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Why Erotic Makeovers for the Classics Are 50 Shades Too Far

Posted: 17/07/2012 17:03

Have you had a ride on the 50 Shades Of Grey bandwagon yet? Or is it a gravy train? It's hard to tell - the seats are all swings and the seatbelts are handcuffs. I'd ask the driver, but he's been told to keep zip.

We've had a lot of fun with this year's publishing phenomenon on HuffPost UK Culture - more fun than Potter or Dan Brown combined.

From parodies to literary boyfriends to the book world's worst sex scenes, we've been as guilty as anyone else of making the most of one those wonderful, rare periods when it's the name of a book that's on everyone's lips.

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But when this morning brought the news that a publishing house were planning to rework classics like Jane Eyre and Pride and Prejudice to include 'explosive sex scenes', something about the idea jarred. The first reaction, from the team and users alike, seemed to be: isn't this '50 Shades Of Too Far'?

Clandestine Classics, the adult fiction publishers sought to justify the decision to crowbar 'bondage scenes between Catherine and Heathcliff' into Wuthering Heights and sex scenes between Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson into classics by Arthur Conan Doyle by suggesting the authors themselves might have quite approved.

"I've often wondered whether the Bronte sisters, if they were alive today, would have gone down the erotic romance route," mused Claire Siemaszkiewicz, the company founder.

"There's a lot of underlying sexual tension in their stories."

Perhaps it hasn't occurred to Siemaszkiewicz that the sexual tension is 'underlying' for a reason, and that Emily Bronte decided not to have Catherine and Heathcliff ravish each other in a pile of hay for reasons of craft, rather than simply because she was living through less enlightened times than ours.

A quick poll of the office's biggest Bronte fans reveals that it is precisely the unconsummated, spiritual nature of the pair's love that makes Wuthering Heights one of the most exciting and romantic stories ever written.

But let's be honest here, any literary justification for this has to be entirely disingenuous. The eye-watering arrogance of Clandestine Classics assuming they have the 'missing scenes' from works of genius aside, the telling sentence in Siemaszkiewicz's statement was this:

"People are going to either love it or hate it. But we're 100% convinced that there's a market there."

Cashing in is the name of the game here, no different really from when the porn film industry feeds off the mainstream by making Shaving Ryan's Privates or Shindler's Fist.

But Siemaszkiewicz does make one further attempt to dress up the concept by claiming that their range of e-books will "bring the classics to a new generation of readers".

It's here that I begin to wonder whether Clandestine Classics might be right, and - through gritted teeth - whether the whole thing would therefore be an entirely bad idea.

Believing the classics to be sacred and inherently more important and worthwhile than most best-selling fiction is a cultural snobbery I subscribe to wholeheartedly - up until a crucial point where people begin to believe audiences can be similarly carved up into 'us and them', 'literary types' and 'readers of trash'.

Recently I've had the privilege of seeing firsthand the work of the Reader Organisation, who take the classics into groups and communities of people who weren't fortunate enough to be exposed to Shakespeare or Dickens at school or university.

Unsurprisingly they prove that the great stories of our times have something to offer everybody, whether academically 'trained' to appreciate Shakespeare or not. It's simply a case of how you frame and discuss the text.

What we often forget is that almost all of the canon was written for the general public in the first place, and so perhaps a racy cover and a promise of 50 Shades-style fun will entice people who otherwise look to Katie Price for their holiday reading to discover a bond they never knew they had with Jane Austen.

Perhaps, for all these years, all it would have took to release the great works of fiction from the grasp of the cultural elite and reclaim them for the people was a little light spanking and some kinky bed scenes.

Hell, maybe I'd have even gotten through Crime And Punishment myself by now if Raskolnikov hooked up with some Scarlett Johansson figure for a night of nookie at the end of chapter three.

But even if Clandestine Classics' unlikely prediction comes true, and a new generation of readers come for the sex but stay for the fiction, it'll still stick in the throats of people who already loved Bronte and Conan Doyle and those other long-dead heroes of literature.

Because Wuthering Heights doesn't need bondage anymore than Holden Caulfield needs a wizard's hat or The Scream needs a stenciled rat.

The classics have always been sexy enough as they are. We just need other - better - ways to prove it than this.

 

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