting it in the real world. Vo admits as much, talking on the new Tor podcast A Voyage Into Genre about how much writing and reading fan fiction built up her authorial skillset. Fan fiction has long been an arena for members of an audience to fill in the gaps of a beloved world, as well as a means to write into a text the genders, races, sexualities, abilities, or other crucial aspects of human experience that the original author overlooked, elided, or often even abused. Moreover, Hadlow and Vo do the important, somewhat intangible task of adding richness and depth to the original. Their works feel like expansion of the possible and the authentic rather than pinning down or restricting what gets to be “true.”

I highly recommend The Chosen and the Beautiful. It has given me the most delight of anything read recently. And I am always curious about other world expanding recommendations!