Essay: Literary Mashing, or Zombies Don’t Dance by Victoria Mixon

by Rebeca on April 28, 2009

The idea of this essay came about by a thread on literary mash ups on the Writing Forum at the Internet Writing Workshop concerning Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. After reading some of the comments, I thought it would be interesting to have two essays, one pro and the other con about mash ups.

Contributing writer, Victoria Mixon, penned the essay analyzing (leaning on the pro side)  the genre. The writer who started the thread and was stridently against it, never responded to my note asking her to write the “con.”  Below is Victoria’s essay, and I’d like to add that Wide Sargasso Sea is now on my reading list.

Literary Mashing, or Zombies Don’t Dance by Victoria Mixon

One of the best-known and most beautiful literary mash-ups in the literature of any language must be Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea.

Jean Rhys, if you don’t know, was a writer of peculiarly lovely prose and desolate perspective. She was born and raised in the Caribbean in the 1890s in a generations-old British colonial family and traveled to England in her late teens to more or less “start her life”. She tried to establish a career in the theater and wound up in traveling stock, working hard and earning peanuts. When she became the mistress of a young professional man in London, it took no great brains to realize this was a far more comfortable life than that of an itinerant chorus girl. This was around 1910. You can guess what happened when the young professional man got tired of her.

Rhys’ life followed a predictable trajectory, punctuated by her sporadic attempts to get a grip on it. She drifted in and out of relationships with young professional men who supported her for as long as they felt like it and dropped her when they lost interest. Her finances were never even faintly secure. She married and for a few years lived the high life in Vienna and Paris, had two children, one of whom died in infancy, and was unceremoniously dumped back into poverty when her husband was arrested and banished from the country. The marriage wasn’t working, she wanted to be a writer, but she had no profession. The powerful British writer Ford Madox Ford and his wife took her under their wing and, in short order (according to Rhys), into their marriage.

It was Ford who helped Rhys get the first of her four slender early novels published. But it was a much later fan of her work who, in the 1960s, tracked down the alcoholic and reclusive Rhys and learned that she’d written but never published a literary masterpiece, the gorgeous and bleak Wide Sargasso Sea.

Wide Sargasso Sea is the unforgettable story of a woman much like Rhys, born Creole in the Caribbean in the 1800s and taken to England with no real concept of the 19th-century English, of their prejudices against their colonial families and particularly those of mixed race, or of what life in England was really like. Rhys’ heroine, like herself, is immediately taken advantage of by a man born to all the privileges of upper-class masculine British dominance. She is first romanced, then rejected, and finally brutally controlled, entirely through her female lack of social power, even though her weakness doesn’t include lack of money. She is, in fact, used for her inheritance. Eventually–unlike Rhys–her heroine is psychologically destroyed by the cruelty of her life. In the end it makes perfect sense to both writer and reader that she chooses suicide as her only escape.

The authenticity of Rhys’ voice, her chilling understanding of her heroine’s history and doom, and the beauty of her language make Wide Sargasso Sea a milestone in the ranks of literature.

Now, you might well wonder what this has to do with literary mash-ups. Rhys was an original, a genius, someone to be mashed. All of which is indubitably true.

But she was a masher.

Wide Sargasso Sea is the story of Jane Eyre’s famous competition for the hand of Mr. Rochester, the original madwoman in the attic, the violent and lunatic Caribbean-born Mrs. Bertha Rochester.

Jean Rhys mashed Charlotte Bronte.

Interestingly enough, Charlotte Bronte herself was a masher. She mashed her brilliant (and superior) sister Emily Bronte when she rewrote sections of Wuthering Heights for its re-publication after her sister’s death. She even rewrote Emily’s extraordinary poetry, over Emily’s vehement opposition, after Emily was dead and could no longer object. Charlotte “clarified it”, meaning she altered lines and added stanzas of heavy-handed explanation to what Emily left ephemeral. Then Charlotte re-published it under Emily’s name. How’s that for mashing with a vengeance?

Admittedly, the vast majority of literary mash-ups are garbage, many of them puerile and insulting garbage.

Believe me, I’ve got no fondness for the staggering amount of porn out there masquerading as “sequels” to beloved classics like Pride and Prejudice, and I certainly haven’t made up my mind whether or not to even bother reading the recent version involving zombies. I’ve decided to wait and let Rebeca advise me on that. I read Wicked, the mash-up of the inimitable The Wizard of Oz, and lived to rue the day. And don’t get me started on the subject of laziness and fan fiction.

But Shakespeare mashed both popular and lesser-known stories of his time, and everyone from Tom Stoppard to Gus Van Sant and Billy Morrissette has since then mashed Shakespeare, often with brilliant results.

Robert A. Heinlein mashed The Wizard of Oz, Gulliver’s Travels, and Doc Smith’s Lensman series, among other great literary works, many of them in the single classic science fiction novel, The Number of the Beast.

Edward Eager deliberately mashed seven well-known children’s books in his own children’s classic Seven-Day Magic as a technique for encouraging children to read his favorites.

Literary mashing has produced not only invaluable additions to the literary canon, but also vast numbers of parodies, many of them outstanding.

Kurt Vonnegut actually mashed himself.

Flannery O’Connor (who, so far as I know, never mashed anybody) coined one of the most inarguable aphorisms in literature when she said, “It’s always wrong of course to say that you can’t do this or you can’t do that in fiction. You can do anything you can get away with, but nobody has ever gotten away with much.”

Mash if you must. Mash if you dare. But understand before you begin that mashing a beloved classic earns you the automatic opposite of a fanbase: a hatebase. You must overcome not only readers’ indifference to you as an unknown or only-marginally-known writer, but also their active hostility toward anyone who messes with their beloved.

Readers are not to be trifled with.

In mashing—as in so much of life—some aspiring writers need to learn this the hard way.

~~~~~~~

victoria-mixonVictoria Mixon is a professional writer and editor who has worked in fiction, nonfiction, and poetry for over thirty years. She co-authored the nonfiction Children and the Internet: A Zen Guide for Parents and Educators, Prentice Hall, 1996, and has published pieces in various literary magazines. She freelances as an editor for fiction authors and writes articles on the art of fiction at www.victoriamixon.com

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