21st century writing | 21st century approaches

Remix Culture and the Literary Mashup

Jacob Murphy

 

2009 saw the release of the first mainstream literary mashup – Pride and Prejudice and Zombies by Seth Graeme-Smith. This particular book has produced a prequel (Pride and Prejudice and Zombies: Dawn of the Dreadfuls, published in 2010) and a sequel (Pride and Prejudice and Zombies: Dreadfully Ever After, published in 2011), effectively turning Austen's classic into a commercialised franchise opportunity. All of this raises the question as to whether this particular genre of fiction can be classed as serious, or whether it is just another excuse to create a profit. Indeed, some sources have stated that ‘Quirk Books is planning to capitalise on the popularity of the genre’ (Flood par. 6). In this article, I am taking the term “literary mashup” to refer to a piece of fiction which has combined with a completely different literary genre to create a new narrative – essentially a hybrid text.

 

pride-prejudice-zombies-headkick

The Zombies Strike Back: Seth Graeme-Smith's popular literary mashup Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is rewriting the canon in new, hybrid ways [Image used under fair dealings provisions for the purpose of scholarly discussion]

 

Marketed in the press and on the front cover as 'The Classic Regency Romance – Now With Ultraviolent Zombie Mayhem' (Austen and Grahame-Smith, n. pag), the novel makes an admirable attempt to follow the original plot of Pride and Prejudice whilst adding the staple fanboy tropes of zombies and ninjas. For example, the infamous visit of Lady Catherine de Burgh gets spliced together with a Samurai fight to the death (seen below in its original form, and then followed by the Zombies version):

‘“Miss Bennet,” replied her ladyship, in an angry tone, “you ought to know that I am not to be trifled with. But however insincere you may chuse to be, you shall not find me so. My character has ever been celebrated for its sincerity and frankness, and in a cause of such moment as this I shall certainly not depart from it. […]”’ (Austen 272).

‘“Miss Bennet,” replied her ladyship, in an angry tone, “you ought to know, that I am not to be trifled with. But however insincere you may choose to be, you shall not find me so. My character has ever been celebrated for it sincerity and frankness, just as my killing powers have been celebrated as having no equal”’ (Austen and Grahame-Smith 285; my emphasis).

As is apparent from the above extracts, Zombies shares a large amount of text with the original – around 80 per cent according to one Washington Post review (Hesse par. 9). However, does this mean that Grahame-Smith can be rewarded for writing around 20 per cent of an original work? For Grahame-Smith, it appears to be a resounding “Yes” as he seems to have assumed the role of editor, stating that he ‘had to start on Page 1 and edit her work and weave in the zombie subplot that she had so carelessly forgotten’ (Memmott par. 3).

In the UK, an author’s copyright extends for 70 years after the author’s death. Therefore, there appears to be some scope to argue whether or not Roland Barthes’ concept of the death of the author still stands true with these revitalised narratives. By this, I mean that the introduction of a secondary author-figure such as Grahame-Smith allows both the reader and the literary critic to attach both contemporary and classical discourses to the new narrative. For example, the introduction of ninja tropes to Pride and Prejudice arguably gives the critic scope to engage in a “fan-service” reading of Zombies centred around the interests of the Western male. As a result of this, it is possible that the literary mashup is working against Barthes’ advice and ‘[attaching] the greatest importance to the ‘person’ of the author’ (Barthes 143).

 

How do literary adaptations such as Coleridge Cook's Meowmorphosis complicate our understanding of originality? [Source: YouTube]

 

In effect, the process of “mashing together” two literary forms creates a hybrid narrative that is both ground-breaking yet familiar. For example, Zombies arguably departs from the “hallowed ground” of Austen’s Meryton, to a version of Regency England where:

‘It is a truth universally acknowledged that a zombie in possession of brains must be in want of more brains. Never was this truth more plain than during the recent attacks at Netherfield Park, in which a household of eighteen was slaughtered and consumed by a horde of the living dead.’ (Austen and Grahame-Smith 7)

This metamorphosis of the classic opening line from Pride and Prejudice signals a departure from the normal narrative, and lays down in stark terms what the reader can expect from Zombies. As a result of these two simple sentences, the restrictive perception of who should read Austen is destroyed, potentially making it more accessible to a wider readership. This is further demonstrated through the rise of the costume drama in television. Costume dramas appear to be a staple of the British Christmas television schedule, Dickens’ Great Expectations in 2011, and the parody The Bleak Old Shop of Stuff, allowing more highbrow narratives to be received by a larger than “normal” audience – a phenomenon noted by both the national press and booksellers alike. A January 2012 article for The Daily Mail quotes a Waterstones employee as saying that ‘The feast of Dickens themed TV over Christmas […] has got people talking about Dickens again’ (Cooper par. 9).

Likewise, the shift in tone brings a comedic element to the plot. This is best seen in the juxtaposition of the genres: Austen’s social satire against the ultimate horror epic. Whilst it could be argued that these two genres wouldn’t normally combine effectively, in Zombies, there are genuine moments of hilarity stemming from events which are quite dark. For example, Mrs Bennet somehow becomes even more annoying in Zombies than in Pride and Prejudice. Though she is living in an age where every member of society is in danger of being attacked by the undead, she still manages to focus more on marrying her daughters off. The narrative voice goes as far as to say that ‘The business of Mr. Bennet’s life was to keep his daughters alive. The business of Mrs. Bennet’s was to get them married’ (Austen and Grahame-Smith 9). Perhaps it is the use of comedic devices that gives the novel its appeal to a wider readership, particularly through their deadpan delivery. Grahame-Smith supports this stance on Austen’s comedy, noting that ‘she had a wicked sense of humour’ and that ‘Not only was she funny, […] her early writing was very dark […]’ (Memmott par. 7).

 

Absinthe Cat

The dominant cultural symbol of the internet: have cat memes influenced literary mashups such as The Meowmorphosis? [Image by Buzz Andersen under a CC BY-NC license]

 

Perhaps it would be more suitable to refer to this particular genre as the modern parody, or see it as a new direction in the field of literary adaptation. The latter, The Meowmorphosis by Franz Kafka and Coleridge Cook, arguably has its roots in such 21st-century cyberculture phenomena as the popular internet meme Lolcatz. Essentially an appropriation of another narrative, these types of novels draw attention to whether or not they can be seen as original. One could see the possibilities for a paradigm shift in adaptation studies as in an increasingly digital age, new media will appear, and act in both complimentary and antagonistic ways against traditional forms such as the novel. Stijn Joye foreshadows this by claiming that in a similar manner, ‘the film industry has never hesitated to recycle its own ‘history’ as well’ (Joye 56). Surely then, it makes sense to allow the literary mashup into the canon if it draws attention to the original texts that already have an established place?

In some cases, the mashup and parody novel industries are managing to keep apace with releases of newer novels. This can be best seen in the major supermarkets and bookstores in the United Kingdom through the example of J. K. Rowling’s The Casual Vacancy. Prior to the novel’s publication, a parody was released entitled The Vacant Casualty by Patty O’Furniture. This practice, however, is not perhaps as new as it seems. Parodies of the Harry Potter literary franchise, such as Michael Gerber's Barry Trotter, have been popular since at least 2002. Meanwhile, authors such as Adam Roberts are releasing parody books that could be seen as  exemplary texts within the popular genre category of mashup fiction. For example, 2009 saw the release of I Am Scrooge, a mashup of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend and tropes from the BBC’s Doctor Who. Again, the drawing together of two literary genres is acknowledged on the book’s back cover: ‘It’s the Dickensian Zombie Apocalypse – God Bless Us, Every One!’ (Roberts n. pag). As a result of this, it seems possible that creators of fiction that is classed as a mashup or a parody are trying to entice readers with popular texts and authors.

 

Adam Roberts

All hail the Dickensian Zombie Apocalypse: writers such as Adam Roberts are expanding the boundaries of the literary mashup by combining literary, filmic and TV texts within parodic form [Images used under fair dealings provision for the purpose of scholarly discussion] 

 

The BBC have reported China Miéville as saying that ‘just as music fans remix albums and post them online, so readers will recut the novel’ (BBC par. 2): a bold statement concerning literature’s future to say the least, as it highlights the nature of the creative arts, and indeed the notion of originality. This is probably best demonstrated in the Classics line-up of Quirk Books which currently consists of The Meowmorphosis (by Franz Kafka and Coleridge Cooke) and Android Karenina (by Leo Tolstoy and Ben. H Winters), to name but a few. For some, this could also put the traditional novel form in a threatened position; they could either be lost amongst all the mashups or they could be seen as “boring” when compared to their remixed counterparts. It is also possible that this kind of veneration of classic texts through the upwards trend in mashups may be particularly useful in persuading readers to read the original novels. As a result of this, the Academy may very well neglect these literary forms, but in this age of new hypertexts and narrative structures they should be regarded as more than a passing trend.

So what does this new trend in narrative form intend to do? And also, do they actually want to be taken seriously? Particularly in the case of texts such as The Meowmorphosis, there has to be a tongue-in-cheek approach to reading as the subject matter doesn’t expect seriousness. For those who aren’t familiar, it is a novel which adapts the original storyline of Kafka’s The Metamorphosis and adds a 21st century twist. The transformation is modified, and Gregor Samsa instead changes into a cat, one of the dominant cultural symbols of the internet. For example, the text states that ‘He could not abide his tail being squashed, most of all. This disaster also revealed to Gregor Samsa that he was quite a large kitten, for his upper parts were still curled up sweetly in bed’ (Kafka and Cook 15). Potentially this change in the transformation can be seen as reflective of modern digital trends, whereby whole online communities come together to enjoy image macros hosted on sites like the Cheezburger network, and as such, could be seen as a wider acceptance of internet culture into the literary canon. Dinnen provides a valuable metaphor for this type of transformation, acknowledging that new digital media and to an extent, literary criticism, is ‘[comprised of] procedural code that is itself a mix, a mash-up, a version of a version’ (Dinnen 2012a: 212). This allows us to see the associated problems with Barthes’ ‘Death of the Author’ concept, as Dinnen notes further on in the essay (Dinnen 2012a: 216-218).

 

Android Karenina

Texts like Android Karenina remind us that 21st-century literary criticism is also, itself, a mashup or "version of a version" [Image by Eugene Smith under a CC BY-NC-ND license]

 

In conclusion, I hope this study has provided enough food for thought to continue the dialogue surrounding the literary mashup and the future of the novel in the 21st Century. Through the proliferation of both instances of narrative, I am assuming that prose fiction is still a highly popular form of expression. There will of course be those who question whether or not anything is added to the narrative when mashing classic texts up with newer discourses – the answer of which still remains in the domain of the readership. Personally, however, I feel that the literary mashup is a legitimate art form which brings fresh perspectives to classic narratives.

 

CITATION: Jacob Murphy, "Remix Culture and the Literary Mashup," Alluvium, Vol. 2, No. 2 (2013): n. pag. Web. 25 March 2013, http://dx.doi.org/10.7766/alluvium.v2.2.02.

 

Jacob Murphy is currently studying for the MA in 21st Century Literature at the University of Lincoln. His research interests include existentialism and the portrayal of existential tropes in contemporary narratives, contemporary trauma theory, the videogame as a legitimate narrative form, the literary mashup and post-apocalyptic and dystopian narratives. Jacob is a member of the 21st Century Research Group at the University of Lincoln. 

 

Works Cited:

Anon. ‘Are literary mashups the next big thing?’, BBC [online] 23 August 2012 http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/entertainment-arts-19359570 [Accessed 05 November 2012].

Anon. ‘Quirk Classics’, Quirk Books [online] http://www.quirkbooks.com/book-categories/quirk-classics [Accessed 05 November 2012].

Austen, Jane. Pride and Prejudice (London: Penguin Popular Classics, 1994).

Austen, Jane and Seth Grahame-Smith. Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (Philadelphia: Quirk Books, 2009).

Barthes, Roland. ‘The Death of the Author’ in Image Music Text, trans. Stephen Heath (London: Fontana, 1977), pp.142-148.

Beaton, Kate. ‘Austen Mania’, Hark! A vagrant [online] http://www.harkavagrant.com/index.php?id=263 [Accessed 08 November].

Burke, Seán. The Death & Return of the Author (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1992).

Cooper, Rob. ‘Sales of Dickens’ novels soar thanks to TV adaptations such as BBC’s Great Expectations’, MailOnline [online] 16 January 2012 http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2087225/Sales-Dickens-novels-soar-thanks-TV-adaptations-BBCs-Great-Expectations.html [Accessed 20 January 2012].

Dinnen, Zara (2012a). ‘In the Mix: The Potential Convergence of Literature and New Media in Jonathan Lethem’s ‘The Ecstasy of Influence.’ Journal of Narrative Theory 42 (2) (2012): 212-230, http://dx.doi.org/10.1353/jnt.2012.0009

Dinnen, Zara (2012b). ‘Technotexts’, Teaching post-millenial literature symposium. Brighton University, Brighton. 02 July 2012. Conference paper.

Flood, Alison. ‘Jane Austen in zombie rampage up the book charts’, The Guardian [online] 09 April 2009 http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2009/apr/09/austen-zombie-pride-prejudice?INTCMP=SRCH [Accessed 05 November 2012].

Hesse, Monica. ‘Seth Grahame-Smith Repurposes Jane Austen in ‘Pride and Prejudice and Zombies’, The Washington Post [online] 17 April 2009 http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/04/16/AR2009041604348.html [Accessed 05 November].

Joye, Stijn. ‘Novelty through Repetition: Exploring the Success of Artistic Imitation in the Contemporary Film Industry, 1983-2007’ in Cultural Borrowings: Appropriation, Reworking, Transformation, ed. Iain Robert Smith (Nottingham: Scope, 2009), pp.56-73.

Kafka, Franz and Coleridge Cook. The Meowmorphosis (Philadelphia: Quirk Books, 2011).

Memmott, Carol. ‘Q&A with Seth Grahame-Smith, master of the mashup’, USA Today [online] 05 March 2010 http://usatoday30.usatoday.com/life/books/news/2010-03-04-grahamesmith04_ST_N.htm [Accessed 19 January 2013].

Merritt, Stephanie. ‘Pride and Prejudice and Zombies by Jane Austen and Seth Grahame-Smith’, The Observer [online] 06 December 2009 http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2009/dec/06/pride-prejudice-zombies-grahame-smith?INTCMP=SRCH [Accessed 05 November 2012].

Moon, Brad. ‘GeekDad Interviews Vampire Author Seth Grahame-Smith’, WIRED.com [online] 17 March 2010 http://www.wired.com/geekdad/2010/03/geekdad-interviews-vampire-author-seth-grahame-smith/ [Accessed 19 January 2013].

Roberts, Adam. I Am Scrooge (London: Gollancz, 2009).

 

 

Please feel free to comment on this article.

3 comments

  1. Bethany Murphy /

    This is a very thought-provoking piece, I like the modern idea of incorporating zombies in classic literature. It makes a refreshing change to usual, stereotypical ‘love story’ as told in contemporary adaptations of pride and prejudice.

  2. Zara Dinnen /

    Jacob,

    This is a really interesting piece– thanks.

    Got struck by the way you position the author; Mark Amerika talks a lot about new writers "inhabiting" older works (almost as a kind of physical thing, or a mind-set) which seems apt for the way Gahame-Smith desribes his own work (tongue firmly in cheek I guess).

    Was also thinking about how digitised text comes into play– how much the mash-up writer's process (though not sure this applies to the other parodies you mention) is predicated on a version of the original text not enshrined between two covers and a spine stamped "Classic". Which I think is maybe a different kind of way to think about the process of writing these texts than the fan-creator forums that are often discussed. Matthew G. Kirschenbaum's next book is on the literary history of word processing which would be pretty interesting to think about maybe in terms of the mash-up. 

    Anyway, thanks for a great article (and for the citation!)

    Zara. 

    • Jacob Murphy /

      Hi Zara,

      Thanks for the feedback, it's given me quite a few ideas to mull over! Re: the process of mashing-up the texts, am I right in thinking about this in relation to having access to repositories like Project Gutenberg, etc.? I have a feeling that we may end up with a newer version of Barthes' writerly texts insofar as they may become interactive to the extent that each "copy" is unique. Maybe like a gamebook, but less restrictive/more interactive, if that even makes sense?

      The Kirschenbaum book looks intriguing, will definitely have to check that one out – particularly as it seems that we've gone a lot further beyond "word processing" in the traditional sense of the term.

      Thanks again!

      Jacob

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