Sunday, December 13, 2015

Cover Stories

By Kasie Whitener 

Several years ago, publishers sought texts that reimagined literary classics with new pop-culture elements in what Time Magazine called a literary land grab.” The frenzy was in choosing which classic texts to twist.

There are a million ways to tell the same story such as Marissa Meyer adopting Cinderella to cyborgs in the futuristic “Lunar Chronicles” (2012). Fairy tales are expected to be revived and re-told (think “Into the Woods”), but really good bent-classic fiction focuses on universal themes to achieve cohesion in the story.

Well ahead of the surge, Gregory Maguire’s Wicked (1995) looked at the Wizard of Oz from a different perspective, examining tyranny and disenfranchisement. Seth Grahame-Smith’s Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (2008) deftly made zombies as real a threat to Jane Austen’s characters as money, gender roles, and polite society.

Despite some authors’ lament that writers who use another’s work are unoriginal at best and plagiaristic at worst, I’m thrilled by the literary acrobatics of such work.

Recently one of my favorite musicians, Ryan Adams, re-created the Taylor Swift album 1989. This undertaking was remarkable for two reasons: 1) the original album was only recently released (2014) and Adams’ version followed only a year later and 2) he covered the entire album, every song.

A lot of musicians do cover songs. Colbie Callait did this mash-up of “Break Even” and “Fast Car” in 2011. Chris Cornell recently released a cover of Prince’s “Nothing Compares 2 U,” a song made famous by Sinead O’Connor in 1990. Many even do it better than the original. Stevie Wonder recorded “Higher Ground” in 1973 but the Red Hot Chili Peppers released the definitive work in 1989.

Musicians cover songs to pay homage to the original artists, to experience the emotions and complexity of the work, and to redefine the art itself. While Johnny Cash’s version of the Nine Inch Nails song “Hurt” seems like a wild mismatch — the former being country music legend and the latter heavy-metal gothic rock band — the subject of addiction created a bridge between the artists and the two interpretations are equally haunting.

When writers interpret one another’s work, either through critique and discussion or analysis and debate, we elevate the art. By identifying and examining themes, we sew ourselves into the fabric of our craft. We are redefining old stories and paying homage to the work that came before ours.

It’s sometimes called ‘fan fiction’ and writers like Stephanie Barron (The Jane Austen Mystery series) have made a living at it. But it’s more than imitation, I think. It’s a way of covering another artist’s work and by doing so, elevating the entire artistic medium of storytelling.

I like the idea that all writers are part of the same quilt, wielders of the same needle and thread, blanketing the world in our stories. When we break out of strict marketing genres and mix styles and elements, we create a world where anything is possible. A fictional world.

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