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Been there, read that

Can we leave old books alone?

Artillery Row

In 2009, Quirk Books published Pride and Prejudice and Zombies by Seth Grahame-Smith. “What if the Bennets and Mr Darcy had to fight off a zombie invasion” was the simple premise. At the time it seemed like a funny gimmick. Now it seems like a devastating satire on modern entertainment.

Our culture is drowning in artistic recycling. Take movies: everywhere you look, sequels, prequels, spin-offs, adaptations and (worst of all) quirky twists on beloved classics have overrun the theatres. Why gamble on something new, film studios have asked themselves, when they can wallow in name recognition? We can blame them but we also have to blame ourselves. The Last Duel, an epic historical drama, absolutely flopped this year, while Guardians of the Avengers: The Rise of Superman would no doubt make a hundred billion dollars.

In literature, meanwhile, we have the “retelling”. Of course, that a work of art is based on or inspired by another need not prevent it from having individual significance. Ulysses is in some sense “based on” the Odyssey, but it is also one of the greatest novels ever written.

Even more direct inspiration need not prevent a work from being important in its own right. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead and Wide Sargasso Sea elevated minor characters from classic literature to the status of protagonists and became two of the more significant literary accomplishments of the latter half of the 20th century.

Offering a quirky twist gives a book an air of superficial cleverness

The problem we face is oversaturation. In the last few years, Natalie Haynes retold the story of the Trojan War in A Thousand Ships, Pat Barker retold the story of the Trojan War in The Silence of the Girls, Janice Hadlow explored the world of Pride and Prejudice from Mary’s perspective in The Other Bennet Sister, Curtis Sittlefield retold Pride and Prejudice in Eligible, Sonali Dev retold Pride and Prejudice in Pride, Prejudice and Other Flavours and Ibi Zoboi also retold Pride and Prejudice in Pride (are you beginning to see why Grahame-Smith’s book now seems like accidental satire?).

Now, news arrives that 1984 is to receive a feminist retelling from the perspective of Winston Smith’s colleague and lover Julia. Sandra Newman, an accomplished novelist, has received permission from Orwell’s estate to write the book.

Julia has not been published. I can no more tell you whether it is good or bad than I can tell you about the academic performance of an unborn child. But if I am served spaghetti bolognese for the tenth night running, I can say “enough with the spaghetti bolognese” whether or not it is the best cooked plate of spag bol I have ever had.

For publishers, the appeal of literary remixing is as obvious as the appeal of yet another Star Wars for Disney. If you write a new take on Jane Austen or George Orwell, there is an audience awaiting you. Offering a surprising twist on a familiar story also gives a book an air of superficial cleverness that makes it an attractive Christmas or birthday present. You kind of know what you’re getting.

Marketing potential understandably makes such books attractive for authors as well, but there’s also an artistic appeal. Progressive revisionism leads some writers to aspire to undercut the (real or alleged) patriarchal, imperialistic and exclusionary aspects of literature. Their work functions as a counter-narrative to literary tradition.

It would be unfair to overstate this point. No doubt the authors of many of these books have aimed to expand, not contradict, the value of classic works of literature, and to make them relevant to new and wider audiences. There is a danger of imposing smug and blinkered presentism on literature, however such as in the case of authors and filmmakers who appear to think that what Jane Austen’s elegant social commentary really needed was characters bumping uglies. Idealists of “representation”, meanwhile, often confuse the universal with the particular, and the particular with the inaccessible.

In a perverse sense, “retellings” show excessive devotion to classic texts. How, they almost seem to ask, can we move on from these works? What can be done except to tinker with them?

It would be foolish to think that any author can separate themselves from literary tradition

“Two of the unanswered questions in Orwell’s novel are what Julia sees in Winston, and how she has navigated her way through the party hierarchy,” says the Orwell estate’s literary executor. Even accepting the dubious premise (are Julia and Winston not attracted out of a mutual desire to rebel?), we have to ask whether these questions are really important. Are they philosophical trapdoors that we must open, or are we just adding planets to the literary equivalent of a cinematic universe? (Again, Julia might be a fine novel but if so it will be in spite, and not because, of its premise.)

Poring over old books in search of what might have been left unanswered or excluded can be a valuable exercise. Yet this sort of critical focus can be regressive, leaving us neither inspired by the past nor wondering about the future. Again, it would be foolish to think that any author can separate themselves from literary tradition. But imagine that James Joyce’s publishers had tried to market Ulysses as an “innovative retelling of the Odyssey” that “breathes fresh life into a timeless classic” or whatever. One would have been faced with the imposing prospect of a portrait of the author as an infuriated man.

Anyway, agents and publishers might be interested in my new novel Cheating Death. It is an animal liberationist retelling of Moby Dick from the perspective of the whale.

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