Doing a Reverse Bowdler
Among the more surprising entries on the New York Times bestseller list in recent years is Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, a novel “co-authored” by Jane Austen and one Seth Grahame-Smith. Ms. Austen’s and Mr. Grahame-Smith’s book retells the well-known story of Elizabeth Bennet’s relationship with Mr. Darcy as a weird gothic fable in which the bucolic setting of Hertfordshire is overrun not by landed gentry intent on marrying off their daughters but by hordes of brain-eating zombies and the saber-wielding ninjas who must destroy them. The book’s cover art, which depicts the flesh-eaten visage of the book’s heroine, is the reader’s first clue to the subtlety of this particular literary enterprise.
Like the pneumatically enlarged wares on display on the covers of many contemporary celebrity memoirs, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies markets itself as an entertaining enhancement of a lackluster original. It “transforms a masterpiece of world literature into something you’d actually want to read,” the book’s jacket copy boasts. Evidently the publishers know their audience; the book was an instant success and has been translated into 20 languages and optioned for a movie. There are now nearly 1 million copies in print, and it has been joined on shelves by Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters, co-authored by Ben H. Winters.
The conceit behind this latest literary sensation is hardly new. The strategic appropriation of the work of others goes by many names: homage, parody, satire, and, most recently, mashup. But unlike earlier forms of appropriation, such as the Pop Art movement, which referenced its predecessors in order to offer commentary on their cultural importance, or even the self-consciously political and preachy novel The Wind Done Gone, a parody of Gone With the Wind, these new literary forms are neither satire nor parody in the traditional sense.
In fact, they are the modern mirror image of bowdlerization. The pejorative comes from Thomas Bowdler, whose Family Shakespeare attempted to protect the missish sensibilities of 19th-century readers by carefully removing the earthier (and thus offensive) bits of the Bard’s plays while purporting to retain the work’s original sensibility. The new Jane Austen books do something similar by addition rather than subtraction: they protect the sensibilities of today’s readers by spoon-feeding them the kind of easy, ironical entertainment to which we are accustomed, raised as we are on a diet of quickly paced television shows, movies, and video games.
The process might be dubbed “Rekulakation,” after Jason Rekulak, the editor of Quirk Press whose idea it was to merge Austen with the flesh-eating undead and bizarre sea creatures. Rekulak says the new book “allowed us to draw inspiration from so many rich and diverse sources,” among which he numbers the movie Jaws and the cartoon SpongeBob SquarePants. Indeed, the possibilities for gory literary-pop-culture mashups appear to be endless. As one clever blogger noted, why not get to work immediately on A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Martian or A Lot of Deaths in Venice?
Quirk Books also chose well in its selection of Ms. Austen’s “co-authors.” Seth Grahame-Smith, who tackled the mashup of zombies and gentry for the Pride and Prejudice book, might at first glance seem an unlikely choice to produce a parody of Austen’s nuanced novel of manners, given that his previous literary contributions include The Big Book of Porn and The Spider-Man Handbook. In fact, he is perfect, deploying just the right tone of ironical detachment and glib disregard for literary standards. So, too, is Ben H. Winters, co-author of Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters, whose byline describes him as “a writer who lives in Brooklyn with all the other writers.” Both men have created products tailor-made for the hipster-industrial complex.
When Grahame-Smith appeared on National Public Radio to promote Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, the show’s host began the interview by asking, “What was it like to work with Jane Austen?” the author responded, “Well, she was difficult, quite full of herself, actually,” an answer that prompted knowing chuckles from the show’s hostess. Both interview and guest appeared to be operating under the same assumption: when dealing with a literary mashup, one must offer the usual nods and assurances about the masterpiece-relic’s charms, signaling their knowingness if not their knowledge of the work. But under no circumstances should you ever demonstrate or discuss the moral seriousness of the appropriated work. Best to stick to bon mots about bashing the bonneted brains of zombies.
As for those who hope that readers of the Zombie and Sea Monster mashups might find their way back to Austen’s original work, the evidence is not encouraging. As the author of Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters admitted in an essay he wrote for Slate, “The readers who gobbled up Zombies reported back [to the publisher] that as much as they loved the Jane Austen stuff, they wanted a little less of it.” Quirk Books quickly recalibrated their Austen-to-monster ratio to meet readers’ demands. As their promotional material describes, “Instead of featuring 85% of Austen’s work and 15% new text as in Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters features 60% Austen and 40% additional monster chaos!”
One need not be a fussy antiquarian to lament the glib vulgarity of a culture that prefers cartoonish grandstanding to that “Jane Austen stuff.” And yet it was still a shock to many this summer when nonagenarian recluse J.D. Salinger sued the author of a book marketing itself as a sequel to Catcher in the Rye. His attempt to protect the integrity of his characters is honorable, if ultimately doomed. In 1931 Theodore Dreiser tried to convince a court to stop the release of a movie version of American Tragedy on the grounds that the film’s producers had turned his nuanced tale of communal culpability into a mere “tabloid murder story.” He lost.
As well today, cultural appropriation promises a lucrative return to those who master its arts. When the pop musician Moby released his 1999 album, Play, critics marveled at its melding of techno-synth pop and heavily sampled bits from old recordings of blues musicians. Moby was hailed as a pioneer, but he was really a savvy businessman. He quickly licensed every track on his album to different businesses, and soon the plaintive melodies of those anonymous (and unpaid) old blues and gospel singers were hawking everything from Volkswagens to Bailey’s Irish Cream. The authors and publishers of our current cultural mashups also pursue commercial, not critical, success. And as the jokey, dumbed-down tone of the Austen books suggests, readers who don’t appreciate such works are inveterate snobs, literary critics, or graduates of writers’ workshops.
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. A recent report in Variety described a new television series in development for the CW network, inspired by Louisa May Alcott and called The March Sisters, as Little Women meets Sex and the City.
Although the idea of Alcott’s fictional ladies lurching around Manhattan in Christian Louboutins is unsettling, what matters isn’t what Alcott or Austen might have thought of these appropriations of their work, but what our embrace of them says about us. What do we create to honor the things we love? Earlier generations erected marble monuments to their literary gods and goddesses, such as the memorial to Percy Bysshe Shelley that rests in University College, Oxford. Today many people pay homage to their heroes online through spontaneous bursts of amateur writing known as fan fiction. Their paeans are not always of high quality, but they have an authenticity and enthusiasm that professionally produced mashups such as Pride and Prejudice and Zombies lack. If fan fiction is like a tumultuous teenage romance, messy but thrilling, the Austen mashups are like a sex-education class—clinically precise in their portrayal of the act (indeed, replete with graphic detail), but nevertheless lacking in passion. What they lack in passion, however, they make up for in sales. Currently, Jane Austen’s original Pride and Prejudice is ranked No. 2,803 on Amazon.com; Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is No. 173.