Friday, February 05, 2010

AnimeJune's Guide to Exploiting the Dead for Fun and Profit: A Rant

I have no idea when it all started, but since about the last decade, there have been a glut of "re-written" classics, many involving Jane Austen's novels. I myself reviewed An Assembly Such as This and Duty & Desire by Pamela Aidan, which re-told Pride and Prejudice from Darcy's point of view - and, of course, since his viewpoint is just so much more important than Elizabeth's, he gets an entire trilogy to himself. Then there was Abigail Reynold's Impulse & Initiative, a "what if Darcy and Elizabeth actually boned?" version. Looking at her website, one will discover she's actually "re-written" the same book more than three times!

More recently, the internets ignited with the publication of Ann Herendeen's Pride/Prejudice, a bisexual re-write where Darcy and Bingley and Elizabeth and Charlotte play Sexual Musical Chairs (with Wickham as the wild card) that simply "fills in the gaps" suggested by the original (or so says the breathtakingly arrogant back cover blurb). Yes, Pride/Prejudice is all about filling those gaps *wink wink nudge nudge*.

Even worse is the fad started by Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, which have inspired many lazy, half-assed writers to try and mash a classic with a cliched science-fiction/fantasy trope, like a child who discovers the yumminess of chocolate and peanut butter and tries to recreate the experience with completely mismatching foods - pickles and whipped cream, brownies and rutabagas, kielbasa and caramel - thinking the novelty will make up for the wretched taste. So far, we have Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters, Mansfield Park and Mummies, and Emma and the Werewolves.

The frantic milking of this already-exhausted cow doesn't limit itself to just Austen. No - we're soon to see Little Women and Werewolves, Little Vampire Women, and Android Karenina.

So, if you don't want to read my lengthy rant, I'll sum up my general advice to writers everywhere:

WRITE YOUR OWN FUCKING BOOKS.

Yes, I'm serious. FUCK you, Anne of Green Gables Fights Poseidon by Lucy Maud Montgomery's Straw Boater and Fred LazyAss. FUCK you, The Long Winter - with the Abominable Snowman by Laura Ingalls Wilder's exploited corpse and Penny CantWriteWorthaShit. FUCK you, A Little Princess - Of MARS! by Frances Hodgeson Burnett's debt-ridden great-great-grandniece and Suzanne ArtisticHack.

Okay, none of those books actually exist yet (thank HEAVEN), but the idea makes me want to set something on fire.

Now, some readers may say, "But Animejune, have you read these books? They could actually be good!"

I don't care whether they're good or not because that's not the point, and that's not what I'm angry about. What steams me up is the idea of robbing a literary great's grave, an idea that is growing more and more culturally acceptable. It's not just the monster mash-ups - it's the whole deal of "re-writing" instead of writing, so that you can exploit the achievements of a dead person for your own personal gain. Are people really going to read Little Vampire Women because, hey, it's a story with vampires in it - or are they going to read it because they want to compare it to the original Little Women? Hell - the blurb for Little Women and Werewolves actually has the stones to say their version is Louisa May Alcott's original fucking draft.

If anything, the monster mash-ups piss me off a bit more because they're so obviously forced - wow, I totally didn't catch the subtle symbolism and subtext of Sense and Sensibility that obviously indicated Colonel Brandon had tentacles on his fucking face - but I'm also just enraged by the appropriation of someone else's writing in general. To me, that's fanfiction and will always be fanfiction - the literary equivalent of daydreaming. Great for a creative exercise or personal fantasy, but keep that shit to yourself.

Believe me, it's not like I haven't been possessed by a great idea off of someone else's work. I will admit, in the back of my mind, there is an imaginary copy of Caution & Convenience, by AnimeJune sitting on a forgotten, dusty shelf. I've always held a soft spot for Mr. Collins in Pride and Prejudice - to me, he never came across as a creep, just incredibly, painfully shy. And I have wondered - what would his story with Charlotte Lucas be like? Could they find love with a rebound relationship?

I will never write that book. I may, at a later date however, save the idea of the story - the idea of a shy, soft-spoken man who prefers to defer to others who ends up falling in love with a world-weary spinster willing to settle. They will not be named Mr Collins or Charlotte. There will be no Elizabeth Bennett or Mr. Darcy. There may be a tyrannical female figure who rules the hero's existence but she won't be Lady Catherine de Burgh.

I can't imagine the number of Darcy-esque heroes I've encountered reading romance - the cold, arrogant heroes who fall in love (very much against their will) with women they believe are beneath them. And yet each time they are characters expressly created by their authors, with their own names and backstories - and their authoresses publish them under their own names or pseudonyms. There's nothing wrong or unusual about being inspired by your favourite authors, but appropriating someone else's creation and trading on their name and fame while perverting their stories beyond all recognition is something entirely different.

"But AnimeJune - what about retellings of myth and fairy tales, huh? Isn't that appropriating a story that isn't yours? Seeing as YOU are writing a fairy-tale retelling in YOUR novel? HMMMMMM?"

Well, whose story am I appropriating? I've never minded (and frequently enjoy) fairy-tale retellings and mythological re-tellings. I guess, technically, the stories already exist, so isn't that the same thing? How is Android Karenina worse than a story about an astronaut named Jack who climbs a genetically-engineered beanstalk to free a sentient iPod from a Gnothar alien?

In this case, because there is no author. Who specifically created the Gods of Olympus? Who is the actual, original author of Cinderella? They're cultural narratives that have been passed down for generations, to the point where their stories are archtypes. Again, since I read romance, I'll use that as an example - there are a million bajillion re-tellings of Beauty and the Beast and Cinderella in romance, and yet each one of them is different.

Not only that, but the original folktales are pretty brief - the actions are simple and the characterizations and motivations are very, very basic. This is probably why the stories can be applied to other narratives, other settings, and even real-life events so easily - "Cinderella Story" is a common term for a rags-to-riches underdog tale. You can't write an entire novel about Sleeping Beauty or Snow White just on the archtype - why is Sleeping Beauty this way? Why does Snow White do that?

I think this ties in to my Caution and Convenience discussion: these days, the myths and folktales are little more than ideas. A woman in a situation of subjugation is rescued and restored to a higher status in life, for instance. You can do anything with an idea because ideas belong to no one. I mean, some people right now are criticizing the movie Avatar as being Dances with Aliens or a rip-off of Pocahontas, when really Avatar, Dances with Wolves, and Disney's Pocahontas are just written around the same archtype - that of the outsider who infiltrates a different culture and ends up preferring it.

Ideas are not stories however - and that's another reason for my distaste for mash-ups and rewrites, because they're not just using the idea of Pride & Prejudice or Little Women, they're using the stories the original authors built around the idea.

"But AnimeJune! You looooooove Lost in Austen! That's a re-write of Pride and Prejudice! HA! GOTCHA!"

Oooh, got me there. Or do you? Lost in Austen isn't a re-telling of Pride and Prejudice. It's an homage.

What's the difference? Well, the story behind Lost in Austen is how a modern woman who is a fan of the book gets plonked into the story and fucks everything up. In this case, the modern woman fucks it up, not the characters. Technically, the writers behind Lost in Austen change nothing about the characters or the basic motivations that Jane Austen established - they just introduce a rogue element, and examine how the characters - as written by Jane Austen - would react. Everything "new" about the characters that is revealed in the miniseries either a) corresponds with what we already know about them or b) was never mentioned in the original manuscript.

That's why I loved the story so much - while our heroine, Amanda Price, unintentionally causes huge changes in the storyline, the characters all react to her and the changes in the narrative in ways that are consistent with their pre-existing characterization. In this way, it's an homage to Jane Austen's characterization as well as a cheeky wink towards Regency lifestyle.

This, I think, is why I don't take issue with series books like Star Trek novels, or screenwriters of television shows - i.e. people who write stories based on pre-existing characters and worlds. In both those cases, writers have to comply with the original characterization. Is there a Star Trek novel where Captain Kirk is secretly a beefy French-Canadian woman who raises miniature horses? No. Does Michael Scott from The Office suddenly discover he's a buffoon, promptly apologize to his employees, and then go out and stake vampires? No.

With a re-write like Pride/Prejudice, there aren't outside influences on the story - therefore, the glaring differences in the storyline are produced by the characters, which entails changing the characters beyond what the author intended. In my mind, this is disrespectful of the author's express wishes, as well as ignorant of the very aspects of the author's writing that explain why their books remain on shelves to this day.

Why respect Jane Austen's characterization when you can make Elizabeth Bennett a zombie hunter, which makes absolutely no sense with Jane Austen's writing? Why respect the fact that Jane Austen's stories are intended to be social comedies of manners when you can shoehorn in as much senseless and graphic violence as you can? Why take into account the fact that Beth March would probably last less than five seconds with a werewolf, when you can make her a werewolf herself, or a werewolf hunter, or whatever the fuck she is in this newest literary necrophiliac orgy?

If you think I'm walking a fine line on this point, or splitting hairs, or just a huge hypocrite, well, you're entitled to your opinion. I'm still of the belief that if you want people like me to consider you a REAL writer, you're going to have to

1) Take the time and effort to create your own story and characters - that's what Jane Austen and Louisa May Alcott and Charles Dickens and the Bronte sisters all managed to do before typewriters and iPods and blogs even existed.

2) Take responsibility for your own work, instead of clinging to the literary coat tails of your betters

17 comments:

  1. That is some hot ass ranting right there. And I pretty much agree!

    BUT. I have P&P w/Zombies int he TBR pile. *hunkers down* I just gotta see what one of these is like. I admit, I will probably snort and snicker over some of it.

    But - again. You have very valid points. It IS exceedingly odd that this current practive is so widely accepted. And it really does feel like fan fiction, and I thought so to myself a while back when it was apparent it was all going to snowball into more of these books.

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  2. Callisto2:28 PM

    I completely agree with your rant against these books. I'm a fan of P&P myself and I actually picked up a copy of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, expecting some silliness with random zombies inserted into the text. Unfortunately, he didn't just insert zombies into the text, he completely changed the plot for some of the characters and completely altered the characterization for most, if not all, of them. He also decided to turn England into some bizzaro world with heavy Asian influences. (Lady Catherine has ninjas. FREAKING NINJAS!). Needless to say, I gave it up in disgust. XP

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  3. I think you managed to put how I feel into coherent words. I know I feel pissed off encountering YET ANOTHER rewrite, and my reaction is: "OH, COME ON!" but explaining what bugs me about it all eludes me. This rant is what I'll link to from now on.

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  4. Anonymous3:50 PM

    And here: http://www.coscomentertainment.com/webstore.html we have "Alice in Zombieland", "Anna Karnivora", "War of the Worlds and Zombies", "Robin Hood and Friar Tuck: Zombie Killers", "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Zombie Jim", and "The Undead World of Oz". :X

    -Leigh

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  5. What you said.

    Rarely do I agree so absolutely with anyone

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  6. I'll be brief.

    WORD.

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  7. FYI, Google has brought me here...

    This is an interesting post, and I completely respect your opinion and appreciate the frustration with this monster mashup/classics parody trend.

    In all fairness, I cannot judge why the other authors wrote their own classics parodies. However I have a very pressing reason why I wrote Mansfield Park and Mummies:

    http://norilana.livejournal.com/151791.html

    Sincerely,

    Vera Nazarian

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  8. Well, said, AnimeJune!

    Respectful homages, yes; bizarre, mangled distortions of the original plots and characters, no!

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  9. That's exactly how I feel about those re-writes.

    There are so many aspiring authors out there who write new and original stories, and it's sad that they don't get a chance to have their work published.

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  10. Anonymous12:01 PM

    Totally agree about the stupid Austen/zombie/mummy/etc rewrites. I didn't realize Little Women was getting in on it too. *sob*

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  11. Me, I don't really care. I don't think classic literature is sacred and if someone can transform these works into something interesting then all the better. What I don't like is if they *say* they're transforming the work, but the only effort they put in is to add a few more words here and there. (P&P&Z, for example, seemed like a good read until I noticed 'Bennet' misspelled and was told that the concept gets old quickly.) So it's not the rework itself that bugs me but the sloppy work.

    As for fan fiction somehow not being worth of being a commercial work, well, the popularity of P&P&Z is surely an argument against that.

    Let me also say that I've read a lot of books by authors who seem to be writing fan fic for their own work. Just because they created those characters and worlds doesn't excuse them from sloppy writing, as far as I'm concerned. (And yes, sometimes I still buy the books - I'm a sucker, I know.)

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  12. I completely agree. though I'm not even sure about the homage part.

    And if I miss out on some good stories because I won't read the "playful" derivatives? I can live with that burden. (I don't think the probability is that high).

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  13. Does anyone have an original idea anymore? These redux of making classic novels paranormals is getting ridiculous, and I agree laziness.

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  14. Vorkosigrrl5:10 PM

    You're great, AnimeJune. Love to read your righteous rants.

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  15. THANK YOU FOR THIS! I can't stand the idea of those classic + monster books. I've never read one, and so maybe that's just an ignorant position, but I simply don't care to. The originals are beautiful, brilliant books and how hard is it to change a few elements to add shock value? I'm sure they're good enough reads, since all the hard work was done.

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  16. ooof AJ, i dont think ive ever heard such a strong "rant voice" from you! im a leetle scared to be honest. also, please add me to the "agree WHOLE HEARTEDLY" crowd. there should be rules about this kind of stuff, not every hack and their dog should be able to re-write or appropriate these classics.

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  17. Anonymous8:10 PM

    I have just fallen totally and anonymously in love with you because of this post. I agree wholeheartedly.

    WRITE YOUR OWN FUCKING BOOKS.

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