What does Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, the Grahame-Smith/Austen mash-up that pits the sisters Bennet against hordes of the undead while they try to navigate the propriety-minefield of Regency era England and get married in the process, tell us about the publishing industry? What could it possibly indicate about the current literary climate?
What the hell is a “literary climate” anyway?
Well, listen. Publishing companies have been going absolutely crazy for the last fifteenish years in their attempts to run their business like Goldman Sachs, hyping up big sellers while cutting cost on the lower ends: editors, imprints, and new authors. They’ve left the old model with a small and steady trickle of profit for a new paradigm that aims to make huge money but hasn’t been. There’s an excellent article about this trend in New York Magazine, which can be found here/.
Okay. So. The big-selling stand-bys—King, Brown, Koontz, Steele, Rowling—aren’t cutting it anymore (when you shoot a drug—in this case, money—into your eyeballs enough, you start to need a bigger dose), and nobody wants to give a reasonable advance to your recent MFA grad that wants to publish his first novel about lovers who murder each other (apologies to M. Doughty), so what’s going to happen?
Instead of paying new authors reams of money (actually, very little, all things considered) for something they worked on for years and years without even the guarantee of publication (can somebody please cut Helen DeWitt a check, please? For fuck’s sake…), publishing companies are putting out revised or alternate editions of old books, unfinished books, or books that were never deemed fit for publication, all by dead authors whose names are definitely going to move some product off the shelves.
This is brilliant! Publishers don’t need to dole out an advance to the author and risk that book being a flop, and they only have to pay royalty fees to the estate of the deceased author—and everyone knows that the royalty rates for books are mouseshit-small anyway!
This is brilliant. This is also a patently dick move.
But I’m not here to talk about whether The Original of Laura should be published or not, even though it goes against Nabokov’s dying wishes (honest opinion: it should be published, the same way Kafka’s books should have been and were published), I’m here to talk about zombies.
Take the strategy employed by the big publishers. Now, apply it to books in the public domain (which are completely free to anyone). Not only do you have books that already have an established market and demographic, but there’s also no overhead when it comes to securing licensing rights. Appropriating old texts and giving them a new spin is not a new idea (Kathy Acker, anyone?), but give an author, Seth Grahame-Smith, a pittance to add to Pride and Prejudice a couple of passages about zombies eating Bingley’s staff, Elizabeth Bennet eating a still-beating ninja’s heart, and characters throughout the novel vomiting in the presence of gore, and you’ve got yourself a goddamn gold mine.
I’m not exaggerating when I point my finger and shout, “Greed.” Here’s a quote about how this book—and many others which I’m sure will hit shelves soon—was conceived (taken from here):
[Jason] Rekulak, the editor of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, sat down with a list of popular novels in the public domain and another list of popular fanboy characters like ninjas, pirates, zombies and monkeys, and just drew lines between the two. “Once I saw Pride and Prejudice and zombies I knew we had a hit,” he said. Austen re-imaginings and horror have become exhausted as genres, Rekulak added, and combining them has breathed new life—and marketability—into both.
“Marketability” is an important word, here. So is “fanboy.” So is “the.”
Of course they’re trying to make money, though, they’re a for-profit business. However, paying little to no money for something that is guaranteed to easily make you money is hardly different from the recent trend in corporations, publishing houses included, to hire unpaid interns (slave laborers with newly-minted liberal arts degrees) instead of paid employees. There’s a trade-off there, a quality gap that results in an inefficient system.
And Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is a perfect example of something where quality was traded for cash. I, personally, was never a huge fan of Austen to begin with, I agree with Grahame-Smith’s sentiment that Pride and Prejudice is “sort of slow and unenjoyable.” Austen is witty, and her prose style is well wrought, but if I have to read about one more ball, about one more lapse of manners, about one more failed match, about…look, it’s just not my kind of book.
But some of the things that I actually liked about Pride and Prejudice were abandoned for things that are just terrible. Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is riddled with Orientalism, a blatant lack of authenticity in depictions of eastern culture that could have been really interesting and commented on the tendencies of art and literature that were occurring during that time, but instead we get Elizabeth constantly suppressing her homicidal urges, hiking up her skirt in an unladylike fashion to roundhouse kick zombies, sparring in her dojo, and having her fighting prowess constantly being viewed in the same terms as wealth and land ownership. All while going to balls, thinking Darcy is an ass, and eventually falling in love with him anyway. The subtlety is, for the most part, gone. What’s left? Something you can get out of a video game or movie.
I imagine much of the campiness and parody that was installed into the book was meant for humorous intent. But humor does not always a good book make.
Does Pride and Prejudice and Zombies have the potential to inspire young people to intelligently discuss 19th century novels while playing World of Warcraft?
“There are, like, so many misconceptions that can, like, occur when a social order is too restrictive and someone is too quick to judge someone, like when Elizabeth meets Mr. Darcy. Also, isn’t it remarkable how the commentary on wealth and social hierarchy is still totally salient today? Can somebody cure me?”
“OMFG, MR. dARCY IS SO HOTT.”
“Jane Bennet makes me want to cast Lvl 8 Penis of the Infinite on myself.”
“d00d, ur a fag.”
Honestly, I doubt it, but a girl can certainly dream. Anything that prompts people to read something, especially something new and outside what they’re used to, is a good thing in my opinion. But this idea seems more like a way to fill the coffers than to promote literacy, another ploy in a long line of schemes by publishing companies to make money by cutting costs and not taking risks on anything original.
If there’s a moral here, I guess it would be: just because you can doesn’t mean you should, but if you’re going to do it anyway, at least make it awesome. Let’s hope it does get people reading more so the demand for new and original work increases and publishers start putting out good books again, but I won’t be holding my breath for this scenario and neither should you.
- S.P. MacIntyre lives in Los Angeles, and is a reviewer of film, music and literature on Monsters and Critics. He is dispatched annually to report on the Coachella Music Festival, and also joined Sean Penn for the Dirty Hands Caravan Bus that went from Coachella to New Orleans in 2008: LINK