Monday, December 21, 2009

Austen Zombies

32º and sunny

Okay, I know I'm way behind the curve here. I saw the book Pride and Prejudice and Zombies make a splash on the blog world several months ago and ignored it...zombies not really being my thing. However, when my husband heard that Natalie Portman is making the movie, he rushed to tell me about it...Natalie Portman being his thing in a major way. To his credit, he also knows I love Austen's work, so he figured this was a home run...a movie we would both love.

I really hadn't planned on reading the book, but yesterday we were out picking up a few things at a big box store and they had the book on sale. Last night I cracked it open and began to read. Now remember, I hadn't really read anything about the book, so I had no idea what was really going on. In other words, I was expecting an adaptation. Then, I began to read. After three chapters, I realized that most of this was very close to the original. The geek in me insisted on pulling the original off the shelf and checking to see just how close it was. I'm pretty sure the emotion that I felt was shock when I saw that it was indeed nearly 90% original text...word-for-word...with Seth Grahame-Smith adding the occasional zombie fight scene here and there and weirdly excising a few sentences here and there. (I still am dumbfounded by this appears rather random to me.)

Ok, so finally figuring out what was going on, I read the book description and sure enough it is described by the publisher as "an expanded edition of the beloved Jane Austen novel featuring all-new scenes of bone-crunching zombie mayhem." Several other blurbs make it clear that it is the original with scenes added, and some blogs/sites go on to say that this is only kosher because the book is out of copyright and in the public domain.

I get all that, but as I read along, I was still bothered by this "mash-up" and bothered with myself for being bothered. After reading seven chapters, I couldn't continue because of all the thinking going on inside my head.

Here's one voice in my head, the voice of the college-level English instructor: I want some way to tell the difference at a glance between Austen's sentences and Grahame-Smith's. Perhaps different color print? I want to know who authored what. Of course, after several chapters, I could pretty much figure this out, but I worried about those readers who weren't as familiar with Austen's voice. Do they understand what is happening at the author level? How does all of this contribute to our students and their lack of recognition that plagiarism is a serious issue? I know this is fiction and copyright is not at issue, but if I'm standing up in front of my classes insisting that they put quotation marks around exact phrases and include signal phrases to identify the source...what does this type of mash-up say to them?

Here's another voice in my head, the voice of the educated-at-a-liberal arts college person: People have been mashing up bodies of work for as nearly as long as art has existed. It happens in music quite often...although there have been law suits about "sampling" when copyrights are involved. Then, there's parody and adaptations...happens all the time too. What am I getting so worked up about?

Here's another voice in my head, the voice of the writer: I am angry on Jane Austen's behalf. She is the one who worked and reworked that novel into existence (and didn't even get to put her name on it when it was first published...harrumph!). Now, Grahame-Smith is reaping quite a financial benefit: my copy is marked as the 20th printing (# of books / printing??? = ? royalties) and the sale of movie rights. This doesn't seem fair. But then, since the original is out of copyright, and they put her name on the cover along with Grahame-Smith's then all is okey-dokey, no?

The voice of the writer, again: Would I want someone doing this to my work two hundred years from now...okay, okay, I'll be dead and won't know, presumably, and I write poetry of all things..., but still. I get adaptation and taking characters and reshaping them into something new, Tennyson's "Ulysses" for example. But, this just isn't that.

Finally, I really don't want to be a downer. I want to be able to see the fun in it all. I don't believe Grahame-Smith is claiming to be a writer of literary fiction, so what's the harm? Isn't the exposure of Austen's work to a new audience a good thing?



Anonymous said...

I'm so happy to read your post, b/c I can't help feeling like a stick in the mud for my objections to this series -- and it is a series, if you don't know -- the next is Sense & Sensibility & Sea Monsters.

I guess it all boils down to, if you're so good, why don't you write a zombie book all your own instead of hijacking someone else's book?

But Jane's book is the hook...

But yeah, I hate the whole scheme.

Sandy Longhorn said...

Fellow stick-in-the-muds unite!

Glad I'm not the only one, Marie. It is weird, though, this feeling of being an old curmudgeon for disliking the scheme.

I was also thinking this morning that most of the current collaborative projects that I've enjoyed have been with both authors actively in dialogue with one another...and that's definitely missing here.

Kristin said...

I blogged about this some time back when my book club tackled this book; go


We'll see if my html skills allow you to link directly.

I had a slightly different take, but to be honest, Jane Austen isn't my favorite. I wonder how I would have felt if it had been Jane Eyre and Zombies . . . hmmm . . . maybe I should start writing a mash-up myself before someone else does it. Could I make really big bucks? Would it be worth it?

Sandy Longhorn said...

Thanks, Kristin, I'll check it out.

Karen J. Weyant said...

On the other students are now reading Jane Austen!

(I have the book myself -- but cannot bring myself to open it...)

Sandy Longhorn said...

Karen, I do see the benefit of enticing students to read the classics this's just not for me, I guess.

The weirdest thing is that I "want" to like it.