Dawn of the Literary Mash-up


The reading and writing of poetry and fiction is completely different today than it was ten or even five years ago. While we spent the past decade arguing over the ways new media have changed journalism, the way we read and talk about creative work has completely changed without nearly so much fanfare. Simply put, the participatory nature of the Internet has made it not only easy, but nearly effortless, to comment on a piece of creative work. What was once only the purview of a narrow in-group of critics and scholars is now accessible to the general public.

This much is apparent so far: the general public has a much broader idea of what literature can be than critics and scholars ever did. The phrase “open to interpretation” has never been more apt. All sorts of new and exciting ideas about literature are sprouting up each day, and this has made more than a few literary purists’ blood boil.

The first victims of this trend seem to be the Austen scholars, who took an enormous and hilarious blow from Seth Grahame-Smith with his mash-up, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.

A literary mash-up is a hybrid: half creative fiction in its own right, and half criticism or commentary on the original work. Besides producing a very enjoyable new work of fiction, Grahame-Smith is providing us with his own critical interpretation of Jane Austen’s classic. And his interpretation is a radical one: he’s telling us that the original Pride and Prejudice is about zombies. Instead of proving it by traditional critical means, a mash-up shows us what a text is about by altering the text itself.

In a brilliant review on Jane Austen’s World, Vic writes:

The Bennet family lives in an age when they must be ever vigilant if the girls are to survive until marriage and beyond. Mr. Bennet ships his girls off to China to learn the fine art of fighting zombies with sword and knife. Elizabeth Bennet becomes an especially talented fighter, and is renowned for the ease with which she can fend off an entire horde of zombies, slicing and dicing with the best of them. She had to do just that when she walked three miles to Netherfield Park to check on her ill sister, Jane. A skeptical Lady Catherine de Bourgh tests her mettle by siccing her Ninja Warriors on her at Rosings, but Elizabeth dispatches them so quickly that she nary raises a sweat. Mr. Darcy is a fine zombie slayer as well, but the Bingley sisters can’t even carry a sword or knife. You get the drift. In Seth’s book, if you’re a poor zombie slayer you are either the villain or your brain is toast. The entire book is a satire, from the inclusion of the gross but well-drawn illustrations to the suggested book club questions at the end, which are quite clever. You must read this novel with an open mind and maintain a sense of humor or, like the denizens of Meryton when they see a zombie feast on one of their friends, you will upchuck your lunch.

In other words, literary mash-ups like Pride and Prejudice and Zombies are more than just fun, zany jabs at traditional literature. Consider the wry discussion questions at the end of Grahame-Smith’s book. He’s certainly making fun of the whole idea of discussion questions, but he’s also asking real questions about the original text. Here’s an example:

Is Mr. Collins merely too fat and stupid to notice his wife’s gradual transformation into a zombie, or could there be another explanation for his failure to acknowledge the problem?

The less-than-subtle jab at Austen’s character Mr. Collins indicates that Grahame-Smith has some very clear ideas about all the characters in the book, and that he’s using the mash-up to express some of his distaste with them. His mash-up is an interpretation of the novel as well as a whole new work. Grahame-Smith indicates this same trend when he asks,

Does Mrs. Bennet have a single redeeming quality?

There’s not even a mention of zombies in this question. Aside from being an amusing read, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is an extended interpretation. This kind of re-interpreting through remixing is only possible in light of a postmodern context.

Jacques Derrida showed us how language fails to signify ideas and concepts. He did this with a made up word: différance. Différance is a “non-concept” that describes the way we use language to construct meaning. We do this by either deferring the meaning of the original word to a word we might know [i.e. A pencil is a type of tool], or by differing it to another word [i.e. A pencil is like a pen, but different from it in these ways].

Derrida’s point is that if you don’t know what a tool or a pen is, neither of those example definitions are of any use to you. Language, according to the theories of deconstruction pioneered by Derrida, is a vast web of différance, a cultural construction that points to meaning by differing and deferring but never actually gets there. Words with multiple meanings most readily demonstrate this. A pen is a writing tool, but it’s also a place to keep animals and a verb for the act of writing. You can only understand a word in context, but the context itself spirals outward into larger and larger contexts without ever getting boxed into a definite meaning. Literature, in this framework, is a slightly smaller context in which words swirl around without ever getting pinned down. This idea is kind of like what happens when you repeat the same word over and over until its sounds don’t register anything in your mind. It’s no wonder Derrida described language as “play.”

Other thinkers quickly expounded on these ideas, pushing literature farther and farther outside the boundaries that had previously been defined. The psychoanalytic theories of Jacques Lacan made us realize that language is a product of subjective perception, a collective cultural construct that in itself can only communicate an individual’s psyche. Reader Response theorists like Wolfgang Iser and Stanley Fish moved our critical focus from the text itself to how an individual reader reacts to and interprets the text. These complex, theoretical ideas have driven us to a world where an undead-hunting Elizabeth Bennett is not only possible, but perfectly acceptable.

In the old world of criticism, one might say, “It’s absurd to think that zombies are at all relevant to Jane Austen,” and that would be that. Other critics would agree that the idea was absurd, and everyone would move on to an interpretation that seems more probable. But as these Olympian minds have tried to teach us, there is no interpretation that is more absurd than another. Every use of language has an element of absurdity in it, and one interpretation can’t be “more probable” than another. If we continue to think in terms of which interpretations seem “more right” or “more accurate,” in doing so we miss out on a vast amount of insights.

With the popularity of mash-ups, we are moving ourselves into the next stage of literary criticism, a post-postmodern world in which virtually anything is possible. These critical ideas have broken down the old barriers to experiencing the fullness of language as play. Just as we were able in the last century to embrace free verse without losing traditional forms, in this century we can welcome in mash-ups and previously unconsidered ideas about texts without losing a thing. In the past it would have been said that a work couldn’t possibly mean a certain thing because it was outside of the author’s experience, but the author’s experience hardly matters to the reader’s perception. In the past it would be argued that the language of a particular text pushed it toward a certain interpretation, but in Derrida’s world the language itself doesn’t directly point to any significant, esoteric meaning. In this new literary landscape, it’s very difficult to prove anything, and so we can allow ourselves to embrace everything.

For a new critical world, we need a new perspective on literature. We need to embrace the same open source ethic that has swept over web culture. Think of a piece of writing like a source code, and criticism becomes a community of developers tweaking and adding to that code. Mash-ups fit tidily into that vein. Every interpretation is different, but none is objectively better than any other. By learning from each other, critics can create a richer experience for readers in the same way that open source code developers make programs better for end users.

It’s extremely difficult to give up centuries-old ideas about the way literature works, but the groundwork for doing so has already been laid. As with everything else in this new technological landscape, the power to form our world is, perhaps for the first time, in the hands of everyday people. We need to strive toward openness in criticism just as we strive toward openness in all other areas. As readers become instantaneous critics of poetry and fiction on the web, this openness is essential.

John Ladd is a writer, poetry student, and confirmed geek living in Alexandria, VA. The most notable objects of his geekery include formal poems, postmodern plays, crossword puzzles, the Internet, and dead languages. He is the author of Paradise Tossed, a blog that talks about what happens when poetry and technology collide.




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  • Thank you for posting this – it's kind of a thrill to see Derrida and Lacan used non-ironically to explore the use of zombies in literature. On a much smaller scale, please see my own Wm. S. Burroughs mash-up “Obama After Inauguration” (http://www.scribd.com/doc/9674387/Obama-After-I…).

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  • richardfuller

    Hi John.

    A friend gave me a link to this piece. Probably because I am interested in Derrida and the rest of the crew, I read a lot of that stuff when I was at uni.

    I like the sense you have of literature in a historical context and yet open to re-interpretation, play, and mash-ups. I particularly liked the idea of the continual repetition of a word ending with the word seemingly losing its meaning: years ago a read a cartoon by Martin Rawson which quoted Chesterton saying that if you take a perfectly ordinary word like 'knife' and repeat it, by the fiftieth repetition it has become something very strange. And I have never traced that quote from Chesterton, or seen that cartoon again.

    But I have to take issue with you over your explanation of Derrida and différance. It is completely wrong and misleading. (I know that explaining Derrida is a very difficult business.) Let me have a shot at it.

    In the essay Différance, Derrida was reading the general linguistics of Saussure, who became known as the father of structuralism. (We only really know about Saussure's ideas through the surviving lecture notes of students.) It is true that Saussure described language as a structural system, so if you think of a language atemporally (which is a purely abstract position to take) then you indeed conceive of a word's meaning as being constructed through its difference from other words in the system. Let's say that you are close enough here to the Saussurian model. But (big but) Saussure also talked about language changing diachronically, through time. And let's face it, this is something that happens all the time, which is why it is a mere abstraction to talk about synchronic structure. But when structuralism became a movement in France in the 50s, this synchronic abstraction was what they were basing their arguments on. So when Derrida wrote his essay in the late 60s, he wasn't just reading Saussure, he was having a crack at French structuralists like Levi-Strauss and Barthes, and pointing out to them that their selective synchronic reading of Saussure did not take into account the diachronic description of language that Saussure also put forward.

    If language is always in a state of flux, then if the structuralist model of meaning is accepted, the meaning of a word is never, simply, differed from other words (difference is the synchronic description): meaning is also deferred to a future (or past) time (deferring is the diachronic operator). Hence Derrida coined the neologism différance in order to register that 50s structuralism was wrong about Saussure, and though Derrida as per usual went a long way around the houses to argue this, it is still basic common sense. Also hence Derrida became known as a post-structuralist, because he banged the stake into the heart of the living corpse of French structuralism (sorry, no zombies).

    Now Derrida also discussed the phenomenologist Husserl, who made an appeal to presence, which in the context of language cashes out as the self-presence of meaning. Différance, the simultaneous differing and deferring of meaning, deconstructs (if you like) this model of presence. So with the essay Différance Derrida made a significant intervention in the intellectual life of France, which in some ways can be modelled as up to that point being divided between structuralist schools and phenomenological schools (existentialism, Hegelianism, Marxism). Derrida became identified with post-structuralism, but he was equally a post-phenomenologist, anyway that is just as inaccurate way to put it.

    The most important thing I want to say is that, just because language theories describe meaning as being in a state of flux, it is not also the case that anything goes. Things are still said, and arguments are still made. You can't just get away with simply anything. In fact, the further we go to the extremes of these language models, the more need there is for intellectual rigour. I don't believe, for example, that if we follow or accept Derrida we thereby become relativists. Derrida I am sure would not want to have been thought of as a relativist, even if some of his arguments seem inexorably to lead to that unpleasant place.

    Anyway all the best, I hope you take these comments in good spirit, which is how I intend them.

    -Richard

  • Hello Richard, I'm the editor of Escape into Life. I did in fact warn John of some of these issues, but decided to publish his article because I enjoyed the spirit and enthusiasm of his reasoning. I too believe that intellectual rigor belongs to the practice of interpretation and by no means believe literary theory is a free-for-all.

    I would also like to extend the invitation to you to write about these issues you seem to know so much about. If you would like please find my email on the info page, or contact me through Twitter. A clear explanation of Derrida, et al would do many of us a great deal of good. The only catch is, I would have to be interesting and suited to a mainstream audience.

    Thanks again for your wonderful/insightful remarks,
    Lethe Bashar

  • Hi Richard,

    Thank you so much for your comments. Your response is of course taken in the best spirit! As Lethe indicated, we were both aware of the issues you've presented, and discussed some of them at length before publication. I would never pretend to be able to answer the deep philosophical and critical questions you've posed, and I like to think of this piece as the starting point for a discussion rather than any kind of conclusion.

    As you said, explaining Derrida, particularly to a mainstream audience, is a very difficult business. Your summary is as insightful as it is correct, but I don't think we disagree as much as you may think we do. My idea of openness isn't quite the same as relativism, and I don't mean to dispense with intellectual rigor in criticism. I only mean to point out that what some describe as rigorous is often unintentionally restrictive. I don't want criticism to become a free-for-all, but I would like to see critics embrace a sense of play, in the Derridian sense.

    I also second Lethe's motion to have you write about some of these issues in longer form. That's exactly the kind of discussion I was hoping to start!

    Best,

    John

  • richardfuller

    Hello Lethe, thanks for your letter. I too appreciate the enthusiasm John shows for his topic. I hope that I haven't doused his enthusiasm, and perhaps I should contact him if he feels I have been harsh.

    In the 1990s I was a post-grad student of Geoffrey Bennington, who has translated, and written on and with, Derrida, so I learned something about the subject. But I am no expert, not least because my French isn't good enough to read Derrida in the original. Explaining Derrida is an absolute minefield as you know, and sometimes it seems as if the clearer the explanation is, the greater the chance there is that it is wrong.

    Thanks for your invitation to write on the subject. Derrida certainly has a lot to say about subjects related to mash-ups, so I will try to prepare an article for submission. I will also take some time to read much more of Escape into Life.

    And thanks for your kind remarks. Best wishes

    Richard Fuller

  • richardfuller

    Hi John.

    Perhaps I don't disagree with you as much as I seem to! Your article covers a lot of ground, and I have no doubt that the revolutionary nature of the internet has huge implications for literature and literary interpretation. I agree that literary criticism can be too much of a closed circle, and too dogmatic in its authority, and that it is a good thing for it to get shaken up from time to time. I haven't read Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, but I enjoy the idea of the Janeites getting their knickers in a twist about it (hm, maybe that's not the best image I could have chosen . . .)

    Thanks for the invitation to write to the topic. As I have said to Lethe, I will try to prepare something for submission. (I didn't realise that when I replied to Lethe in email I would be posting here, I am no sort of expert on the practical internet either!) Thanks also for your thought-provoking article, and your good-spririted and open response.

    Best wishes

    Richard

  • That's great news, Richard. I look forward to your essay.

    Best,

    John

  • Kate Koala

    I thoroughly enjoyed this essay. Your definition of the mash-up is absolutely getting cited (my master's thesis is on Pride and Prejudice and Zombies), and now I have more authors to research. Thank you!

  • You're welcome, Kate! I'm glad I could help out. I'd love to hear a little more about your thesis, if you don't mind sharing. Obviously, I think the phenomenon that P and P and Z embodies is certainly worthy of study. If you poke around on the Writers page of this site, you should be able to find my e-mail. If not, you can always say hello on Twitter (@paradisetossed).

  • Bianca

    Hey, I'm from Brazil and I am writing my project on Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. Is there, by aby chabge a possibility of you suggesting me any theory to research? By no means I want to copy your work. I just wnat some hints on where to start. Thank you for you attention. my email is bianca_rossato@yahoo.com.br.

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