Would you touch up the Mona Lisa?

I read an article by the incomparable Remittance Girl yesterday that brought into my view something that I find disturbing.  An erotica publisher is creating an imprint that will be giving classics an erotic makeover.  Actually, a makeover isn’t the right word.  They are having their authors write “missing” scenes and inserting them into the existing manuscript.

I found myself a bit stunned, and yet not surprised at all, by this news yesterday.  In the light of recent events and the success of an erotic romance novel this gimmick isn’t surprising at all.  And, as the founder of the company states in the Independent, I’m sure they will sell some of these things.  There are many frantic business decisions being made in the publishing world trying to capitalize on a market that’s always been there but is now very visible, even as it’s made “safe” by calling it mommy porn.

As a reader and a writer, however, I find the news deeply disturbing.  While Jane Austen, Charlotte Bronte, Jules Verne, and the others getting this treatment may have been willing to write sex into their stories had they been writing in the current era, these writers lived in a very different time.  Art of  every kind is a reflection of the artist as well as the culture within which it is conceived.  Whether you’re visiting a museum to take in the skill and artistry of paintings and sculptures or paging through one of the classic novels you’re experiencing the creator’s view of the world.  Adding to these works is, to me, the same as the image above.

The concept of inserting scenes into another writer’s work ignores the integrity of it.  There’s a pace to every story.  A rhythm that guides or pulls the reader through it.  In good books there are negative spaces left to engage the readers and allow them to be a part of the story, to give the readers a chance to invest some imagination.  These are the books that people remember and read again and again.  Because the story comes alive with the addition of the reader’s perceptions and understandings.

Any writer I know would be furious to discover that a publisher had their story “edited” in such a way.  If I write a story and I’ve chosen to have a high level of sexual tension but little sex, that’s because the story is meant to be told that way.  To go back and change another’s work just to make it more palatable to the public is the antithesis of what reading means to me.

These classics aren’t being made over or spoofed.  They are having the arc of their plots and their storylines interrupted with sex scenes that are there purely for titillation.  And, truly, that’s the only reason they are being added.  They aren’t necessary for the story to move forward; the story is complete in its original form.  They aren’t going to reveal some new aspect of the characters; the books were written to expose the characters as needed already.  Every submission guidline I’ve ever read for erotica publishers states that the sex can’t be there just for the sake of it.  It has to have meaning, it has to move the story along or reveal something about the characters.

When I started writing erotica the definition that made the most sense to me was that the story or the characters are exposed through sex.  For me, that explained why so many of my stories in the past fell short; I was trying to keep the sex out of the story, thinking it didn’t belong.  If the writers of the classics were trying to avoid sex they did it in a manner that doesn’t leave the story wanting.  They told these tales in a way that has made them the books that they are.

So if a new group of people are exposed to the classics through these mock versions, are they really experiencing them?  If the reader needs to have things written out so clearly, does it really matter that they’re reading Pride and Prejudice or Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea?

One of the first things I thought about these new “books” is that if I were to end up with one in hand, I would skip the sex scenes.  It wouldn’t take long for a reader to realize that there’s nothing to be learned, no plot devices, no story, in those scenes.  I can always tell when an author isn’t using a sex scene well; I don’t read them.

It seems to me these books are less about exposing new readers to the classics and more about getting racy books out fast.  How long would it take a writer to do a modern take on Pride and Prejudice?  The original novel is more than 120 thousand words.  Instead of letting that novel inspire a new take on it they’re just going to add some more words and push it through.  No character development, no plot, no worries about extensive editing and so forth.  It’s cheap, fast, and easy.  Well.  Doesn’t that sum up modern cultural expectations?



6 thoughts on “Would you touch up the Mona Lisa?

  1. Beautifully said – it’s a bit sad (if awfully commonplace, though), how often ‘great works’ are imitated (not always a bad thing, young artists need the exercise) if not completely ripped off. We see it in everything: art, writing and music (can you imagine if Justin Bieber decided to rewrite a Beatles song with his own lyrics?). A Paul Simon lyric goes how ‘these days’ ‘magical is art’ – his commentary being that we’ve sold out the real thing for the imitation. I’m a musician, so I tend to skew to those metaphors: Andrew Lloyd Webber instead of Puccini. But who understands why one is ‘better’ than the other (and who cares anymore)?

    Publishers have found the ‘perfect’ sell: combining a well-known work with sex. A bored, overfed culture gets its just reward.

    Just means we have to work that much harder for what we do and for so much less – but I don’t think it’s ever been more worthwhile. It’s essential.

  2. Well written. I posted the link to the original blog post on Facebook. I think more people need to be reading this. I’ve always said that the arts are subjective. If everyone enjoyed the same type and genre of music, art, literature, theatre, etc. there would be no variety, no richness to these experiences, no sense of luxury.

    While I think that education for the masses is a good thing, I do not agree with the dumbing down of society as a whole. And if you have to explain everything in order for people to understand, we might as well just have a tv plugged into our brain and be done with it.

  3. So well said. Argh… this makes my blood boil; but I won’t reiterate what you’ve already said so well. Two other things occur to me though:

    It might be poignant to point out that Bridget Jones’s Diary is a, for all intents and purposes, a brilliant reworking of Pride and Prejudice; funny and it doesn’t seem to make reading Pride and Prejudice at all obsolete. If anything, it’s an homage. It just popped into my head as I was reading your article and I felt it might be good to state the difference.

    The other thing is that by adding sex scenes to classics, you not only gain a lot of useless and (I think) disrespectful content, you actually lose something as well. Although the majority of writers didn’t (and don’t) write explicit sex, many suggested it. Just a mention of how someone moves or a hand placed on a waist… books about relationships – excuse me – GOOD books about relationships always have that suggestion and allusion to sex, because it’s so integral to the relationships… and those slightly suggestions are SO erotically charged. There’s a reason people get off to Regency fantasies. These books already have the most brilliant and subtle sexuality in them. And I should imagine that by adding sex scenes to classics, what is already there is horribly overshadowed.

  4. Lovely post, Aisling. I personally find the idea of simply “rewriting” someone’s work in virtually any way without that person’s consent anathema, whether it’s technically in the “public domain” or not. It seems to me like an absence of respect for the art of writing.

    Thanks for sharing this.

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