Thursday, 27 September 2012

Sexing up the classics - should we care?

OK, I admit it: I'm one of the 15 people in the English-speaking world who hasn't read 50 Shades of Grey. I wasn't averse to the idea - I'm actually quite partial to the odd bit of well-written erotica. But as even its staunchest defenders would probably admit that ‘well-written' isn't a phrase that's often attached to Ms James' series, I was inevitably disappointed: the clunky prose and grating style felled me long before I could make it to any of the rude (or ideologically questionable) bits. 

The subsequent flooding of the bestseller lists with so called 'mummy porn' has left me unmoved but also un-outraged - most of it looks utter rubbish, true, but then the bestseller lists are often rubbish, and frankly I'd rather see some jobbing writer coin it in than some reality TV star who sees fit to write a biography at the grand old age of 24. In fact, the author in me is actually quite chuffed for all those erotic novelists who have spent years churning out titles to little appreciation and now find their backlist given a 50 Shades makeover and being promoted on the shelves of WH Smith.
Spicing up the classics

So I was amused rather than outraged when publisher Clandestine Classics announced it planned to release digital versions of sexed up classic (and, importantly, out of copyright) titles such as Wuthering Heights – and they weren’t the only ones with that idea. Cue inevitable backlash on debasing the originals, the dumbing down / sexing up of society, the death of creativity and dearth of original ideas... But, honestly, why get your bloomers in such a twist? It's not exactly new: authors have been writing sequels for years, and recently there has been a whole trend for supernatural takes on familiar titles, whether you want to see Elizabeth Bennett go all Twilight in Mr Darcy, Vampyre (only one of several Darcy-as-vampire books) or all Walking Dead in Pride & Prejudice & Zombies (surely even if you hate the trend, you can admire the idea of Jane Slayre? No? Come on!). Nor is it the first time that someone has sexed them up: the P & P sequel Mr Darcy Takes A Wife is, I am reliably informed, a Jilly Cooper style bonkbuster in which Mr Darcy, ahem, takes his wife. Repeatedly. 
Michael Fassbender and Mia Wasikowska steamed up the screen as Jane and Rochester

In the spirit of pure research - honest, officer - I decided to download a couple of these titles and see what the fuss was about. Pan’s Jane Eyre Laid Bare was choice number 1: swayed by its elegant cover and the fact that, yes, it was only 99p. (I haven't read it yet, but will report back. Am I good to you, or what?) The second was the slightly more questionable looking Hemlock Bones: A Stud in Scarlet. No, seriously - presumably due to the restrictions of the Conan Doyle estate, the publishers didn't use the characters' names, so instead you have the puntastic Hemlock Bones and his trusty (and, it turns out, lusty) assistant Doctor Hotson in their nice little flat on Laker Street. Having whetted my appetite for some Holmesian fun with the enormously entertaining Robert Downey Jr film Sherlock Holmes: Game of Shadows on Saturday night, on Sunday I decided to give it a try. And it... wasn't actually bad. I mean, the prose quality of the added bits wouldn't give Ian McEwan sleepless nights, but... it wasn't that bad.

I'm not such an aficionado that I could tell if they'd just tweaked the original text and added bits, or just rewritten it in the style of Conan Doyle (it's decades since I read A Study in Scarlet), but it certainly felt authentic - and despite the rather Carry On feeling of the title, it was played straight (so to speak) as a crime thriller meets romance, even including the lengthy flashback to the killer's history which I vaguely remember finding tedious the first time round.   Obviously, if one man swooning over another isn't your cup of Earl Grey (and be warned, there's quite a lot of swooning) or (fairly graphic) gay sex offends you or leaves you cold, this isn't a book you should be buying, but I found it actually quite charming and sweet, no more offensive to the characters than I did the RDJ film - which, let's face it, slathers the homoeroticism on with a trowel. Frankly, the often shonky formatting was the most offensive thing in the book. 

Classics become classics because they have a high degree of robustness; in the same way Shakespeare can take pretty much anything we throw at him, so can these stories and characters. Sure, you could argue it's just fan fiction with an editor and a marketing budget - but so what? Nobody is stealing the originals and locking them away - this isn't the Chapman Brothers defacing Goya paintings and ruining them from future generations. This is writers putting their own spin on stories that will outlive us all. I, for one, have no problem with that.


Derek said...

Well said, Thrifty. It's great to hear a new perspective on the Fifty Shades phenomenon. There will always be fans and detractors of any bestseller - just check out the review sites. At the end of the day, like you say, a writer is having their day in the spotlight - and being handsomely paid for it. It may not be my cup of tea, and some may say that it's very close to her original fan fiction version. But surely what matters most is that people are reading and talking about books - and isn't that what every writer wants? Even when they're not our own!

AliB said...

Yes, interesting take on this phenomenon. Have just read Song of Achilles - which could be seen as sexing up/dumbing down of Homer. But at a time when hardly anyone can read the orignal, anything that brings these stories back to compellingly readable life is a good thing.
By the way haven't called here in a while - like the new design. (Or is it an old one now?!)
Ali B

MyFinest Hour said...

An enjoyable piece. I might try the Hemlock Bones book. :D

Regarding 50 Shades, what I DO find offensive is that women 'my age' (haha) are all lumped together in 'This is what 'women' are reading' and 'mommy porn'. I want to swear at this point (at them, not you!) but I won't. I am not reading it, some of my friends haven't read it and don't intend to.

The second thing I find offensive is that for a long time now I've read fanfiction, a lot of fanfiction, and a lot of GOOD fanfic - stuff that's 300 times better than 50 Shades. 50 Shades is NOT an example of what great fanfiction is.

And yes, we should be chuffed for erotic writers who make it big. Those who can write beautifully. Not those who can't.

ps, in a review of The Song of Achilles (my favourite book) someone suggested that the book could be fanfic written by a talented 16 year old. That made me laugh.

Hayley N. Jones said...

I haven't read any of the 50 Shades books either! I find the hype rather boring. I could get upset about so much publicity being wasted on books that are far from my idea of good reads, but there's no point since I don't kid myself that magazines and TV programmes would be paying attention to the literature I like if they didn't discus 50 Shades.

Ditto 'sexing up' the classics - though I have enjoyed adaptations of classic novels (Peter Carey's Jack Maggs springs to mind; I know it's sacrilege to criticise Dickens, but I actually preferred it to Great Expectations), I simply don't care about such fads. In a year when new books have been/will be published by Alice Munro, Toni Morrison, Hilary Mantel, Anne Tyler, Zadie Smith and Jeanette Winterson, I don't have time to read 'mummy porn'!

Thrifty Gal said...

Interesting point about Song of Achilles, I must admit I hadn't thought of that! I agree re: the pernicious lumping of all women together in terms of age.

Re: Hayley's point, I pretty much take the view that it's only occasionally that ymy tastes and popular tastes combine...! But I think there's room for lots o types of fiction...

Caroline Green said...

I wasn't even aware this was going on...I suppose it's a kind of fanfic in a way. people make a profit from fanfic? (Ms James aside...I know that's how 50 Shades began...)

Thrifty Gal said...

You can only make money legally off fan fic if the characters are out of copyright but there's a huge fan fic community...

Amanda Saint said...

Ha - I'm one of the other 15 but like you not offended by its success, nor surprised. But there's still a lot of good books out there that are getting published so each to their own!

Debs Riccio said...

You had me at "Mr Darcy takes a Wife. Repeatedly." (rofl - as the kids say)