Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Sympathy for the Devil

by Chris F. Holm

So this week's topic is the artistic merit, or lack thereof, inherent in e-publisher Clandestine Classics' insertion (sorry) of erotic scenes into poor, unsuspecting works of literary genius.

Actually, that's a bit of a straw man. The actual phraseology of this week's question is "Good idea, or cheap trick?" Since financially, at least, I suspect it's both, I could just say so and be merrily on my way - but that didn't quite seem fair to you, dear Criminal Minds reader. So instead, I thought I'd recast the question to make it a tad more philosophically interesting, and my argumentative wicket somewhat stickier.

Wait; aren't straw men supposed to be dummy targets, easier to tear down than one's actual argumentative opponents? In that case, did I just invent the Reverse Straw Man? I'd Google to find out, but I'm horrified I might discover that term already has... other uses. (Sorry.) But I digress.

This topic, and this e-book project, seem to've struck a chord within the reading and writing community, and as of this writing, it's left one member (sorry) of the Criminal Minds crew veritably throbbing (sorry) with disgust at those who'd perpetrate such grisly fictional crimes.

Here's the thing, though: what Clandestine Classics is doing? I'm full-on for it.

Whoa whoa whoa. Hear me out. First off, before I get to the thrust (sorry) of my argument, let me first say this: Reece's fantastic blog-post-title is dead-on. This project's fifty shades of wrong. Not because of the smut factor (let the record show there've been many a filthy classic), or because they're robbing the authors' estates of either veto power or fair monetary due (the works in question are in the public domain, as well they should be), but because the whole endeavor smacks of a cheap, tacky cash-in with no intention to (and little likelihood of) add(ing) anything of merit - the literary equivalent of low-hanging (sorry) fruit.

But I'll damn sure defend their right to do it. Because the same copyright and fair-use laws that allow for godawful SCARY MOVIE style satires and PRIDE AND PREJUDICE AND PENI(...nah, too easy) also clear the way for some of the most wonderful, transformative works of art I've ever had the pleasure of experiencing. And since artistic merit is a sliding scale both deeply personal and hotly debated, there's no having one without the other.

Sure, smuttified classics are beyond the pale for most. But how about PRIDE AND PREJUDICE AND ZOMBIES? I'll admit, that one was cute enough, you say, eyebrow arching beneath your rakishly cockeyed beret. But art? Harrumph. I think not. Fine, then. What of WICKED? Of Jasper Fforde's THE EYRE AFFAIR? Steven Moffat's SHERLOCK? What of Andy Warhol's soup cans, or Marcel Duchamp's "Fountain"?

James M. Cain, author of THE POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE, once famously said of the many movie adaptations of his work: "People tell me, don't you care what they've done to your book? I tell them, they haven't done anything to my book. It's right there on the shelf." And so it is with all true classics. We rush to defend them as if they require defending. But these works are like the tides. Forces of nature: beautiful, powerful, unrelenting. They need our help even less than they need the help of the hacks at Clandestine Classics.

It's strange to me, a lifelong hip-hop fan, to see the same issues that have plagued turntablists for decades now rearing their ugly heads in my chosen field of letters. And so I'll leave you with an auditory cautionary tale from the land of Be-Careful-What-You-Wish-For. Exhibit A is one of the most execrable so-called "songs" ever put to tape, a cash-in both melodic and lyrical so shameless it'd give the folks at Clandestine Classics a case of the vapors. And it was done with the explicit permission of the artist to whom the original song belonged. I give you Puff Daddy's getting-rich-exploiting-a-dead-friend anthem "I'll Be Missing You":


Exhibit B is one of my all-time favorite instrumental tracks, DJ Shadow's "Midnight in a Perfect World." The song, and the album on which it appears, are notable for being a) stunning, critically acclaimed artistic accomplishments, and b) composed entirely of sampled material, all of it used without permission. Hip-hop fan or not, I'd urge you to let this one play; you may just be surprised:


9 comments:

Sue Ann Jaffarian said...

Chris, your excellent and sturdy point immediately brought to mind Chick-Fil-A. While I don't agree with their corporate stand on gay marriage, I defend their right to put their stores anywhere they damn well please and to wave their banner high. So it is with Clandestine Classics. I don't have to like it, but they do have a right to do it even if it makes me cringe. And thanks for sharing those music clips. I thoroughly enjoyed "Midnight In A Perfect World."

Kent said...

Endtroducing is an amazing album. And while I haven't read many literary mash-ups or mutations, what I have comes off as lazy at best, quick buck trolling at worst. Still, to say it shouldn't be done is just shortsighted. What if there's a written soul mate to Endtroducing out there? I'd like to read that.

Meredith Cole said...

Very interesting argument, Chris! Imitation is of course a form of flattery, and not every artist is consulted when their work is sampled (for better or for worse). Perhaps in the end the smutification of the classics will bring new, um, appreciation for the work of Austen and others, but I'm still a bit skeptical.

Chris said...

Sue Ann -- you're of course right re: Chik-Fil-A, though I'm glad their corporate stance is out in the open now, because much as it's their right, it's the right of their would-be customers to make informed purchasing decisions (and personally, I hope their sales drop significantly.)

Kent -- the closest I've ever seen is Fforde's Thursday Next series. He borrows liberally from dozens, if not hundreds, of other literary works, and transforms them utterly in the process. His manic postmodernism ain't for everybody, but it's a hell of an accomplishment either way, and I'm sure nuts about it.

And Meredith -- stranger things have happened...

Reece said...

Hey, who are you calling a member, Holm? While I did take this week's topic as a red-meat opportunity for a little bloggerly outrage, I definitely appreciate your point. Without mashups, the world wouldn't have cool stuff like "Midnight In A Perfect World" or Danger's Mouse's "The Grey Album." I know there are some critics who say that contextualizing content is a richer way of communicating than creating content, but I don't know if I'd go that far.

Chris said...

I wonder, Reece, if the critics who say that might be biased juat a tad by the fact their job consists of contextualizing content.

And if there's one thing we can all agree on, it's that Clandestine Classics' business model is tacky and awful. Funny thing is, they'll be forgotten in a week, while the novels they're supposedly ruining will persist for centuries...

Hilary Davidson said...

I love the James M. Cain quote. I saw the movie made from MILDRED PIERCE (the Joan Crawford version) long before I read the book, and I remember being shocked by the fact that the two have almost nothing in common. Cain makes an excellent point — his original work isn't tainted by its adaptations (and both are fascinating, though for different reasons).

Paul D Brazill said...

Didn't Q R Markham do the same thing with those old spy books?

Chris said...

Ha! Yeah, he just forgot to mention his, uh, postmodern genius when it came time to shop the thing...