Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Literary mashups

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:

Ultimately, these mashups present a postmodern puzzle: the books themselves are an argument that we need not learn anything from books—at least not those books in the literary canon. After all, how can you write a novel of manners in an era that recognizes none? And so the canon becomes embellishment for what we really seek: easy entertainment.But why dismember Jane Austen for “easy entertainment”? And why is it doubtful that we’ll be seeing Crime and Punishment and Mummies or Remembrance of Things Mutant on bookstore shelves any time soon?

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?


scott g.f.bailey said...

Certainly the mashups with zombies tell us a great deal about popular culture (mostly bad, I'm sure), but I think that the classics which are being mashed with horror/sci-fi spoofs are works that remain popular on their own, even if invisibly so. Books In Print lists (as of two or so minutes back) 1,252 versions of Jane Austen's books now in print, with new editions on their way this year from several publishers in cloth, no less. Do I know what this means in a broader sense? I do not. But I wonder if the mashups craze isn't a trifling side-effect of something more interesting and important regarding literary classics. Perhaps "Pride and Prejudice and Zombies" is in fact leading new readers to Austen's original works. And perhaps those works are not only things which have been "swallowed up by popular culture" in the sense that they've been the basis for mindless romantic comedies like the Bridget Jones films, but they've also been swallowed up in the sense that they've actually been read. We can only parody what we already know, don't you think?

du Garbandier said...

Coming soon to theaters near you: Lolita 3D.

D. G. Myers said...

Perhaps "Pride and Prejudice and Zombies" is in fact leading new readers to Austen's original works.

On the evidence that Christine Rosen provides, this is not the case. Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters contains, by reader request, less of the “Austen stuff” than the earlier title.

We can only parody what we already know, don't you think?

Absolutely. But (1) the mashups aren’t parodies and (2) “what we already know” is pretty much what I describe as novels with an extraliterary reputation.

Dave Lull said...

Re Android Karenina:

"As in the original novel, our story follows two relationships: The tragic adulterous love affair of Anna Karenina and Count Alexei Vronsky, and the more hopeful marriage of Nikolai Levin and Princess Kitty Shcherbatskaya. These characters live in a steampunk-inspired world of robotic butlers, clumsy automatons, and rudimentary mechanical devices. But when these copper-plated machines begin to revolt against their human masters, our characters must fight back using state-of-the-art 19th-century technology--and a sleek new model of ultra-human cyborgs like nothing the world has ever seen."


scott g.f.bailey said...

Maybe I'm just old and stodgy, but I don't get the appeal of these mashups. My initial reaction to "Pride and Prejudice and Zombies" was one of amusement, I admit. But I've now had a look at the book itself, and it's simply awful. I can't imagine reading the whole thing, nor did it spark an interest in me about the other books in this vein. Is it funny simply because it pokes fun at a literary classic? Is that the entirety of the joke here?

D. G. Myers said...

It’s the fun of cultural vandalism, Scott.

Anonymous said...

I don't see the harm in it. The mashups, I think, have an entirely different audience than the original works. The people who are reading "Pride and Prejudice and Zombies" would otherwise be reading the Twilight novels, not Jane Austen. There have been a million and one interpretations of Shakespeare's work in hugely varied settings, some quite silly. Does it diminish the original work? I think not. What's the point in being grumpy about trash novels? They have always been here alongside better literature and they always will be.

D. G. Myers said...

By the same token, what’s the harm in being grumpy?—especially on literature’s behalf.

Alli Rense said...

While the mashups do not particularly appeal to me, I don't see anything wrong with it. I've always been of the mindset that literature isn't static. Think about it this way: if you have a favorite book, and you read it again and again at different points in your life, is it not true that different parts of the novel speak out to you than before?

Film versions and modernizations and mashups are similar in my mind, and show, if anything, that these books written so long ago still hold truths that are culturally relevant.

Rosin said...

I did find the Huck Finn mashup (The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Zombie Jim) upsetting. Replacing African-Americans with the undead, who are mostly quite virulent beings (the author uses the term "baggers" for them, because they have to be kept in a bag until one determines whether they're violent), broke something badly. I can imagine a parody of Austen's social situation, but slavery? I didn't see anything redeeming in it...and all the cleverness was Twain's.

Unknown said...

Prepare yourself. Quill books will be coming out with
Android Karenina on the 100th anniversary of Tolstoy's death.