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An Interview with Diana Sheets: Is the “Mash-Up” Novel a Monstrosity?

Apr 28, 2013 by

Michael F. Shaughnessy –

1) Diana, you may have to help me out here, because I simply have not read some of the books that we are about to discuss, and I doubt I ever will. But, to get to the point, there has appeared a new (I hate to even call it a genre) bunch of books that seem to take a classic and insert a bunch of werewolves, vampires, and zombies into it, and voilà! We have an instant hit. What do you think of this new mash-up genre?

Mash-up, as I understand it, is a term originally derived from a web development practice that integrated content—whether it be presentation or functionality or data—into a distinctly new service or product. The music industry then borrowed the concept, blending two or more songs while skirting copyright issues by virtue of the “fair use” doctrine. The methodology was introduced to literature with the mash-up novel. This blended a classical story no longer protected by copyright with a new narrative that simultaneously imitated and parodied the traditional style while inserting antithetical juvenile content—be it werewolves or vampires or zombies—into the book. Naturally, it showcased a blended title, i.e. “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies”, that would seemingly appeal to both literary readers and a youthful audience through its explicit exhortation of fantasy, violence, and gore.

What do I think of it? In a society where the Western canon has been eviscerated, where postmodern values dictate that no work of great literature is inherently better than the most lowly form of sensationalist pulp, this is the expected outcome. Perhaps the question that might be asked is the following: Why are young adults attracted to fantasy and the latest fad narrative, the mash-up? This trend is driven by the decline in standards of excellence and the deterioration of reading skills. Most young adults today don’t have the patience, let alone the ability, to appreciate great works of literature.

For that would require a deep immersion in literature, which in our era of media saturation—TV, movies, radio, Internet, and the like—has become almost a lost art. To understand this development, it is necessary to trace the decline of our Western canon. To this end I invite your readers to look at my essay “The Great Books and Cultural Identity: The Rise and Fall of Western Memory and Its Implications for Our Time” in the edited collection “Reading in 2010: A Comprehensive Review of a Changing Field”, http://www.literarygulag.com/Reading-in-2010.pdf, as well as my essay “Reading and Thinking Critically in the Age of Disputation”, published in the edited collection “Critical Thinking and Higher Order Thinking: A Current Perspective”, http://www.literarygulag.com/Critical-Thinking.pdf.

2) “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter” is one of these books that I am going to boycott, as I have the ultimate respect for this great president. But who in their right mind is going to believe that President Lincoln in his spare time, went around driving stakes through people’s hearts?

I think you’re missing the point. Books on Abraham Lincoln sell well. Stories about vampire hunters—i.e. Buffy the Vampire Slayer, a top-selling TV show for years—have a huge audience. Why not mash them together? Then, you have both audiences, twice the market power. Which, when you think about it, is all the publishers are trying to do: Sell Books. We’re not talking about important history or great literature, but driving consumer purchases so that these books can top the best sellers list and be purchased by libraries. Since we no longer make judgments about the books we read or should read, young adults are effectively validated in their choice of “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter”. If you teach undergraduates today it’s soon apparent that by and large they haven’t read the classics, although they have read fantasy and immersed themselves in all the various forms of speculative storytelling whether it be video games or Internet content, as well as graphic novels and, of course, TV and film.

To understand the driving power of these stories, consider the following. Biographies sell well. Stories about our presidents sell well. Americans believe in the virtues of social justice. They want to read about Lincoln, the emancipator of slaves. Prior to the president’s bicentennial, Doris Kearns Goodwin—a historian whose books frequently target a broad-based audience—wrote “Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln” (2005). Steven Spielberg, one of our film producers noted for his blockbuster successes, made a movie adaptation “Lincoln” with noted screenwriter Tony Kushner and the celebrated character actor Daniel Day-Lewis, the latter of whom was rewarded the Academy Award for Best Actor for this film. Not surprisingly, “Lincoln” has been successful at the box office.

Then, there’s Bill O’Reilly’s “Killing Lincoln: The Shocking Assassination that Changed America Forever” (2011). As I’m sure your readers are aware, O’Reilly is one of Fox television’s marquee political commentators. He co-authored the book with Martin Dugard. This biography of Lincoln’s last days, conceived by a noted television celebrity, has been sitting on “The New York Times Best Sellers list” for nonfiction now for 79 weeks. In February, 2013 the made-for-television production with Tom Hanks as narrator aired on the National Geographic Channel. Aside from nonstop promotion of this book on O’Reilly’s television program, why has it been so successful? The answer lies in how the content is presented. Lincoln’s final days are rendered in present tense. Why? Because in a society that lives in the moment, that’s how suspense is created. Instead of a story about a president who lived two hundred years ago, readers have a suspenseful crime story unfolding right before their very eyes. The book teases readers with dramatic foreshadowing that reminds them that the president will soon be assassinated.

This builds and sustains the tension that drives the narrative. The readers, accustomed to film stories, feel as if they are experiencing history “live”. Reading has become so challenged that history—HISTORY—must be conceived not as a reconstruction or interpretation of past events, which typically would be depicted in past tense, but as a “you are there” murder mystery with President Lincoln as the unsuspecting victim. The plot develops in a scene-by-scene construction of the continuously unfolding present. This is what readers appreciate. This is what they can be enticed to read. Provided, of course, if it is written and promoted by a television celebrity. This is the new business model for publishing. It’s not about great literature or great history: it’s about branding and marketplace saturation.

So, in answer to your question, why wouldn’t readers appreciate a mash-up of Lincoln’s story replete with vampires and featuring our president as a superhero who slays them? Doesn’t that have the makings of a great film? Hint: the film was released in 2012.

3) Even worse—“Pride and Prejudice and Zombies”. Why would anyone contaminate a good book with a bunch of claptrap about zombies?

Seth Grahame-Smith, the “co-author” with Jane Austen—isn’t that just precious?—of “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies” (Quirk Books, 2009), which is being developed as a film. And yes, Seth Grahame-Smith is also the author of “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter” (Grand Central Publishing, 2010). Grahame-Smith is an author/screenwriter/TV and film producer. His fiction is essentially conceived for film. Films sell books. Why not have a film guy write our best sellers? Merchandise is merchandise. It’s no longer films or books. It’s just stuff we buy. If one guy can write a book that can be made into a movie with the potential for multiple merchandizing tie-ins, so much the better. That’s the world in which we live. His publishers have made a pretty penny on these mash-ups. To young people these movies and books seem cool. As if they’re graphic novels. To older adults who still adhere to standards of excellence; these endeavors appear as a very effective marketing ploy to entice youths to part with their precious dollars without putting too many cognitive demands on their limited reading abilities.

As for Jane Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice”, could it be that with the seemingly ever present threat of global annihilation, Austen seems too feminized, too tame, too, shall we say, WORDY? The book is in the public domain, copyright has expired. Why not, so the reasoning goes, “action it up” with some real carnage? So instead of Austen’s opening line, “It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife”—she, after all, invented the “chick lit” novel—it becomes with the mash-up by Seth Grahame-Smith the following: “It is a truth universally acknowledged that a zombie in possession of brains must be in want of more brains”. What fun! Aren’t we having fun????

Now even just a few years ago—albeit in Britain, our more readerly doppelgänger, back in the dawn of the 21st century, we could have an author named Jasper Fforde write “The Eyre Affair” (2001), which features a literary detective, a heroine by the name of Thursday Next , who chases a criminal through the realm of Charlotte Brontë’s “Jane Eyre”. But since this novel exists is an alternative reality replete with its own meta-universe, the reader’s joy comes from knowing the classic “Jane Eyre” and how Jasper Fforde has reinvented the narrative.

The point is that to read “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies” readers don’t actually have to have read the classic. There are no literary “smarts” required. All that is required is a “dumbing down” of great literature. That’s the charm of mash-up. And this principle applies to all the literary mash-ups. The reader becomes immersed in zombie and vampire carnage absent all cultural referents. That’s why these books sell. These stories are essentially conceived for film in order to satisfy the needs of our visually inclined youthful audience. Book profits beget film profits and then there’s the lure of merchandizing tie-ins. Will it excite men and women to read Jane Austen’s fiction? Maybe a few pages. Then again, probably not.

4) And just when you think things could not get any worse—“Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters” seems to appear on the horizon. I question the sense and sensibility of anyone who would spend good money buying a turgid, insipid “mash-up” of “Sense and Sensibility”?

If you spend any time with young adults, this is their world. It’s a world of spell-binding phantasmagorical possibilities juxtaposed with an external reality of ever diminishing prospects. Don’t expect them to read Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “The Scarlet Letter” or Herman Melville’s “Moby-Dick”. Not even if they become literature majors in college. They’re not even embarrassed by their ignorance. Their parents and teachers don’t judge them. They’re celebrated by their peers for immersing themselves in vampires and zombies. Why should they trouble themselves with a now defunct literary canon?

On a more serious note, political scientists Michael Suk-Young Chwe just published “Jane Austen, Game Theorist” (Princeton University Press, 2013), which extends the analysis of von Neumann’s “Theory of Games and Economic Behavior” (1944) to the domain of social dynamics experienced in the fiction of Jane Austen. Chwe identifies more than fifty “strategic manipulations” evident in her fiction. The point, as Charles Hill suggested in the introduction to his book “Grand Strategies: Literature, Statecraft, and World Order” (2010), is that “statecraft cannot be practiced in the absence of literary insight” since “of all the arts and sciences, only literature is substantially and methodologically unbounded. Literature’s freedom to explore endless or exquisite details, portray the thoughts of imaginary characters, and dramatize large themes through intricate plots brings it closest to the reality of ‘how the world really works’”. “Fiction,” he suggests, “is indispensable to the strategist who cannot, by the nature of the craft, know all of the facts, considerations, and potential consequences of a situation at the time a decision must be made”. . . . For Hill “literature lives in the realm grand strategy requires, beyond rational calculation, in acts of the imagination”. Nevertheless, even Hill is forced to conclude that “literature, once paramount as a way of knowing, was evicted from its place in the pantheon of the arts by popular cultures of entertainment sometime in the late mid-twentieth century”. . . .

5) Can we hope this “mash-up” junk goes the way of the hula hoop and yo-yo and spinning top?

Well, yes, it’s a fad. But when this fad passes, are you asking if we will return to a culture of excellence, to reading the Western canon? No. That privilege belongs to just a few individuals with whom I interact in the Literary Gulag, www.literarygulag.com.

6) Diana you probably know the “big picture” of literature better than I do, has there ever been any period or epoch in literature, where a perfectly good story was putrefied with such nonsense?

We used to regard the Middle Ages as a period of intellectual and cultural stultification and, conversely, view the Enlightenment as an era of cultural enrichment. Today, in the age of postmodernism relativism and rampant revisionism, we emphasize the possibilities of the former while minimizing the accomplishments of the latter to our great detriment. But imagine the social consequences of what historian Jacques Barzun referred to in his masterly study “From Dawn to Decadence: 500 Years of Western Cultural Life, 1500 to the Present” and imagine our civilization limping into the 21st century in a terminal state of decline. If we insist on optimism—and some of us are far from predisposed to do so—then consider Olaf Stapledon’s wonderful work of speculative fiction “Last and First Men: A Story of the Near and Far Future” (1930) that spans two billion years of human failure and eighteen evolutions of humankind. Yet, never, ever, do humans in this story evolve to an elevated consciousness that that might be characterized as wisdom. They just keep making mistakes, different ones at different times and places, over and over and over again. Naturally, it’s painful to witness these failures in light of our hopes and aspirations.

But the particular tragedy at this juncture is that we are moving away from a print culture to what Walter Ong referred to in “Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word” (1982) as a “secondary orality”. Except, of course, that Ong thought that orality, by which he meant our visual experiences facilitated by TV, movies, radio, and, by extrapolation, the burgeoning possibilities of what would become the new, new medium, the Internet, as a spectacular mix of media influences that would enhance, rather than impoverish, our intellectual horizons. But whereas Ong was optimistic, I’m pessimistic. What we’ve lost is the sophisticated reader fully immersed in a world of words that are abstracted expressions on the page with which we then interact to create imaginary worlds. Instead, we’re deluged with bits and bytes, distractions that intrude on our ability to think analytically and abstractly and in a linear fashion that is hierarchical in the intellectual demands it places upon us. As I point out in “Reading and Thinking Critically in the Age of Disputation”, what is left is the “hyperkinetic process of jumping from webpage to webpage”, that daily fix of “RSS feeds, the social networking on Facebook, the gaming and YouTube videos, the instant messaging, and the music downloads” that “create an environment that all but annihilates contemplation, let alone analytical thinking”.

7) Diana, you and I have the maturity and understanding of the big picture to realize that Jane Austen, Emily Brontë, and many others are among the giants of great literature. But some 8th grade kid in some school is going to pick up one of these books, and perhaps align it along with John Irving, or maybe Steven King. What will this “genre” (and note I put it in quotation marks) do to serious scholars of literature?

If we lived in a society that maintained standards of excellence and judgments regarding great, mediocre, and terrible literature having eighth graders read “mash-up” literature might be just an amusing diversion, an adolescent rebellion in resistance to the quest for deep, substantive knowledge. In that society, parents, teachers, and fellow students would celebrate the Great Books and condemn the onslaught of all that trivia. But the opposite has occurred. Today, we celebrate anti-intellectual attacks on cultural attainment as just as good, if not better, then rarified intellectual discovery. The result is that childhood rebellion becomes a deep-seated antipathy toward any endeavor to appreciate great literature. Instead, we’re left with what Christopher Lasch refers to as “the culture of narcissism”, the perpetual pursuit of “little me” above all else. Could anything be more banal or more fruitless?

The point is that literature departments today have all but abandoned their celebration of great literature for “mash-up” narratives, for films, for gaming, for comic books, for anything and everything that precludes a heroic struggle toward cultural excellence.

8) I don’t think we should even give this junk much more space. What should we be discussing in terms of literature and good writing today?

This semester I’ve been teaching “Controversies in Contemporary Western Culture, 1960s-2012” to undergraduates at the University of Illinois in the Campus Honors Program. I developed this course to explore the ideas expressed in my essays posted on my website, Literary Gulag. We considered how literature and society have changed in the aftermath of the “Culture Wars” and the marginalization of the Western canon. We examined some Great American Novels, including Theodore Dreiser’s “An American Tragedy” and Norman Mailer’s “The Executioner’s Song”. We discussed the extent to which contemporary literary fiction has become feminized by examining W.G. Sebald’s “Austerlitz” and Roberto Bolaῆo’s “By Night in Chile”. We looked at how memoirs and personal narratives have been inserted into today’s political campaigns by evaluating Barack Obama’s “Dreams from My Father”. It was a challenging class since it looked at history, literature, literary criticism, memoir, and political narrative and how these have changed the landscape of our contemporary culture. Great fun. With a lot of push back and challenges from my students.

Recently, I’ve been participating in an enrichment program, iFoundry, sponsored by the College of Engineering at the University of Illinois. This term I was involved in “Reading Matters”, a discussion group with engineering undergraduates. We read Jon Gertner’s “The Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation” (2012) and George Dyson’s “Turing’s Cathedral: The Origins of the Digital Universe” (2012) in order to consider how scientific centers of excellence are created and nurtured. We also read Yuval Levin’s “Imagining the Future: Science and American Democracy” (2008) to evaluate Levin’s concerns about the implications of technology and its moral repercussions in the burgeoning field of biotechnology. The idea behind this “Reading Matters” discussion group is to have undergraduate engineers think about some of the important intellectual and ethical issues that influence technical innovation. I’m convinced that this kind of cultural enrichment offers critical engagement with ideas that can shape and inspire the next generation of scientists to develop the scientific innovations of tomorrow.

9) Sadly, Maeve Binchy has died. While her work was not spectacular, it was at least better than this current quagmire of vampires, zombies, and who knows what else is coming. Your thoughts? Who else has passed that should be missed, or should we go back and re-read?

At the risk of becoming political—after all, it’s all that remains in the humanities today—my sorrow is not so much over the loss of Maeve Binchy, although many may mourn for her, but for the death of Margaret Thatcher. Love her or hate her, what she had was courage in spades and a determination to lead her nation toward revitalization and, in so doing, bring renewed opportunity. For Thatcher, this was a matter of political and cultural expediency, a journey toward independence that placed demands on its citizens while offering the potential of economic prosperity. We ignore her lessons at our own peril.

10) What have I neglected to ask or cry about?

Cultural laments are powerful tools, but in the post 9/11 era, dreadful reality keeps intruding. The recent act of terrorism in Boston should be a wakeup call for eternal vigilance. A strong society must defend its people, its institutions, and its social and intellectual values that form the foundation of our beliefs. This war between radical Islam and the West is real. It must be fought physically, mentally, and culturally or our civilization is lost.

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