Remix, mashup, sample, adaptation, parody, homage, knock-off. The lines between these, and so many other similar terms, are not always very clear.
In one sense, all culture is a remix, nothing exists in a vacuum. On the other hand, some people may take a dim view of lifting almost the entire text of Pride & Prejudice and republishing it with additional zombie action. Which is where Seth Grahame-Smith’s best-selling 2009 classic, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, comes in.
In this episode I talk to Dr Megen de Bruin-Molé about mashup novels, or what she calls ‘Frankenfiction’: commercial fiction that takes out of copyright texts from the 18th and 19th centuries, and reworks them into something new. We chat about everything from the best (and worst) Frankenfictions, to the history of the mashup, to the power of adaptation and remix to subvert and parody the great works of literature and our own contemporary culture.
Dr Megen de Bruin-Molé is a cultural studies scholar with a background in literary criticism, and an emphasis on popular fiction. You can read her full bio here
You can read far more than I could squeeze into this podcast, on her blog
Or, check out her book which explores a huge range of Frankenfictions and mashup texts
Works Mentioned & References
Seth Grahame-Smith: Pride & Prejudice & Zombies
Kim Newman: Anno Dracula novels
Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neill: The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen
Penny Dreadful (TV show and comic)
E.L. James: 50 Shades of Grey
Ben H. Winters: Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters
Theodora Goss: Athena Club novels
Sherri Browning Erwin: Jane Slayer
If you enjoy the episode and want to find out how to support the show then click here for more information.
Other Useful Links
Kirby Ferguson: Everything Is A Remix (Youtube)
Quirk Books trailer for Sense & Sensibility & Sea Monsters
Looking for more zombies? There’s a whole episode on them here
Or more romance novels? Check this episode out
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I’m Conor Reid, with Words To That Effect
“It is a truth universally acknowledged that a zombie in possession of brains must be in want of more brains”
So I am Megen de Bruin-Molé.
And I currently work at Winchester School of Art, which is part of the University of Southampton. And what I do there is teach digital media practice.
I also do research in historical fiction, remix, adaptation, all that good stuff.
Remix, mashup, sample, adaptation, parody, homage, knock-off. The lines between these, and so many other similar terms, are not always very clear.
Taking previously created elements of culture and reworking them into something new.
In one sense, all culture is a remix, nothing exists in a vacuum. On the other hand, some people may take a dim view of lifting almost the entire text of Pride & Prejudice and republishing it with additional zombie action.
The line I opened with is, if you didn’t recognise it, the opening of Seth Grahame-Smith’s best-selling 2009 classic, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.
And Dr Megen de Bruin-Molé, [Megan de bren molay] who you also heard, has spent the last decade researching and writing about this whole field: remix, adaptation, mashup novels, or what, in her latest publication, she calls Frankenfiction.
Frankenstein is a hugely overdetermined metaphor, we use Frankenstein for everything, right? We use it. We use the Frankenstein metaphor to talk about technology when we’re talking about how, you know, will artificial intelligence get away from us like Frankenstein’s monster?
Frankenfood, Frankenstorms, frankenmice, frankenshoes, frankencells….
I use the term Frankenfiction specifically because it’s so broad. And I’m kind of poking fun at that phenomenon
So what exactly does Dr de Bruin-Mole mean by Frankenfiction?
What I actually look at in the book is something that in the first draft was called Neo-historical monster mash up, which is obviously much less catchy than Frankenfiction. But this is basically commercial fiction that takes works that are out of copyright. So, works from kind of the 19th century, the 18th century. And bring those together to sell them basically
Such as, for example, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.
But we’ll get back to that.
First, I want to get a few things clear: remix, adaptation, mashup, there are quite a lot of terms here
So most most people would have an idea of what adaptation or remix is, I would suspect. But as I was digging into these different terms to try and figure out what I was actually looking at, there’s a lot of disciplinary difference between something like adaptation and something like remix. So, for example, if you’re studying adaptation, it’s likely that you work in a literature department or a film department. A lot, not all of adaptation studies, but a lot of it focuses on film adaptations of literary works, and is still a big focus of the field.
Maybe I should a footnote noise. Like, if this was an article there’d be a footnote here. So [noise] For more on adaptation, see Effect, comma, Words To That, episode 23 on adapting books for the screen and vice versa.
Whereas if you’re studying remix, or mash up, you’re much more likely to be working in a media studies department. Yeah, possibly a music department, right, because the terms mash up and remix both originally come from music studies, which is actually really important to think about when you’re studying these things.
From the sampling used so effectively in hip hop, to a DJ perfectly blending two different tracks, to a song remixed and completely transformed in the hands of a great producer, remixing is obviously a hugely important feature of music.
In this case, though, we’re talking about fiction, about how we tell stories, across all sorts of media:
I was trying to come at it from a convergence culture perspective. So this idea that we’re not so concerned anymore with the medium that a story appears, in because we’re used to stories, crossing all kinds of different media.
So you know how we have prequels, to multimedia remakes, of adaptations, of ….well you get the idea. A book might be adapted into a tv series like, say, George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones, but then adaptation blurs into original creation (sometimes controversially) when the adaptation gets ahead of the source material.
You have multimedia universes like the Marvel Cinematic Universe which crosses film and TV, soundtracks, comic book tie-ins and all the assorted multimedia promotional material.
take the character Wolverine, who you are familiar with I’m sure. But from where, exactly? Did you read the original comics from the 1970s or his many, many subsequent comic book iterations? Did you encounter him on his own or as part of the X-men franchise? See him on TV or in film across 5 decades, encounter him in a novel, play him as a computer game character, or perhaps even listen to him, more recently, in podcast form?
Stories and characters rarely stay in a single medium any more. And anything can be a source: toys – from the good (Lego Movie) to the god awful (Battleships movie); theme park rides (Pirates of the Caribbean), apps (Angry Birds). I mean there’s an Emoji film.
And, then, if it seems like all the major blockbusters in the cinema in recent years have been remakes or sequels, well that’s because they have been.
Let’s do a little audio representation. If we start in 1993 and move in 5-year intervals, how many of the top 20 films each year were remakes, sequels, or spinoffs? Each ping is the number, so 1993… 2 [ping ping]
I think you can spot the trend. And actually the top 10 highest-grossing films of last year were all sequels, remakes, or comic book spinoffs.
But let’s get back to literature.
So I have tried to kind of look at the mashup across different areas. So that said, my background is in literary studies. There are certainly a long history of mashup novels. So in the 21st century, we definitely have a much higher volume of these kinds of novels
Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, which I guess starts in the late 20th century, Penny Dreadful. Anno Dracula Kim Newman’s Anno Dracula is another really great text. I’m sorry, I said Penny Dreadful, referring to the comic, because actually, obviously, that’s a television show. But Penny Dreadful has some written texts as well that we could, could look at
It’s never easy to pin these down to one medium.
So, if we’ve seen an explosion of interest in the mashup text in recent years, where is this coming from? In its literary form, how far back does the mashup go?
go back through the history of the mashup novel. I think there are a couple of different ways you can approach that. So there are lots of novels that are certainly intertextual. And there are lots of novels that you could kind of classify as mashups. They appear basically, as soon as you get copyright law in the West, right. So for instance, for Sherlock Holmes there are cases where, you know, other contemporary authors took the character, combined them with other characters. And then you get crossover fiction, right, which I guess the crossover is another term that we could kind of use if we wanted to add yet more vocabulary
So much vocabulary.
The commercial culture is a really important, I guess, part of what we look at or what we don’t, what do we consider a novel? Right? Is that something that’s that people pay for? Is that something that’s written not for profit?
And this is important because there’s a whole world of fan fiction, but what distinguishes it in large part is that it’s “unofficial”, it’s not intended to be commercialized and so it can use copyright material. Although, of course, these boundaries can blur too: one of the most commercially successful novels of this century is E.L James’ 50 Shades of Grey – originally Twilight fan fiction.
I guess if we’re talking about the commercial or the artistic history of the mashup novel, lots of people go back to William Burroughs, and Dada and things like cut up technique. So if we’re talking about professional mashup novels, professional mashup fiction, it’s either kind of William Burroughs and the artistic Dada movement
Lots of authors experimented with these types of techniques, particularly in the 1950s and 60s. You take two pages, fold them in half vertically, and lay them side by side to create something new and unexpected. Or you take a text, cut it up, and then rearrange the words to create a new text.[Cut up] Or guess you if take we’re a talking text, about cut the it commercial up, … and then rearrange the words to create a new text
And I guess all this cutting and pasting brings us neatly to Seth Grahame-Smith’s Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, published by Quirk Books in 2009.
So the myth behind Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is basically that Jason Rekulak, the editor at Quirk Books at the time sat down to try and you know, figure out Quirk Books’ next best seller. And he sat down with two lists: one of great works of classic literature, one with monsters, and just started drawing lines between the two of them. And he ended up with Pride and Prejudice and Zombies thought, wow, this would be a really fun idea. And then they found Seth Graham-Smith to kind of do, do it. Do the remix for them.
Little did they realise the publishing monster they had unwittingly unleashed upon the world…
So they released the cover image online. A few months before publication, bloggers got so excited about the cover image, that they pushed up the publication date, by three months, they decided to print, you know, a few more copies. So it was basically an internet success based on the cover image, before it even became a publishing success before it was, was released.
Within a week of its release it was no 3 on the New York Times Bestseller list, studios were knocking down the publisher’s door to acquire film rights (of course – more adaptations!). It was a massive success.
So, for those of you who haven’t read the novel how exactly does it work?
In terms of the premise of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, so Seth Graham Smith mashup novel takes the actual text of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, so they estimate that it’s about 75% Pride and Prejudice Jane Austen and then removes a few bits, adds a few bits, adds some zombies, adds some plot elements, about 25% of Seth Graham Smith’s work. And then together you get Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. So, it takes an out of copyright text Pride and Prejudice, transforms it. So, if we’re talking about transformative works, and copyright, you know, the transformation is often really important. And yeah, repackages it for sale.
So if it’s 75% Pride & Prejudice, was it Austen fans looking for a new twist on their favourite novel? Or was it the zombie fans who felt their favourite genre was missing some regency romance? Well, kind of both.
Yeah, so actually, a lot of people talk about it as if it’s this thing that was specifically designed to appeal to Jane Austen fans. But actually, when the book was first conceptualized, or they were trying to, you know, publicize it, get it out there, they definitely didn’t publicize it in that way. So they kind of expected a lot more backlash from Austin fans, I guess, than they received. And there have been some great academic articles about this. Sort of how the publicity text shifted gears kind of partway through the publicity.
It appealed to a lot of Austinites. Right, who often do Austin rereads. So for fan cultures, where there’s a culture of rereading I think it was picked up very gratefully because it kind of gave them a fun angle to take on the next Austin reread
Ultimately, it was just a great idea, well-executed, in the right place at the right time:
it’s from that phase where fans were doing it but commercial culture hadn’t quite figured out how to capitalize on this sort of thing. Right. So we had auto generated text, right? We had computers writing text, we’ve had mash up, we’ve had fan versions of these texts, but no one had really figured out yet how to make money doing them. So yeah, I think Pride and Prejudice and Zombies really just struck at the right time.
And speaking of the right place at the right time, we’ve reached the perfect place to very briefly tell you about two things.
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So, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. Is it any good?
Well it definitely piqued my interested when it came out. Pride & Prejudice is a masterpiece and who doesn’t love a good zombie? So I was definitely intrigued – I remember reading the first page or two in a bookshop when it was everywhere – but then not so intrigued that I actually felt the need to buy it.
that wears thin after a page or two, but I still didn’t finish it. I kind of thought it was too much Austen and not enough zombie
I think a lot of people have that comment. And they actually did try to solve that. Both in the sequels to Pride and Prejudice and Zombies and with kind of the next mashup novel that they did, which was Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters. So that’s much more Ben Winters and less Jane Austen.
I mean, I really enjoyed it. I think it probably for me works better if you have not read Pride and Prejudice, just because I was so distracted going through wondering, oh, just Jane Austen actually say that. So I felt, you know, constantly compelled to look to compare it to the quote unquote, original.
Yeah some of the little inserts are great, you really want to check how much was in the original:
“Not all that Mrs. Bennet, however, with the assistance of her five daughters, could ask on the subject, was sufficient to draw from her husband any satisfactory description of Mr. Bingley. His daughters attacked him in various ways—with barefaced questions, ingenious suppositions, and occasionally with swords; but he eluded the skill of them all, and they were at last obliged to accept the second-hand intelligence of their neighbour, Lady Lucas”
I love that “and occasionally with swords” is the only part that’s changed – it just fits so neatly. And there are lots of other moments like that.
But all this focus on the original versus the adaptation, it can kind of lead us off track a bit
…because generally, we assume that the older text or the you know, what we often call, the original text, is the most important one, is the one that should be honoured. If it’s older, it’s better. And this is definitely something I found interesting when looking at Frankenfictions or monster mashups, or mashups generally, because on the one hand, you would think that they challenge this idea. But on the other, you know, in many case cases, in many cases, the mashup text is only popular because of the way it uses a famous author a famous text, a famous character.
So when we’re talking about what it is permissible to do legally and ethically, emotionally, to a famous text to a canonical taxed that’s one thing to consider.
But I also I guess, I want to think about it not just in terms of an original text that is copyright protected and that is good, and another text that’s relating that to that either lovingly or carelessly or stealing it.
Because that’s a really simplistic way of looking at it in some perspective. Obviously, anytime we make anything, we’re making it within this bigger framework. We’re making it to fit within a particular genre based on our knowledge of that genre. Any adaptation is not only referencing an original text, but it’s referencing all of the other adaptations that came before it. Right? So, with Pride and Prejudice, when we talk about the Keira Knightley, Pride and Prejudice. We’re relating it back to Jane Austen, but also back to the 1990s miniseries, right. We’re always comparing things to each other.
Everything draws on everything else; everything has a cultural context. I mean that’s basically what I’ve spent 45 podcast episodes exploring. And mashups foreground this, they get us thinking about how this influence and appropriation, and stealing and borrowing, and remixing really works.
it’s not just kind of a one directional thing that’s going on, right. We’re in conversation with other people. We’re borrowing from different things, simultaneously. And I think that often gets overlooked. So I think that’s one reason that mashups are really helpful. Because they don’t let us make that kind of simplistic analysis. The one to one analysis.
The question of who owns what doesn’t necessarily have a simple answer…
Or it does, I guess, because you could say, if it’s in copyright, or protected by an estate, then you can’t do anything irreverent with it? If it’s not, then you can.
But then, of course, already, whose texts are worth protecting? Whose texts are canonized? You know, often it’s the same group kind of white Western men. Yeah, so already, the ethics are complicated.
And if you’re convinced, there’s plenty more frankenfiction out there: Kim Newman’s Anno Dracula novels or The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neill’s graphic novel series, which is great. Not so great is the film version which – fun fact – was the film that Sean Connery hated working on so much that he quit acting forever.
More recently, Theodora Goss’s Athena Club novels. So that’s starting off with the Strange Case of the Alchemists Daughter, which is about the, the monstrous daughters of a lot of different mad scientists. So, you’ve got Justine Frankenstein, and Mary Jekyll, and all of this kind of stuff.
But I think if I were suggesting that people dig into the mashup genre in a little more depth, especially the literary mashup genre, it’s worth kind of looking at some of the less well selling of these different kinds of mashup. So, for instance, in addition to Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, you had Jane Slayer by Charlotte Bronte and Sherri Browning Erwin, right. And this was published by Simon and Schuster, so a different publishing house because a couple of different publishers took up the trend, yeah, as they do.
But Sherri Browning Erwin is also a romance novelist. So in approaching this kind of classic Gothic text Jane Eyre, she does some really interesting things. She makes some kind of more in depth changes to Jane Eyre, and is also very clearly engaging within feminist discourse, post-colonial discourse. And yeah, popular fiction discourse in some ways that I don’t think some of the more popular texts necessarily do.
There’s plenty to be cynical about with mashup novels – take almost all of an out-of-copyright literary text, throw in a few supernatural beings and hope for the best.
But there’s also so much scope to be original and creative while remixing what has come before, to use satire and parody.
I think it’s important not to understate the importance of being playful with texts because parody and satire are such important tools for coping with our cannon, coping with our past, making sense of it, reminding ourselves of it again, reminding ourselves why we love it or why we don’t need it so actually as a playful commentary it’s a really interesting thing
Mashup novels are nothing new, and there will be plenty more to come. And the best of them will force us to think about our cannon, about how cultural influence works, about how we constantly reframe historical and literary context, and they’ll maybe even make us pick up a classic novel we never got round to reading.
It is a truth universally acknowledged that a classic novel, beloved by all, must be in want of some zombies.
That’s it for another episode of Words To That Effect, thanks so much for listening. And, thank you for being so patient as I got together this new season. I finished the last season in a very different world, things have changed unrecognisably, and listening to podcasts has been one of the things that has brought me so much joy and relief and calm over the last 6 months or so.
So I thought I’d better try to contribute to some of that and get some new episodes out into the world. And what better way to kick things off than zombies and Jane Austen.
So a very special thanks to my guest on this week’s episode, Dr Megen de Bruin-Molé, I would highly recommend you check out her book Gothic Remixed: Monster Mashups and Frankenfictions in 21st-Century Culture
I’ve put links to that, and to her blog and other work, on the WTTE website, which is wttepodcast.com. There you can also find a fantastic trailer for Sense and Sensibility and Seamonsters, links to sources and further reading and lots more.
You can follow the show on Instagram and facebook @wordstothateffect or follow me on twitter @cedreid.
You can also support the show on Patreon at Patreon.com/wtte
And that’s it, see you in two weeks for the next episode.