Thursday, April 8, 2010
What does Jane Austen have to do with vampires, sea monsters, and zombies? A series of mash-up books pairing Jane Austen with pop culture phenomena have become wildly popular. Are these disrespectful perversions? Cheap gimmicks? Dr. Linda Troost, professor and chair of English at Washington and Jefferson College, explores these questions in a lecture at the University of San Diego.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): I'm Maureen Cavanaugh and you're listening to These Days on KPBS. Just when you think it's not possible for there to be another Jane Austen movie or knockoff novel or teen sitcom episode based on "Pride and Prejudice," comes a very different genre for Miss Austen's revered characters. Lately, a few popular books have been released that fuse Austen's storylines with tales of zombies and sea monsters. Yes, sea monsters. Why would anyone be interested in reading about Elizabeth Bennett mingling with the world of the undead? I don't know. But my guest, Dr.Linda Troost, is here to explain it to us. Linda Troost is professor and chair of English at Washington & Jefferson College. Troost is also the editor of "Jane Austen in Hollywood," the first scholarly exploration of the Austen film phenomenon that started in the 1990s. And, Dr. Troost, welcome to These Days.
DR. LINDA TROOST (Professor/Chair, English, Washington & Jefferson College): Welcome to you, too, for having me.
CAVANAUGH: Now I’m wondering how in the world did this trend start, the trend of mixing Jane Austen’s novels with monsters and zombies?
DR. TROOST: Well, it actually goes back a little farther to that – to the movie “Clueless.” The idea of moving the novel “Emma” to contemporary Los Angeles was really the thin edge of the wedge, I think.
CAVANAUGH: And from – How do we get from that, though, to zombies?
DR. TROOST: Well, part of that is a market calculation. The people at Quirk Books decided they wanted to do something that was kind of exciting like what you see on YouTube videos actually, which is where you start finding mash-ups of various kinds. And Jason Rekulak, the creative director there, decided that what really needed to be done was something that wouldn’t actually violate copyright, first of all, but that would be kind of creative and edgy. So he made a list of books out of copyright, mainly great classics that you read in high school or college and then a list of things that could be added to various books: pirates, Ninjas, space aliens, sea monsters, and such, and began drawing lines back and forth between them. And then when he hit “Pride and Prejudice” and zombies, he thought now we have it. This would be completely different.
CAVANAUGH: Now when you talk about mash-ups on YouTube, you’re talking about the kind of things we see where it blends the Kira Knightley “Pride and Prejudice” with Harry Potter or something…
DR. TROOST: Oh, yes…
CAVANAUGH: …like that.
DR. TROOST: …that’s a very good one, yes.
CAVANAUGH: And so I wonder if you have thought about—and I believe you probably have—what is the allure of that kind of blend?
DR. TROOST: Well, I think part of it is making fun of a classic. We are a somewhat rebellious society and these are very much aimed at a younger audience. And I think they enjoy sort of jumping up and down on things that are revered by their parents. And there’s nothing more revered by – than, say, Colin Firth as Mr. Darcy by everybody’s mother. And this is, as I said, partly a way of getting back at your parents.
CAVANAUGH: I see. Now, you’ve read at least two of these, Jane Austen and zombies, Jane Austen and sea monsters, “Pride and Prejudice and the Zombies.”
DR. TROOST: Yes.
CAVANAUGH: Are they any good?
DR. TROOST: Well, actually they’re not as bad as you think they’re going to be. And I’ve actually read “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies” twice, and I think it actually improved on the second time. Both of them are mostly Jane Austen, that’s one of the advantages of reading them. But there’s about 85% of the novel is actually original Jane Austen, about 15% is interpolated monster mayhem, and the 15% has been written in the style of Jane Austen. And what I really find interesting, some of the issues that come from zombie movies, in fact, the George Romero style of zombie movies, actually make it into these mash-ups. Zombies, in a way, are sort of a place of – a site of social anxiety and one of the reasons they work so well is that we project all of our fears on them. In 1969, when George Romero brought out “Night of the Living Dead,” that meant things like civil rights, the Vietnam War, various things like that. Nowadays, it’s sort of general paranoia that I think we’ve been living in since, well, certainly 9/11 had a lot to do with it but even the whole Y2K situation whipped us all up into a frenzy. And I think that zombies particularly appeal to a younger audience because they are particularly laden with anxieties of various kinds.
CAVANAUGH: Well, here’s what the author said about the suitability of “Pride and Prejudice” for a zombie horror tale. Said, you have this fiercely independent heroine, you have this dashing, heroic gentleman, you have a militia camped out for seemingly no reason whatsoever nearby. And people are always walking here and there and taking carriage rides here and there. It was just ripe for gore and senseless violence from my perspective. So do you think Jane Austen’s novels, from your reading of it, actually do lend themselves to these pop culture elements?
DR. TROOST: Well, I don’t think she actually needs to add monsters because she’s already describing social horrors of a kind that are worse than zombies. I mean, you take a character like Lady Catherine de Bourgh, who’s trying to run everyone’s life personally.
CAVANAUGH: She’s a monster, yeah.
DR. TROOST: Yeah, she really is. You look at “Mansfield Park,” Mrs. Norris, who is so horrible that J.K. Rowling has Filch the Caretaker name his cat Mrs. Norris. She’s pretty much going after Fanny Price, who’s a small mousy little girl and making her life a living hell. I think of that as sort of death by a thousand cuts and that’s what Mrs. Norris does to that poor girl. That’s worse than any zombie.
CAVANAUGH: Now of these mash-up novels, I think the one that you like best is “Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters.” Why?
DR. TROOST: Well, there’s a case where the – it’s not quite as gratuitous. The zombies are just a little – you feel like they’ve been thrown in at, you know – here’s a character walking down the street. It’s a good time for a zombie to come out. But in the “Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters,” the zombie – the sea monsters appear at times of great emotional intensity, at the moment, for example, when Marianne is being rejected by Willoughby very, very publicly in London. That takes place at a ball in the original novel. It takes place at an aquatic demonstration of lobster swimming formations – it’s kind of like Sea World in this alternative universe. And at this moment where this horrible emotional thing is happening to Marianne, suddenly all the lobsters who were happily swimming in figure eights decide to go rogue and attack the aud – first the trainer and then the audience. And that’s the way the monsters are used in that book, is that every time this great emotional intensity, that’s when a monster attack tends to take place. So it kind of parallels the emotional state. They become metaphors.
CAVANAUGH: Now do the – in the “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies” book, do the zombies ever integrate themselves into the lives of the Bennetts or Mr. Darcy?
DR. TROOST: Well, one of the characters in the novel turns into a zombie. Charlotte Lucas, the one who marries that ridiculous fellow, Mr. Collins, I’m afraid that she gets scratched by a zombie at one point and one of the reasons that she marries Mr. Collins is so she can snatch just a little bit of happiness.
CAVANAUGH: I understand. It makes more sense now. Now vampires seem to be one of the hottest things in pop culture and I understand there’s a series of books coming out in which Jane Austen herself is a vampire?
DR. TROOST: Yes, she’s turned into a vampire by Lord Byron. And at the beginning of the first book she’s running a bookstore in upstate New York, trying to pedal a novel that she has written that’s now garnered I think maybe 200 rejection slips.
CAVANAUGH: Oh, wow.
DR. TROOST: And she’s particularly annoyed about all the people who are doing these Jane Austen knockoffs and writing books like “Waiting for Mr. Darcy” and capitalizing on her name and her reputation. And all she keeps thinking is, and I haven’t seen a royalty check for 200 years.
CAVANAUGH: Makes you think who the vampires are.
DR. TROOST: At that – exactly. She does actually get the novel accepted and the rest of the book consists of really satires on American cultures, satires on airlines that lose your luggage. She gets put on a talk show, something like “Oprah,” at one point, and she ends up at a Romance Writers of America convention. And it’s really quite a good send-up of modern media in particular and modern life. And that’s actually going to have a sequel to it as well in which they’re going to take her novel and make it into a movie.
CAVANAUGH: Now is this book out? The one where she turns into a – she is a vampire?
DR. TROOST: Yes. It’s called “Jane Bites Back.” It came out maybe, I think, very, very end of December, early January.
CAVANAUGH: And have you read it?
DR. TROOST: I have read that, yes.
CAVANAUGH: And what do you think of it?
DR. TROOST: I think in some ways it’s the best of all of them because it’s the freest of all of them with the material. It takes the character of Jane Austen and for most, if not – not all the book but for most of the book, it’s very important that that character has to actually be Jane Austen and not somebody else. But it’s a very – written in a very contemporary style.
CAVANAUGH: Now I’m speaking with Dr. Linda Troost, and one of the things that you do is being the editor of “Jane Austen in Hollywood,” which is the first scholarly exploration of the Austen film phenomenon. Do you see this “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies,” and “Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters,” is this just following a long tradition of Jane Austen in pop culture.
DR. TROOST: I think absolutely true. Jane Austen has been made into musicals. She’s been made into stage plays. She’s been made into radio plays. We tend to think of the film adaptations as being very, very faithful but they are just as much interpretations. And some – For example, the famous BBC “Pride and Prejudice” where Darcy jumps into the lake…
DR. TROOST: …that moment becomes sort of Jane Austen to an awful lot of people.
DR. TROOST: That scene doesn’t appear in the novel at all. It’s entirely interpolated. It’s very much an interpretation.
CAVANAUGH: And, you know, many people have commented on the general public’s view of Jane Austen novels as opposed to the actual acidity that is in the novels and the really dark humor that Jane herself put into all – everything that she wrote. Do we see that coming out in the form of zombies, now? Is that what we’re trying to…
DR. TROOST: I think that is a bit of it. One nice thing I like about “Jane Bites Back” is that the Jane Austen character has that wit, that rapier wit that the actual Jane Austen has. And Jane Austen’s earliest writing, we call it her juvenilia, all the stuff she wrote before she was about 16 or 17, it’s full of decapitations and cannibalism and people biting their fingers off and attacking each other, and it’s really quite bloody and gory and she’s approaching these works with an incredible glee. I think she would really like “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.”
CAVANAUGH: That is amazing. I’d never even heard any of that.
DR. TROOST: Oh, it’s really quite blood curdling.
CAVANAUGH: So you, instead of kind of rolling in her grave, you think that Jane would really sort of latch onto some of these books.
DR. TROOST: Especially if she was getting the royalty checks, I think, yes. She was always very much interested in how much she was getting paid and whether the checks were coming in properly and how all of the finances were being handled, and very happily counted up all the money that she made, which was about 600 pounds.
CAVANAUGH: Wow. Now even though you track, excuse me, you track how Jane Austen’s novels and characters are being handled in Hollywood and in pop culture, are you, yourself, surprised at how deathless these characters are? They’re, in a sense, the undead themselves. They – You know, we just are – go back to them time and time again. Every time we turn around there’s another movie being made.
DR. TROOST: Yes, they’ve dug Darcy up yet again. Well Jane Austen has been an object of adoration for quite a long time. In the very, very early 20th century, there were – she was prescribed reading for shell shocked World War I soldiers and I think partly because of that she became very, very dear to a great many people’s hearts. And, in fact, Rudyard Kipling wrote a story in 1920 called “The Janeites,” which is about a group of World War I soldiers who name all of their guns and cannons after Jane Austen characters and they actually used Jane Austen’s plots as sort of a secret code amongst themselves. It’s particularly funny because the person telling the story is a heavy Cockney and so we’ve got this whole thing being done in Cockney accent. But the term Janeite then gets applied to people who are sort of, you know, up – they’re like Trekkies only for Jane Austen…
DR. TROOST: …and we still have them with us. And the movies have, I think, made a lot more Janeites.
CAVANAUGH: Yes, but does our obsession with Jane Austen tell us anything about our own culture?
DR. TROOST: Oh, I think a lot of us are very, very escapist. The Jane Austen that the Janeites are interested in is the Jane Austen of the rolling English countryside, its green and pleasant land. The pretty dresses, and the men with their elegant manners. That’s what a lot of people want, that kind of restrained, tasteful, classical, cultured world. That’s not necessarily the Jane Austen that the academic scholar sees, though. What they see there is the person deeply critical of her own society, the roles of women, the roles of men, the power that money plays over people’s lives, the hypocrisy that lies underneath the – a seemingly polished and elegant world. It’s really two different Jane Austens. But Jane Austen can accommodate both of them just perfectly.
CAVANAUGH: And even though this “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies” may have come about as a marketing scheme, it seems there are layers that actually sort of uncover some of the deeper meanings of what Jane Austen was writing.
DR. TROOST: Absolutely. I think it would not have been quite so successful if it didn’t manage to press a couple of really good buttons.
CAVANAUGH: Well, I want to thank you so much for coming in and explaining this. I told everyone you would, and you did.
DR. TROOST: Thank you very much, Maureen.
CAVANAUGH: Thank you. Dr. Linda Troost will be giving a lecture tonight called “Jane Austen and the Zombies.” It’s at seven at the Manchester Executive Conference Center auditorium on the campus of USD. And if you’d like to post your comments, you can go online, KPBS.org/thesedays. Coming up, writer Anchee Min talks about her new book, “Pearl of China.” That’s as These Days continues here on KPBS.