Wednesday, 18 July 2012

Why? Sexual Rewrites of Classics

I want to apologize in advance because this post might turn into a rant but I am sorting out my thoughts while writing. Yesterday I was watching Channel 4 News when they brought an item about the rewriting of some classic novels to "be more modern", which was a fancy way of saying that they added sex, just because 'Fifty Shades of Grey' is popular.

I believe that there is a fundamental difference between novels such as 'Lady Chatterley's Lover', 'Jane Eyre', 'Moby Dick' or 'A Christmas Carrol' and books such as 'Twilight' and 'Fifty Shades of Grey'. The former are classics which means that throughout the years and decades these novels have proven they have a pull and are attractive to people from every generation. They make the reader think, question him, even if the reader isn't aware of it immediately. They have the ability to be more than entertainment. The latter are fads, they are novels that garner interest, become a craze, cause a whole mountain of similar books to be written and then the public is interested in something else and the process starts again. It is a momentary pleasure. First it was vampire novels, now it is bondage and who knows what it will be next. But why would we subjugate books that have proven themselves to be valuable to a temporary craze?

My problem is not so much the writing of sex scenes including literary characters. I see it as a way of spoofing or parodying the original work for entertainment. I have been looking through the reviews on Amazon of some of those rewrites and most of the people comment on the fact that it is funny to read. There is nothing wrong with this. Classics have always been spoofed because people have read the actual works and are able to appreciate the way that the added scenes change or enrich the story. But last night, I felt it went beyond that. According to Zoe Margolis, 'sex-blogger and author', these rewrites are a way for a 'new audience to access' the books who would otherwise 'never access or read this content' and that it would be snobbish to not want to change the books.

It is not snobbish to want to preserve the classics the way they were written. They are the intellectual property of an author, even if he/she is dead, who intended a novel to be written and structured in a certain way. Every amateur author can testify how difficult it is to structure a page of writing or to find the right word. By adding sex scenes and presenting them as a new version, not just a parody, you are changing the book and the plot and, in my opinion, lose some of the essence of a novel. If a reader has no interest in 'Sherlock Holmes' until he/she finds out someone rewrote it with a homosexual relationship between Holmes and Watson, then I dare to say that they are not introduced to the book as Margolis seems to think, but they are simply part of a craze and will immediately move on to the next book.
Raunchy remix: In the e-book, Elizabeth thinks Darcy is 'hot, spicy and all man'
John Sutherland felt that the rewriting classics with sex scenes and presenting it as more accessible, portrayed the original novels as 'inadequate', as if the lack of sex scenes was a deficit that had to be made up for. Is something missing from these novels that is quintessential to our time and does that mean that young people cannot appreciate them nowadays? I don't think so and all I can do is take myself as an example. I am very much a creation of my generation and circumstances. I am used to Internet being always accessible, being able to contact everyone everywhere and that entertainment is delivered at my door. But I still love the classics the way they are. Novels such as 'Wuthering Height's, 'Pride & Prejudice' and Shakespearean plays write about core human values such as honour, friendship, love and trust. They tread the fine line between representing the time in which they were written and representing humanity. Take a novel like 'Pride and Prejudice'. Of course Jane Austen was restricted by the time in which she wrote, sex wasn't discussed as openly and perhaps didn't have the same importance. But the physical and emotional attraction between Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth Bennet is obvious in Austen's writing.

Does it have to be written down explicitly because we can't imagine it anymore? Where has our imagination gone? It is almost as if an author has to write down that two people in love will have sex, because if they don't the reader will think they won't. If an author writes about a relationship, can the reader not imagine what else happens? When you read the strawberry scene in Hardy's 'Tess of the D'Urbervilles' the sexual undertone and innuendo is obvious enough. He is pushing a strawberry in and out of her mouth, how much clearer can you get! And is it not much more fun to be able to use your imagination and create a personal reading experience than having it all written out for you so you can read it and then move on?

Claire Siemaszkiewicz of Total-E-Bound, which is publishing the collection, said that there is so much sexual tension underpinning these books that if they had been alive today the novels would most  certainly have been more risqué, if not erotic novels in the first place.’ I dare to disagree. The suspense and tension in 'Wuthering Heights' is created by the fact that Heathcliff and Cathy cannot have each other and bringing them together destroys the plot. Emily Bronte would not have done that. Jane Eyre and Mr. Rochester cannot truly be united until Jane has her independence and her own money, at which point they become true equals. By her subjugating herself to Rochester in BDSM sex Jane loses some of her pride and ideals. Charlotte Bronte would not have done that. They wanted to write about more than just that and expected more from their reader. Look at the examples below. In whose world does this fit into the novels? Jane Eyre is 'schooled' by Rochester and is 'weak'?

Sexed Up

Something Margolis seems to believe is that sex is 'hushed up' in our society and that by adding sex to classics we are able to be more open about it. Where has that belief come from? John Snow, the Channel 4 News presenter, mentioned the Sexual Revolution that has taken place and I really don't feel that there is not enough attention for sex in our society. 'Lady Chatterley's Lover' has been openly published in the UK for 50 year  and deals with sex very openly. And who hasn't seen the many novellas in which a duke seduces a poor maid or in which a lady is ravished by a young squire? We have realized that sex sells and companies, movies, tv series and the music industry have caught onto that. In a society where sex is really hushed up, 'Fifty Shades of Grey' could never become a phenomenon. 

In short, I feel the classics do not have to be changed every time the public is interested in something different. There is nothing wrong with writing parodies, but the key element to parodies is that the reader has to know the original work to be able to appreciate the changes. And as long as the changes are made for the sake of the change themselves and the sake of selling more Ebooks and maintaining a craze, I think it is silly to blow it up into an issue of getting more people to read or make sex a more open subject.

Rant finished. So, what are your thoughts? Do you think the classics would be served with more sex?

Thanks to Claudia over at Lit Hitchhiker, I was alerted to another great post on sexual rewrites of classics that shows it is not just a thing of our age.


  1. WOW.
    Yes, I think you did rant a little, but there isnt anything wrong with that. It just means this is something you feel passionatly about.
    Anyways... I agree, for the most part. I do feel like the Classics CAN be adjusted for more modern times, and maybe even have a little sex scene. That doesnt mean that the classics are lacking, but its just a little extra added to the stories.
    That being said though, sometimes I get angry when people remake stories just because they think they can make the original better in some way.
    Oh well...
    Great post though! :)

    1. Thanks you for you comment :) I also think they should spend more time on writing their own stories!!

  2. I can't tell you enough how much I agree with your post. I think people who try to "sex up" the classics are really just dumbing them down. They are reducing things to the lowest common denominator, which is one of the greatest tragedies in our society.

    The beauty of the classics is that writers take the time and effort to write about sexual relations between people without being obscene, drawing heavily on the reader's own experience to fill in the blanks. They also represent the social mores of the time.

    One of my greatest pet peeves is the fact that we in our post-modern age lack so much imagination and are so myopic that we try to force history into our own context. I should stop. I feel a rant coming on.

    Maybe the authors who are so excited about sexing up the classics should exercise their imaginations a bit more and come up with their own plots.

    1. I think imagination is crucial to being able to truly enjoy reading! :) Thank you for your nice comment!

  3. I think the books themselves are probably more sexual than if sex scenes were included, because the act of sex is a release of tension, but it's the sexual tension that makes them more, well, sexy. People say there's obvious sexual tension in these books, and I would agree, and it's possible the author didn't include any actual sex scenes because their audience didn't want them. At the same time, the sex scenes may have taken away from the writing and the story. I really think this is about a difference in culture between then and now, and how audiences have begun to expect steamy sex in their bestsellers.

    Great post!

    1. Exactly, the sexual tension in some novels is amazing and makes the novel so much more interesting than giving the reader what they want immediately! Thanks for your comment!

  4. They should leave it alone because those books represents the feel and culture at that time. Yes they have sex but talking about it is taboo the same way they considered the Waltz as a modern, scandalous dance centuries before it became acceptable.

  5. I completely agree with this post.
    If people don't want to read classics because there aren't any sex scenes, that's fine. There are plenty of books that include some sex scenes and not all of them are newer books. Just browse the romance section of any used bookstore and VOILA.
    I think there are enough different genres and writing styles to appeal to any reader. I also think reading ANYTHING in general is bound to eventually widen your reading tastes and you'll get to the classics eventually. I don't agree with adding sex to them to get people to flock to them. They have already proven to stand the test of time and I don't think they should be ruined. I agree with the parody thing, but they are marketed as a parody and that doesn't bother me.
    I don't think sex is hushed up in our society, really. I think in some instances, we are over-stimulated with sex in just about every form of entertainment. I wonder if that's why so many adult readers have flocked to YA. There, they can enjoy romance and tension without sex scenes (or at least very few).
    I enjoy a good book with sex in it, don't get me wrong, but I just don't think they need to be inserted into books that have been selling for decades/centuries without it.

    1. Exactly, why change the classics to force them onto people who don't want to read them yet?
      Thanks for commenting! :)

  6. OMG! It wasn't bad enough that we have to mix Austen and zombies (and sea monsters and whatever the heck else is gonna sell books). Now we have to rewrite the classics so the masses can relate to them? Because the masses can't relate to anything but blatant sex. Wow. Just Wow. I won't hijack your post for a rant of my own. But well said--I absolutely agree with you!

  7. I wish I hadn't read this post because now I am angry too! Do people not understand subtlety?

    1. Hahaha, sorry I made you mad! I suggest writing a rant post, it helps! ;)

  8. UGH! I didn't know about this! It seriously bothers me that people want to rewrite the classics! I hate it when people try to do that - to take an older book and update it for modern times. NO! The book was written in a certain time, it represents a way of life from then - don't change it! I think it's awful.

  9. Honestly sometimes the sexual tension is better in the books than the characters actually giving into it; its what makes the books so good. I find blatant sex unattractive.

  10. This is an amazing post. EXTREMELY well-argued.

  11. Brilliant post. I will come back with a more coherent opinion when I am less tired, but just wanted to say that a friend and I were having a conversation tonight about how neither of us knows anybody who has read 50 Shades of Grey and actually liked it. Everybody is reading because everybody else is reading it. I know a lot more people who have seriously loved Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights etc, even (shock, horror) a lot of young teenagers. I was 13 the first time I read Jane Eyre, and at no point have I ever felt that the classics needed more sex. It's just disrespectful.

  12. I want to start by saying that your post is wonderful and builds a very compelling case. But I’ll try to argue for the other side here :)

    "Why would we subjugate books that have proven themselves to be valuable to a temporary craze?"

    First of all, this is not a new thing. Classic works have spawned not only numerous spin-offs, but also erotic retellings. I was recently fascinated by this post that mentions examples that go back to the 1940s. I don’t think these new retellings will affect the original works or their reputations any more than the old retellings did. (Although, admittedly, the new ones have the advantage of better mass-media and a different attitude to sex.) In other words, we are keeping the classics the way they were. No one is tempering with the originals; anyone can still read Jane Eyre as Charlotte intended it. People are just producing derivative works, the way they’ve always done.

    But trying a more general argument: if the classics are classics, if they are good and valuable, then they must withstand stuff like this. They are timeless because they endured many temporary crazes and were not diminished by it. They have proven themselves to be valuable. I can’t think of them both as literary giants and having to be defended from every fly. Their readership is not – and never was – monolithic either. If we are to accept that people can see different meanings in books, then we must accept the possibility that some of these meanings will be stupid. (Like, I think, ignoring the fact that the characters do not have sex in these books, even off the page, for a reason is.) If we are to allow good writers to play with these books (and praise them for it too), then we can’t bristle when bad writers want to do it. We can’t even say, “Oh, but they do it for the money, not for art’s sake,” because it’s hard to draw the line there. A lot of classic authors did write for money and some of them were not shy to exploit the sensational aspects of their (otherwise brilliant) novels to try to sell more copies. (Faulkner, bless his heart, told ever publisher willing to listen that his books were about miscegenation and incest.)

    So what I am saying is that I’m not comfortable with a “Hands off the classics!” approach and I’m even less comfortable with a selective “Hands off the classics!” approach (where sex, for example, seems to set off people’s radars the way zombies or the youth of soon-to-be madwomen in the attic did not).

    Okay, so this turned into a mini counter-rant here, but your post was very thought-provoking :D Thank you for writing it!

    1. I am actually happy someone is giving me a counter-argument and I you make great points :)I did try not to be too 'Hands off the Classics!', but I was ranting so I guess that might not have worked.

      I do think there is nothing wrong with spin-offs off of classics, especially if they are well written, and I think they are a great way of introducing people to the classics themselves. Even badly written ones have their merit. What annoyed me in this instant was that the classics were presented by the guest on the show as almost sexless themselves, as if the original authors had pushed the issue of sex away, whereas they didn't in many instances, as you point out. Also perhaps in some way I feel they are tempering with the originals by fusing the new sex scenes in with the original text. It implies there was something crucial missing, rather than showing a different spin on the story.

      Thanks for commenting and for leaving a link to the other post, I'm going to check that one out right away! :)

    2. Hmm, this raises a very interesting problem that I hadn't thought about: the implications of using the original text. I mean, you are still a plagiarist even if the work you're stealing from is out of copyright. And it's a delicate balance to figure out how much of the original text you can use for it to still be okay. Is copying the whole of a book and adding say two or three sex scenes to it enough for it to qualify as your own work? (Or even as a work you've "co-written" with Austen, only that she's gracious and dead enough to let you pocket all the money?) So yeah, there I can definitely see a problem as to what constitutes acceptable writing/publishing practices.

  13. Yes! Yes! Yes!
    The parodies and spin-offs can be amusing and they only work as such because the original is well-known and loved. A parady of a book that no-one has ever heard of misses the point completely.
    I can't but help feel though, that this all about money and not amusement. Fifty Shades has been a boom for the publisher and booksellers. People who don't normally read have been reading the Grey trilogy.
    Other publishers see this and they want some of the action.
    I'm a bookseller - I can tell you that some up-coming titles include 50 Sheds of Grey and 50 Shades of Grey Matter - they make me smile, but I doubt that I will buy one. But many others will.
    The mighty dollar once again wins out.