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.