J.M. Tyree in The Rumpus:
I suspect that everyone is always rewriting something or other, whether they are self-conscious about it or operating intuitively. It’s probably endemic to the literary impulse to wish to transform the works that gave us pleasure into something that brings someone else a similar sense of frisson. From Ulysses to Helen Oyeyemi’s latest book, Boy, Snow, Bird—a transplantation of the Snow White fairy tale to postwar New England—literature has always featured a share of deliberative rewriting projects.
In popular fiction, rewriting has become de rigueur: Patricia Park’s Re Jane features a contemporary Jane Eyre living in Flushing, Queens, while Jonathan Franzen’s forthcoming novel Purity, we’re told, will riff intriguingly on Dickens’s Great Expectations. Faced with this flood-tide of bestselling rewrites—Stephen King’s Finders Keepers, a sort of redo of Misery, and E. L. James’s Grey, her 50 Shades Take Two, the list goes on—it is tempting to rewrite the famous opening line of James Wood’s essay “Hysterical Realism”: “A genre is hardening.”
But maybe originality is not where it’s at. Perhaps the question isn’t whether authors should be rewriting but what they are rewriting, why, and how. If it is obvious by now that rewriting the classics has become a risk-averse niche-marketing strategy for an industry that is stale, flat, and unprofitable, that shouldn’t spoil the fun of our larger culture of remixing. TV and movies provide a useful analogy—just because Gotham feels like a listless prequel to the Batman saga doesn’t in any way nullify the sheer exuberance of filmmaking on display in the rebooted Mad Max Fury Road.
I take another cue from the documentary filmmaker Adam Curtis’s comments on pop music. He is right to be perturbed that we’re living in what he describes as a “static culture” or “zombie culture” in which art not only “feeds off the past” but also merely “replicates” the effects of other works of art, and in which artists begin to see themselves like “archeologists” or tomb robbers. The larger problem, according to Curtis, is a cultural world of “stuck on beards” where “so many things just go back and dig up the bloody grave.” Curtis calls for more musicians to emulate Rihanna and fewer to copy the copies produced by Mumford and Sons. He’s hoping to encourage artists to create the new from the old and discouraging them from simply reproducing the effects of previous works or inhabiting a dead style.