The Fantastic Doublethink of Clandestine Classics

I’d be lying if I said I felt surprised when I heard that an adult e-book publisher, Total E-Bound Publishing, is preparing to release a new collection of books called Clandestine Classics. That’s right: this company has decided to remake classic works such as Pride and Prejudice and Jane Eyre in erotic fashion.

The Situation

Let’s get the painful part over with as soon as possible. (Sigh) Here’s an excerpt from the text of the new, revamped version of the popular Austen novel:

“Elizabeth trailed kisses along his throat and neck until she reached his earlobe and took it between her teeth. “Please take me,” she whispered. “I need it. I ache for it.” Her words were met with only a grunt of approval by Darcy.

He pulled back from her and checked their surroundings, partly to assure they were alone, but also to discover a hiding place for them that was away from the road. He took hold of Elizabeth’s hand and pulled her away from the lane to the trees beyond. They walked on for a short time until they came to a small clearing and without another word, he pulled her to the ground, laying her down on the grass and covering her body with his.”

Ok, now that that is over with…

As I said, I’m not surprised. We all know how well Fifty Shades of Grey is selling. And while I used to, for many years, rail in anguish at the brain atrophy I thought was generally caused by trashy romance novels, I have to face an inconvenient truth: it’s what many people want.

I guess I understand now how foodie friends of mine feel when I happily declare my love for Taco Bell food (I’m using the term food liberally), and I have more sympathy for the grimaces I invoke on the faces of my music nerd acquaintances when I unabashedly indulge in the music of Katy Perry and tunes such as “Call Me Maybe”. Of course, personally, I feel like what we read, and therefore what we intellectually consume, completely trumps what we listen to, and yes, in some ways what we eat, but I can’t deny the facts: just as I have a right to feel distraught at the popular literary inclinations of this new century, people have the right to like what garbage they please.

However, in light of this recent news, I’m happy to report I feel strangely serene. Clandestine Classics has helped me ascertain what I only felt viscerally and non-verbally until now. The publishers’ marketing decision has settled in my mind, once and for all, simply and even elegantly, why trashy romance novels are in fact not worth reading, moving beyond mere matters of taste. Erotic romance novels are by nature vapid, and the only thing that should make me angry is if the producers of them claim they are doing some sort of public service by making them available to the masses.

Two Assertions Made by CC (the abbrev. I will be using henceforth)

If you’re lucky, you could be reading this hot ticket in a few weeks!

The publishers of Clandestine Classics make two assertions which I think are very pertinent to this discussion. The founder of the company, Claire Siemaszkiewicz, has been quoted as saying that the new editions seek to “enhance the novels by adding the ‘missing’ scenes for readers to enjoy” (as quoted in this Independent article). She goes on to say that “We’ll be bringing the classics to a new generation of readers as well as to people who love the classics but would like to see what we have done with them.”

“Introducing” Works

This assertion of introduction is absurd for a few reasons. New generations of readers are already exposed to many classics of Western civilization in school (whether they choose to engage with the material then or not). And before we get into any socioeconomic debates about education quality being available to different parts of the population, let’s remember that these racy new editions will be e-books; I highly doubt most people who are going to download these books will be thinking, “Huh, I wonder who this Brontë chick is?”

Fair point, CC might argue, but what about people who never wanted to read or engage with the classics, but will now give it a shot due to its newly-installed sexiness?

Think of it this way: classics are, well, classic because, due to their quality and thematic importance, they have stood the test of time. Bearing this well-worn cliché in mind, I’ll be the first to recognize that classics are becoming more and more difficult to access. The English language did indeed work much differently in the 18th century, and this is why the work of educators who help introduce neophytes to these texts has become more crucial than ever before.

But, despite the mounting difficulty, the text of these works must remain uncorrupted if they are to be appreciated for what they are and what they have achieved. Summaries are useful for dealing with complex ideas, and who doesn’t like really creative fan fiction for works we already know so well? But the work completely ceases to be once you change the language, forget changing the plot. Once you add scenes that were not only there before, but that completely contrast with original themes in the work, you’re not introducing new generations of readers to anything. If you’ve read Jane Eyre, found it boring, and need lines such as these to make it interesting:

“Though the sun had been swallowed by eve, the intent was as clear as a spring brook. Mr Rochester would have me.”

that is entirely your own problem. But to say reading the original classic, now soaked in sappy lines such as the above, will get you interested in a classic work you would have ignored before, is ridiculous.

The Same Old Story

Another gem I found on the CC blog page was this quote: “If we are honest to ourselves haven’t we heard the same reserved tale told time and time again?”

I completely agree, though not in the way this publisher would expect. Clandestine Classics is advertising their collection on the basis of giving you new, steamy views of, wait for it:

“Our favorite, most-beloved British characters.”

This, for me, was the moment of truth, where much of my initial annoyance fell away. This was when I realized why trashy romance novels bothered me, but also why they are truly not any kind of threat. Erotic romance novels cannot create any sort of memorable characters on their own.

All these books are the SAME thing. Sure, the description of sex can vary, as can the color of the characters eyes and hair (though I think green-eyed brunettes are popular). Maybe even the characters jobs might be different. But it is, without a doubt the “same tale told time and time again”. And because of this, savvy erotic publishers want to now simultaneously ride the bandwagon created by the popularity of Fifty Shades while also drawing from the creativity of classic literature.

Since I usually avoid even vague physical proximity with these books, I can’t say with certainty why it is the case that trashy romance characters are so forgettable. I’ve heard people argue that, especially in the case of the women in these books, characters by essence should be undistinguished in personality so that readers can more easily fantasize about placing themselves (or others they know) in the story.

But maybe it’s more basic than that: maybe people would just rather focus on how glistening the hero’s perfectly sculpted abs are, or just what said hero is doing with his hands to the female protagonist, than what either of these figures are actually like as people. Who needs personality when you have expert cunnilingus going on in the scene (or in many scenes)?

(Author’s Note): I will admit, one creature I can’t tackle with this argument is Twilight. I have to recognize that, in light of this piece I’m writing, I can no longer consider it a typical romance novel, something I was very inclined to do before. Maybe the supernatural elements make it stand out (sexy vampires), or maybe because they hold out on the sexy times for so much of the series. Who knows.

In any case, while I realize how depressing it is that the founder of this company is right, that there is a “100% ” certainty of a market for these new works, it’s also nice to confirm that trashy romance novels are 100% garbage. Because only then can you state, without any doubt or fear of appearing intolerant, that certain things are worth (or not worth) reading, which is the first step in determining what, in fact, is worth reading.

The bottom line?

There’s a reason we read Austen and Brontë and forget the penny dreadfuls of the past. Unfortunately for the 21st century, it has become far more acceptable and profitable to enjoy and advertise for penny dreadfuls. But we need not exalt them as anything approaching worthwhile. While we can withhold our judgement of those who enjoy them (to each his own, and whatnot), I do think it is very important to recognize what, exactly, these new “books” are. I can enjoy my Taco Bell, with all the guilty-pleasure-induced destruction it may cause to my insides. But the moment I start to claim it is a good introduction to Mexican food, that is where someone has to draw the line.

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