Porning The Classics: Examining the Phenomenon of the Sexed-up Canon

First, the fine citizens of Hertforshire were woken from the dead and plagued by Zombies in  Seth Grahame-Smith‘s parody novel, “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.” Then came sea monsters. Now ‘Clandestine Classics‘, a sub-imprint of Total e-Bound have launched a series of classic novels to which explicit sex scenes have been added. You can read more about it here: Oh Mr Darcy! Pride and Prejudice among classic novels to receive erotic makeover.

This seems to be a collision between the earlier literary mash-up efforts and the overwhelming popularity of “Fifty Shades of Grey.” Publishers have decided, it seems, that readers now want more sex with their everything. They will be offering up sexed-up versions of “Pride and Prejudice,” “Northanger Abbey,” Arthur Conan Doyle’s “A Study in Scarlet” (a Sherlock Holmes story) and Jules Verne’s “Twenty Thousand Leagues Under The Sea.”

Claire Siemaszkiewic founder of Total-E-Bound Publishing, said in the Independent :

“We’re not rewriting the classics. We’re keeping the original prose and the author’s voice. We’re not changing any of that.

“But we want to enhance the novels by adding the ‘missing’ scenes for readers to enjoy.”

So, I’m very interested to generate some informed opinions on this. By informed I mean: you have read at least some of the classics in question, and you have read some erotica. I think that, without exposure to both those experiences, there is some danger of a debate which is not informed by experience and might be muddied up with assumptions about what contemporary erotic fiction is or, conversely, what the classics in question are like. So, if you’ve read a bit of both, I’d love to hear what  you think of this. I’ve provided a widget at the bottom of the page so that, if you would like to blog about your take on this, you can add your link so that people can jump straight to your blog post on the subject.

For what it’s worth, here’s my thinking on the matter:

I have to admit to being a little offended by Ms Siemaszkiewic’s statement that there was something ‘missing’ from the original texts. I think it needs to be said that the reason those novels have entered into the canon of Western literature is because there was nothing missing at all. They were very complete, very compelling texts when they were published. And, to many people, they still are today.

However, there are millions of readers who have never read these novels. And one of the reasons they might not have is because those stories seem old and irrelevant to them, and not compelling. Perhaps their language seems difficult and hard to read. Perhaps they struggle with relating to the characters, their struggles. Or perhaps they are put off by a perceived elitist veneer that cloaks these books?

So, if sexing up the classics means that a new generation of readers are going to read Austen and Verne and Doyle with some tacked on sexy bits, isn’t that a positive thing? Isn’t it better that they read them in any form than not at all?

As the Independent article implies, it has been said that the original authors of these novels might feel that their works had been defiled by the addition of sexually explicit scenes. I’m not entirely sure that Austen wouldn’t get a kick out of it, but from everything I’ve read about Arthur Conan Doyle, he would be disgusted and horrified. On the other hand, Barthes would be delighted.

But Shakespeare used earlier stories for his fodder. Bram Stoker took his premise from Polidori’s “The Vampyre” and Sheridan Le Fanu’s “Carmilla.” It’s fair to say that the art of the mash-up isn’t a new one. Literature grows in the mulch of earlier literature and I’m not sure the sensitivities of a group of dead, if wonderful authors is a compelling reason not to do this.

Something that does bother me is authenticity.  If Jules Verne were alive today, I’m fairly positive that he’d have no problem adding a few infernal desire machines to his plots. And I’d wager that Total-E-Bound, with its extensive list of ‘taboo’ and ‘no go’ list of sexual acts or scenarios they refuse to publish, might struggle to consider Mr. Verne for publication.

My major opposition to adding sexually explicit scenes to these classics has to do with readers’ imaginations. When I read “Wuthering Heights,” I was perfectly capable of dreaming up my own very explicit scenes between Catherine and Heathcliff. In fact, the scenes I wrote in my head were probably more explicit and erotic that anything ‘Clandestine Classics’ is going to come up with. It’s one of the deep pleasures of reading and an integral part of the reader-text relationship,  that we appropriate characters, situations and settings from of their fictional worlds and play with them in our own minds.

I see a trend, not just in fiction, but in all other medias to offer tremendously closed texts to the audience. Where everything is described, explained and sewn up. And it has served the media corporations well for this to be the case. Because it requires five more books in the series, or three more seasons on the television, or two more film sequels to tie up every narrative loose end.  Open texts are simply not as profitable.

But I fear that this enriches content providers at the expense of an active, critical and fertile imagination on the part of audiences.

So… what do you think? You can either leave your thoughts below in the comments area or link your blog post on the subject in the widget below.

27 Thoughts on “Porning The Classics: Examining the Phenomenon of the Sexed-up Canon

  1. I have to admit that I have written one of these. Well, not one of THESE, it’s not published by this publisher, but I have taken one of my favorite novels, that really DID seem to be expurgated, and de-expurgate it.

    People who’ve read it have told me they enjoyed it.

    I won’t mention the title online for fear of being sued, because the estate in question has a history of doing so. If you want to see it, you’ll have to meet me in real life…it doesn’t exist in any public electronic form.

  2. No story belongs to the writer once it’s been told. But the way they told it is theirs alone.

    I don’t mind a complete re-write of a story. Add what you want. Mrs Danvers and Rebbecca in a torrid lesbian affair? Sure. More power to you. Hell, change the ending if it made you cry when you wanted puppies and unicorns. (but if you’re going to do that, please change the title) But don’t cut and paste another writer’s work into the original text. It will destroy the flow of the story as told by the original author. “Don’t be cheap and lazy” I suppose is my war cry.

  3. A pointless exercise. And I think that is just what it is – an exercise of behalf of writers (can I write in the style of…) and a cynical marketing exercise by publishers. The classics already exist, as do the trash novels of yesteryear. And that’s fine. We can all read them (if they are still in print). Let’s have some new fiction, erotic or otherwise. If there is an unsatiable (no pun intended) readership for erotica set in the past then write some anew. Conan Doyle and Jules Verne wrote detective and adventure stories. Their works are not ‘missing’ sex, their works don’t need it. It is irrelevant. There is some great classic erotica anyway – Lady Chatterly’s Lover, Fanny Hill, The Story Of Venus And Tannhauser for example. Think of it this way – do we revise everything? Do we need add contemporary horror elements or action or political views or cell phones to older works so a modern audience can ‘get them’? I would say no. 100% originality beats any kind of mash-up; in any art form. And if Hollywood get in on the act – Casablanca with a car chase and an exorcism thrown in!

  4. My first reaction is that it is lazy and does a disservice not just to the pre-existing texts but to erotica as well.

    Hardy and Austen are overflowing with sex; sex as a subtext or via innuendo or analogy, there aren’t missing scenes because either the characters wouldn’t have acted in that particular way or because those scenes aren’t needed to drive the story along.
    Adding in extra scenes changes the plot and the characters of the book and has the potential to undermine the believability of them in the original content. If Elizabeth is allowing Mr Darcy a quick fumble under her petticoats then doesn’t that undermine all her correctness and horror when her younger sister elopes?

    I also think it is unfair on erotica, suggesting that it needs to be squeezed into an established story rather than have the bones to stand for itself.

    Does it matter that the books that are deemed as classics aren’t read by everyone? Dated language may make them inaccessible to some but were they ever appealing to all?

    I’d rather see publishers concentrating on developing the talent of writers to tell new stories.

    • You make some really compelling points, Ru. Lydia is going to come off smelling like roses! Unless she gangbangs the whole of the militia in Meryton.

      • Now that does sound like a fun read. Perhaps if it were done as some kind of secret diaries collection – the erotic imaginings of confessions of the Bennet family. Perhaps Mary is harbouring a crush on Charlotte Lucas?
        If you are going to do fan fic, make it fun and done with fondness and your tongue in your cheek, but plagiarism, not for me.

    • Interesting that these judgments are being made sight-unseen.

      • In terms of the judgements sight-unseen, I think the fact that the publisher has already admitted that there is no change to the original texts, no rewriting or re-imagining of the story, does mean that it is pretty fair to judge it sight-unseen.

  5. This concept is basically fanfic. As you point out, RG, Shakespeare, Stoker and others essentially made their take on classics of their time, and created what we now think of as classics. I don’t think James’ immediate success with _her_ fanfic will ultimately be as memorable or as long lived, but that doesn’t mean some modern writer won’t be able to make something great re-imagining, and/or eroticizing, 20,000 Leagues.

    How many epic fantasies (some of which have naughtier bits) are more or less 1:1 copies of the Lord of the RIngs? And what did LoTR copy? Most writing includes theft of one or a dozen previous ideas. How many basic plots are there? How many relationships and character types? It’s the weaving of them that makes the story, and if you use something more or less recognizable as the template, I don’t see that as a problem.

  6. Hear hear, Kathleen. I’m absolutely revolted – seriously, the very idea of this makes my skin crawl – at the idea of republishing books and then having the CHEEK to put a joint authorship on them. Riding on the shoulders of giants just to make a sly buck, with no care as to whether anyone would care – who cares? They are dead!

    Sequels, fine. Prequels, fine. New stories stealing other people’s characters and worlds, then yes, if you must, but at least then you are being original. Any monkey with a pen can insert sex into someone else’s prose whereas creating a new story takes talent. I think these authors have done a very fooling thing by taking this step, it’s not ever something I’d want on my CV.

    A few years ago, Dreamspinner published a “reworking” of Jane Eyre, with Jane being turned into a man, but much of the prose including the famous first line, was lifted directly from the original. The publishing world made an outcry at this, and that was only taking a few lines and of course the entire plot from JE. This… well, the plagiarism staggers me. Yes, ok, it’s not copyright theft, but it sure the hell is plagiarism.

    And at least one of these books has the original author as SECOND BILLING. Poor Jules. He’ll stop spinning in his grave soon, I I hope.

  7. Can I write sex scenes into the old Conan stories?

    On a serious note, I’m not sure what to make of this. Where will it end? If they’re adding stuff to works in the public domain, then why not just write new kinky stories with the public domain characters? Dracula has been written into thousands of smut stories, so why not just put out an anthology featuring characters from Verne, Doyle, and the like having frisky fun?

  8. jemima101 on July 17, 2012 at 8:58 pm said:

    Publicity for a company who want to produce book for people who do not enjoy reading. The people behind this must be semi literate, Pride and Prejudice is an incredibly sexy novel, Wuthering Heights full of S&M . If people do not choose to read the novels in their original form ,then that is their choice, one that should be accepted as legitimate rather than bowlderising cheap money spinners for them.

  9. DJ Young on July 18, 2012 at 12:55 pm said:

    Thanks for bringing this up – I think it is a very important question and I hope I don’t ramble too much in response (You’ve had some excellent commentary so far).

    There is hardly a popular mainstream film or novel or TV series made that isn’t ‘re-made’ into it’s own pornographic version at some point – these books really aren’t much different. If we have no real problem with someone making a pornographic (and musical!) version of Alice in Wonderland, no one is likely to object too loudly to a mashed up ‘novel’ of it (as it is, there’s already an Alice in Zombieland). I believe it often falls under the banner of ‘satire.’

    That said, in the world of fan fiction, stealing is considered a no-no; you cannot take someone else’ text and just add your own sexy bits and call it ‘yours’ much less benefit financially. You do not own the source material. Writing your own version of the story, however, fine and dandy – so long as credit is given where it is due. EL James went around this by just changing the names of her characters (and the setting, etc. etc). Other writers go a step further to write prequels or sequels with more skin than the originals might have allowed. As exercises for amateur writers, fan fiction can be a great way to start – to use someone else’s story as the bones (if not the very skin) of your own, published work, though? It’s a sad direction.

    Publishers who benefit this way are only doing it for the money; there is no interest in the art of writing or the ‘sanctity’ of the original prose. If we respect these authors, we’d leave their work untouched (Rev. Charles Dodgson aka Lewis Carroll would never have condoned a porn version of his works) – but respect hardly plays a role in business anymore. The lack of critical insight that readers seem to have is endemic of our culture’s lowered standards. Instead of daring authors to write complex, challenging works to add to our treasured canon, instead of publishing daring, complex works, we get the likes of EL James – and instead of readers seeking out originality, they are (too) easily sold the idea that a ‘mash-up’ is great fun (I’m sure it is) and far more sexy than that dusty old stuff. An easy sell is an easy sell. Too bad it’s everywhere. Good news: so is the good stuff.

    PS: I’ve no idea if Austen would be delighted or shocked, but she would certainly want a royalty check.

  10. Pingback: Would you touch up the Mona Lisa? | Aisling Weaver

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  12. I’d say that works such as Jane’s P&P would loose credibility. At the time it was written, women would have been well aware of their sexuality, but were in transition to the Victorian “purity” ideal. So I just can’t see Eliza giving Mr Darcy a quick bit on the side, even though she would have been well aware of her power. If P&P had been set say 50 years earlier, she might well have seduced him or been seduced — but it wasn’t, so the whole idea is a historical nonsense. Jane’s novel’s are quite sexy enough without the need for any explicit description.

    And Sherlock and Dr Watson? A couple of queers? The idea is laughable. Sherlock is the ultimate Asperger’s sufferer, he wouldn’t know a sexual advance if it hit him. And the good doctor is very clearly hetero — twice married.

    But, perhaps there is a case to be made for a more explicit Dickens. There’s already a species of literature called neo-Victorianism, where the full horrors of the Victorian age are exposed — the pure woman at home and the whoring husband. And a bit less of the circumlocution — Dora wasn’t in a certain condition, she was knocked up — and how did she get there? Plenty of opportunities to show what poor Nancy had to put up with from Bill Sykes — now there, you could show what life was really like for some women. (And expunge all the moralising — didn’t Dickens desert his wife for a fancy woman?)

    Don’t forget Mrs Beeton and her cookbook: after all, she died of syphilis which she got from Mr B, and where did he get it? The mind boggles. Sloe gin will never be the same again.

  13. I have to be honest.. I see this as something along the lines of a cover of a famous song or sampling of one song to be used in a new creation. Is it going to suck? probably… but then again perhaps it will bring something new. As to the question “would you touch up the Mona Lisa?” I say… Andy Warhol.

    • I’m of the opinion that what Andy Warhol did with the Mona Lisa is vastly different that what my blog post was exhibiting. The image I source showed the Mona Lisa with cleavage and corset; a sexualized Mona Lisa, as it were. Warhol played with color, saturation, repetition, etc, but didn’t alter the Mona Lisa’s portrait beyond that.
      Warhol’s art was about pop images; I don’t think you can say the same with the Clandestine Classics. I, too, would see this along the lines of a cover or sampling if an author were rewriting the entire story or pulling out just one chapter or scene and spinning off of it.
      However, that isn’t the case. They are taking the original manuscript, inserting sex scenes, and selling it.
      That, to me, is very different.

      • Also, Andy Warhol was creating conceptual art that played with concepts of celebrity, images that were considered ‘untouchable’, and challenged the ‘sanctity’ of the canon. And he did it 50 years ago.

        Clandestine Classics aren’t out to make art or destabilize social notions of ‘profaning’. They’re just making money.

  14. “So, if sexing up the classics means that a new generation of readers are going to read Austen and Verne and Doyle with some tacked on sexy bits, isn’t that a positive thing? Isn’t it better that they read them in any form than not at all?”

    I can see the point there, but I feel a noticeable degree of unease about altering them at all—not because of anything to do with readers, but rather because an artist created those, and regardless of public domain laws, it doesn’t seem appropriate to me to simply alter them as though they were not someone’s sole inspired work. It has nothing (to me) to do with the content (i.e., that it is sexual); it is simply the idea of the work being altered at all by someone who is not the artist and without the artist’s consent. To me, that seems fundamentally disrespectful to the art of writing and creating.

    Though I may misunderstand the terms, I don’t see this as either fan fic or as rewriting a classic since the works in question are remaining the same and simply having other scenes written and inserted. This, to me, seems like interfering with a work that was offered by the author as it is, which I find—well, see above.

    • I can definitely understand the unease and that, in a way, is what I want to interrogate.

      The single most read book on the planet, the Bible, is a product of just such interferences. It did not reach it’s current form intact. It had many writers, many editors. Whole books were left out, and – a whole new ‘second volume’ was added to the series for Christianity. But somewhere along the time, it became an inviolable text to us, and changing it became blasphemous. It is very likely that both the Iliad and the Odyssey were also changed.

      I am seeing the same reaction to this interference with these classics. And, don’t get me wrong, I AM personally VERY uncomfortable with adding sexy bits (or any bits actually) to these works. But I’m think this reaction is so deeply held and so automatic, that it behooves us to examine what it is about doing this that we find so upsetting.

      I think we will learn more about what we value about literature, and why certain works make their way into the canon while others don’t, by interrogating our reactions. Sorting elitism, nostalgia, and conservatism from some, perhaps, far more valid reasons for protecting these works.

      I mentioned above that one of the reasons I feel very legitimate in objecting to this sort of mash-up, is that it denies the reader the opportunity to read creatively and add those sexy bits in for themselves, as they read.

      Another reason, voice very well by others, is that there is a limited market for readers out there. Isn’t it better to encourage and develop new great works, with sexy bits in them than to try and ‘fix’ the old ones?

      • I would point to the genre of the ‘Directors Cut’.

        We are all familiar with the process of editing in film and writing. Cutting to length, for pace and to illustrate a viewpoint are valid uses of the cut.

        However, the ‘Theatrical Release’ is the ‘Original’ article.

        We cannot really know what was in the director or writer’s mind without access to the cutting room floor or the original MS.

        “Miss Austen, we cannot have this chapter and these paragraphs. We have publishing standards!”

        If these ‘new’ works were akin to an Author’s Cut, (revised and extended edition?) I would have no problem with them, but they are more likely to be bad Hollywood pastiches where you will ‘see the joins’ of different scripting, directing, lighting and camerawork.

        They are cheap, lazy knock off’s

        Someone mentioned ‘Lord of the Rings’? I would point to the excellent parody, ‘Bawd of the Rings’ as the way to do this type of thing well. But it takes talent and hard work.

        On another, perhaps cynical note, as Total-e-Brilliant PR this cannot be beaten. It has got a relatively obscure niche market indie publisher national and international column inches and blogspace. Their hit rate must be going through the roof!

        In the spirit of confession, I too have written Doyle inspired erotic fiction but in a Steampunk Victorian world. In defense I tried very hard to keep the spirit of the well known characters and the plotting as true as I could to the original concept. But the writing was accurately researched and ALL new.

        • I would have no problem with them, but they are more likely to be bad Hollywood pastiches where you will ‘see the joins’ of different scripting, directing, lighting and camerawork. They are cheap, lazy knock off’s.

          Ever see “Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid”?

          In any case, I think someone ought to actually read one of these.

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