Being meta seems to be all the rage in contemporary fiction. Popular books like The Jane Austen Book Club, The Eyre Affair and The Dante Club all build upon classic works of fiction (the Jane Austen canon, Jane Eyre and the Divine Comedy, respectively). They’re not traditional modern adaptations (think the movie Clueless to the novel Emma), nor are they speculative prequels or sequels (such as Wide Sargasso Sea, a speculative prequel to Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre); they’re something completely unique.
The earliest evidence of this new sub-genre was most likely Michael Cunningham’s The Hours, a book that is, essentially, three different takes on Virginia Woof’s Mrs. Dalloway. One section of the book is about Woolf herself, a semi-biographical account of Woolf’s life at the time that she was writing Mrs. Dalloway. The second section is about a woman named Laura Brown, who is the quintessential suffering 1960s housewife, questioning her choices to be a wife and mother and finding solace in reading Woolf’s most famous novel. The final section is about a modern-day woman (conveniently named Clarissa) who is living a day that is shockingly similar to the one Mrs. Clarissa Dalloway experiences in her titular novel. Never before had a novel been treated in such a way, and readers responded with both reverence and revulsion. How dare Cunningham steal from Woolf like that?
But of course, writers have been borrowing and outright stealing from other writers for centuries. Dante even used Virgil as a character in his Divine Comedy. It’s a pretty solid literary technique, though the writer does make the assumption that his reader is familiar with the work he’s referencing. It’s doubtful that T.S. Eliot was worried that readers wouldn’t know who he was talking about in this line of The Love Song of Alfred J. Prufrock, “No! I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be.”
Even if the reader couldn’t attribute “To be or not to be” (the famous of all Hamlet quotes) to Shakespeare’s beloved tragedy, he would almost certainly had heard of Hamlet, even if he had little to no association with the character.
And if the author was concerned that his reader wouldn’t pick up on his reference, he could always just quote the work outright, as J.D. Salinger did in The Catcher in the Rye. Catcher’s narrator Holden Caulfield references a poem he loves, Coming Thru the Rye by Robert Burns. Holden has misunderstood the poem, and reappropriates it for his own desires, namely to become a “catcher in the rye” who will save innocent children from falling to their death. Burns’ poem has nothing to do with children potentially dying, or even children needing to be caught in the rye, so Holden’s misinterpretation of the verse is very telling about his own hang-ups and desires.
While utilizing the work of previous authors to help explain a character, a plot point, or just the author’s own point of view is certainly not a new literary tactic, it does seem that contemporary writers are taking more and more liberties with classic texts. While Salinger treated Burns’s poem with utmost respect in The Catcher in the Rye, and theres’ no doubt that Michael Cunningham worshipped Virginia Woolf, it’s hard to imagine that Seth Grahame-Smith had the utmost respect for Jane Austen’s talent and legacy when he wrote Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.