A Canadian reporter has asked my opinion of literary mashups like Pride and Prejudice and Zombies and Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters. Christine Rosen’s essay “Doing a Reverse Bowdler” in the December issue of Commentary is the definitive answer. Rosen concluded:
For one thing, Austen has already been swallowed up by popular culture. The spanking new mashups represent merely the latest attempt to “update” her. As of a decade ago, over sixty sequels to her novels had been published, starting in 1913 with Sybil G. Brinton’s Old Friends and New Fancies, and the pace has only quickened since then—with titles like Mr. Darcy Broke My Heart and Mr. Darcy’s Great Escape due to be released this year. To say nothing of the multivolume Jane Austen Mystery series or the Mr. and Mrs. Darcy Mysteries. Not only has each of her six novels been filmed, starting in 1940 with MGM’s Pride and Prejudice, from a script by Aldous Huxley, but she has also been the source or inspiration for films like Clueless or The Jane Austen Book Club or From Prada to Nada, now filming, which is described as a “Latina spin on Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility.” And then there are the self-help books like The Jane Austen Companion to Love and Jane Austen’s Guide to Good Manners: Compliments, Charades and Horrible Blunders. As Martin Amis observes, “Jane Austen, with her divine comedies of love, has always effortlessly renewed herself for each generation of readers”—and if she can’t quite do it on her own, assistants will be glad to step in.
In part, then, the mashups are just an aftermarket product like chrome rims or rear spoilers. But they must also appeal to new readers, who want something like a video-game version of Austen. Not that the two audiences are all that different: neither has any real desire to encounter Austen firsthand. If they were entranced by Austen rather than secondary effects like Regency manners or the self-improvement of romance, they would continue their reading, not with sequels and mashups, but with Austen’s literary heirs—and I don’t mean the authors of “chick lit.” (Her direct line of descent is through George Eliot out of Henry James to Edith Wharton.) The mashups and sequels appeal to a crowd not far different from college students who read Cliff’s Notes instead of the novels on a course list: they are the sort of person who prefers hearing about sex to having it.
Do the mashups portend anything for literature’s future? At the beginning of the year, I predicted, jokingly, that Amazon would release a Kindle that is fully compatible with Nintendo’s Wii. I am starting to think better of the joke. Some kind of “interactive” fiction is coming. But only novels with an extraliterary reputation, which have clambered off the page into a culture of received images—The Count of Monte-Cristo, perhaps, or The War of the Worlds or even Lolita, I am sorry to say—will lend themselves to future mashups with a user interface. No one who is absorbed with words will be particularly interested in creating an avatar of himself to explore the Château d’If or fight off a Martian invasion of England or accompany Humbert Humbert in chasing down Quilty.
Update, I: Misty Harris, the Canwest News Service reporter who asked about literary mashups, has told me that, earlier today, “Quirk Books announced a third mashup in its series, to be released in June: Android Karenina. (I hope you're sitting down.)”
Update, II: In a review of his You Are Not a Gadget in the Wall Street Journal, Glenn Harlan Reynolds quotes Jaron Lanier on the wider provenance of the publishing phenomenon: “Pop culture has entered into a nostalgic malaise. Online culture is dominated by trivial mashups of the culture that existed before the onset of mashups. It is a culture of malaise.” Lanier is troubled by the slogan of online culture (“Information wants to be free”), which has the effect of devaluing original work. If longterm projects are completed and published only to be pirated and file-swapped and mashed up, how many will invest the time and effort in longterm projects?