Porning the Classics – Continued Reflection #sexinguptheclassics

We had some great comments and posts that emerged from the last discussion on ‘Clandestine Classics‘ decision to insert sexually explicit passages into classics such as Pride and Prejudice, Northanger Abbey, Jane Eyre, A Study in Scarlett and 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.

We got a lot of reactions – most of them negative. What we didn’t see was people examining their reactions. I’d like to try and encourage this. For most respondents, there was tremendous unease. 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 in the earlier post 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. In effect, it is ‘closing’ a text that has been made ‘open’ by virtue of its age.

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?

So, if you have strong feelings about the sexing-up of classic literature, I challenge you to try and pull apart your feelings on the matter. What are we trying to protect and does it really need our protection? What do we feel is being lost? The integrity of the work?  The reputation of the author? Do we equate the reputation and authenticity of those writers with our own? Does a writer ever really ‘own’ a text once it is published?  Should we?


13 Thoughts on “Porning the Classics – Continued Reflection #sexinguptheclassics

  1. Matt on July 22, 2012 at 7:21 am said:

    I don’t object to literary experimentation, and certainly not to sex, nor to the reader’s ability to interpret, find meaning in, even mentally “rewrite” a text. While I think the “sexing up” project is theoretically interesting, and probably fun, in a way it amounts to little more than fanfic. Nor do I think there is anything wrong with fanfic – it’s a fun, interesting, and liberating/subversive enterprise. It’s just that it’s been done already.

    My main concern is cultural. A text is the product, not just of a writer’s imagination, but of the culture which shaped that imagination, and so, in addition to being a story, it’s an informative cultural artefact. The issue of authenticity this project needs to confront is not so much to the author as to the culture of the text. The reason these books might not be “sexy” by our standards is to do with cultural differences, not authorial deficiencies. They could very well be “sexy” for their own cultural position, and it’s a more interesting, exciting, and challenging project to learn how to read them for that sexiness. Any added passages would, unless the writers were amazingly informed, be culturally untrue, projecting our own sexualities onto characters whose time and place would require a very different sexuality.

    • Hi Matt,

      Thanks for your thoughts. And especially your strong point on cultural authenticity. And I agree with you. As I said in my post, in a strange way, even though these texts might have been ‘closed’ at the time of their publication, in a strange way, through the gulf afforded by historicity, they are now open to us. It is not possible for us to know how they were ‘received’ in their day, but in our day, we are looking into another world, and have many unanswered questions and, by virtue of that, the text kind of re-opens like a flower.

      So why are we hell bent on closing it again?

      • Matt on July 22, 2012 at 8:47 am said:

        Adding to these books does seem like a way of “closing” them, as you suggest. Perhaps it’s a reaction against Barthes, in a round-about way. Barthes distinguished between “readerly” and “writerly” (I hope I am remembering my terminology correctly) texts as determined by the amount of creative engagement required of the reader, the extent to which the reader participates in the creation of the text. These publishers are removing one common and fulfilling way for readers to do that. Which is a strange combination of undercutting the author while also undercutting the “Death of the Author” by removing some of the potential for reader participation in the creation/interpretation of the text’s meaning.

        Or, more cynically, what they are doing is replacing “Author” with “Publisher” – and making the publisher, by virtue of a control reaching back into history, and a monopoly on the ability to add to a text, immortal.

  2. I definitely had a strong reaction to the “sexing up” of the classics. And it is interesting to step back and look at the the why. So, if I break my reaction up, there are distinct aspects to it.

    My first reaction was as a reader. Some of it is an elitist reaction; an intelligent reader doesn’t *need* scenes added to these beautiful stories. It’s territorial; leave this books I’ve loved in their true state. And, it’s also some fear; what will they alter next?

    As a writer, my reaction crossed several points. My first was, I suppose, to project myself into the author’s position. How would I feel were a publisher doing this to one of my pieces(not that I’m even remotely putting myself in the same class with those authors)? Add outrage and anger to the melange. I also felt disgust, as I clearly saw this as purely for money. I don’t see anything in this project that has anything to do with artistry, creative expression, or inspiration. I see marketing. I see a business decision. And the lazy path, to boot. I wouldn’t have an issue if a modern writer took one of those stories and wrote it, in its entirety, from a modern perspective, seeing things through our much different cultural lens.

    I suppose, on another level, my reaction was one of frustration. It seems that the culture I live in has no creativity left; music is naught but remakes, movies too, and the population at large would rather consume reality shows that are about nothing at all.

    Intelligent discourse seems harder to find than ever.

  3. I’m not sure my reaction was “strong.” Although I agree with Aisling Weaver’s point about as a writer wanting to protect what’s mine. But the more I reflect on that reaction, the more I realize that at heart, I prefer a Creative Commons approach to creativity – put the work out there and see where others can take it. Like with jazz improvisation. The heart of the theme remains but these unexpected riffs can take you new and wonderful places. Unless it’s done poorly, then it’s just a mess. But who decides if the improvisation works? The listener (reader), not the original composer.

    I’d be thrilled if a reader was so invested in my work that it inspired him/her/hir to create more based on it. So I’m not terribly protective of my stories in the sense that I feel I should be the only one to explore my characters. I’m enjoying both the TV and movie re-imaginings of Sherlock Holmes, after all.

    So I guess what I truly object to, as a reader, is how when I read, the writer’s style (voice?) weaves a spell. There’s an established rhythm that makes the story unfold smoothly. After all, what’s our common complaint about bad writing? That it jolts us out of the story. And I’m afraid that once a writer has me in their spell and I’m into the rhythm, any added text, no matter how well it mimics the original writer’s style, will trip me up and yank me out of that place only books can take me. Like any sleeper in the midst of a good dream, I hate being abruptly woken.

    But maybe I wouldn’t notice if I’d never read the book before.

    Or maybe what I fear the most is that people who don’t understand how important sexual tension was to the original text will dump in a scene and break the tension, rendering the rest of what follows logically flawed and the character’s individual story arcs altered. So I guess my biggest objection as a reader is that I don’t trust the writers to insert their text with precision. That isn’t terribly fair of me, is it?

  4. Works like the bible do have “sexy” bits if you know where to look for them. And Authors like Anita Dimant have taken biblical stories and “sexed” them up. I think it is only taboo if you make it that way. There are authors I don’t want to change, but that has more to do with the feeling that the have fully told a story than any thing else.

    • Hello, Yes, there is a wonderful book by Howard Jacobson called “The Very Model of a Man’, which is basically the story of Cain. But that is not really what we’re talking about here – which is a work taken verbatim and added to.

  5. Matt on July 23, 2012 at 1:07 pm said:

    And in a less theoretical argument, there might well be very strong reasons, mostly internal to the narrative, why a book doesn’t have sex in it. Pride and Prejudice, for example, might be about sexual repression. it would screw up the narrative and the characters to add what the author specifically avoided.

    By the way, a few years ago at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, there was a great play called “Jane Austin’s Guide to Pornography” which imagined Jane Austin struggling with the desire to put sex into her works. I’ll check and see if there’s any information about the play online.

  6. Putting sexy bits into Pride and Prejudice won’t work, at a pragmatic level, because none of us is going to be able to recreate Jane’s voice, no matter how hard we might try. So the new version will be lumpy and irregular. It will be obvious what’s original and what’s new, and will loose the wit of the original and gain nothing — apart from some grunting and heaving. And I for one don’t want to be told what Mr Collins and poor Caroline might get up to. (And don’t say it was the origin of the lie back and think of England trope.) And it would be telling and not showing.

    But there’s a place for using the plot and placing it in a different (modern) location. I imagine the Bennett sisters would be quite different today — it might be rather fun. And authors have endlessly recycled the plots of others.

    It’s not a book, but there is a BBC TV series based on Sherlock Holmes, but set in today’s world. I thought this worked well overall; A Scandal in Bohemia became A Scandal in Belgravia, and certainly had some sexy bits in it. I works because it’s (mostly) the same plot with no pretence at trying to set it in Victorian times. A sexed-up P&P would be a pretence.

  7. I’m going to chime in before reading the other comments, so please forgive any potential repetitiveness (or not).

    My main reaction to the insertion of explicit sex scenes into classics was surprise that it didn’t happen sooner. I don’t object to the trend. (Hell, I may take a crack at it myself at some point.) The original works are still intact for those who wish to read and re-read and re-re-read them.

    The desire to peek behind the scenes is a testament to the strength of character development. I consider it a form of fan fic. Unlike fan fic of modern works, these are in the public domain — so there’s profit to be made without stomping on copyrights.

    What I’d like to see is a contest for the “best” inserted scene in a particular book… hottest, truest to character, truest to voice, and overall.

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