Monday, January 18, 2010

Guest Post: Ben H. Winters, author of Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters

Today, I'm happy to welcome Ben H. Winters to Diary of an Eccentric.  Ben is the co-author of Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters (which I reviewed here), the latest Jane Austen mashup from Quirk Books.

Here's what Ben has to say about the process of adding sea monsters to Austen's Sense and Sensibility:

Jane is my Co-Pilot: The Fine Art of Making Sense and Sensibility Totally Ridiculous

Since writing Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters, I've gotten a ton of feedback about how nice it is that I've made Jane Austen appealing to certain readers -- meaning readers who previously suffered a persistent allergy to The Classics. I am complimented for taking the prim and decorous Jane Austen and making her, A) really violent, and B) really funny.

The first compliment I will gladly accept. Over the decades since Sense and Sensibility first appeared, it has been noted by scholars and casual readers alike that the book is sorely lacking in shipwrecks, shark attacks, and vividly described decapitations. I believe it was the poet and critic Thomas Chatterton who admired the novel's careful plotting and social critique, but lamented the total absence of vengeful ghost pirates.

But I can't take credit for making Jane Austen funny. As is well known by passionate fans of Austen -- I have yet to meet any other kind -- the old girl has always been funny. Take for example Mr. and Mrs. Palmer, a set of secondary characters in Sense and Sensibility. The periodic appearances of the Palmers comprise what any comedy writer will recognize as a running gag. Mrs. Palmer is chatty and trivial, while Mr. Palmer (a delightful Hugh Laurie in the Ang Lee version) is gruff and unaffectionate. What Mrs. Palmer labels "droll," the reader -- along with Elinor, our sensible heroine -- recognizes as plain distaste for his wife, her friends, and everybody else in the universe. Every time those Palmers show up, we know we're in for the next variation on the same great gag.

Note that Austen doesn't do to the Palmers what Charles Dickens would: Exaggerate their core traits to the point of absurdity. (Also, she doesn't name them something like Mr. and Mrs. Featherwit). The Palmers are funny, but they're plausible, and their primary function in the book is to provide not laughs, but a corrective to Marianne's rosy ideal of married life. So Austen makes them funny, but not ridiculous.

Making them ridiculous was my job. When the Palmers appear in my monsterfied Sensibility, I give Mr. Palmer's drollery a murky, weird-tales back story, part of the preposterously elaborate foreshadowing of my H.P. Lovecraft-inspired denouement.

I play the same game, of comically amplifying what's already there, in varying ways throughout the book. Colonel Brandon, stiff and formal and middle-aged, becomes a stiff and formal and middle-aged man-monster. Genial Sir John becomes genial adventurer/explorer Sir John. Had Austen made all her characters ridiculous in that Dickensian way, if she had been the kind of writer who is forever winking at her readers, my book would be (as they say in improv comedy) a hat on a hat. But because Sense and Sensibility is so eloquent and restrained, Sea Monsters gets to go way over the top.

This is true even on the simple level of vocabulary. Austen's precise early-19th century diction is the textual equivalent of Eustace Tilly, the top-hatted, monocled figure from the cover of the New Yorker: Her writing simply oozes good taste. The trick was to appropriate that ever-so-tasteful and old-timey Austenian style to describe things she never would have:

In the profound silence that followed, their ears were filled with a low thrashing sound, as the corpse of the bosun's mate was noisily consumed by devil fish. At length the captain drew upon his pipe, and spoke again. "Let us only pray that this is the worst such abomination you encounter in this benighted land; for such is but a minnow, when compared to the Devonshire Fang-Beast."

"The . . . what?"

Even more fun to play with than Austen's eloquent vocabulary is her universe of enforced emotional rectitude. The Dashwood sisters live in a world where one's feelings are not blurted out -- or, at least, they're not meant to be, as sensible Elinor is continually reminding sensitive Marianne. It's a constant struggle to keep one's emotions hidden beneath the surface; all I did was literalize that metaphor in the most preposterous way, by adding deadly and dangerous monsters which appear literally from beneath the surface.

There was one factor above all that made Sense and Sensibility such a fun comic foil, and that is the place the book holds in the cultural firmament. One question I've heard a lot (or read a lot, as it's the sort of thing that comes up on blog comment-threads), is "Why didn't you do Persuasion? That's the Austen book that actually takes place on the water!"

The answer is simply that Persuasion, unlike Sense and Sensibility or Pride and Prejudice, may be a great book, but it is not a Great Book. It has not gathered around itself the unmistakable stink of importance.

Sense and Sensibility, on the other hand, stands in the literary tradition as Margaret Dumont stands before Groucho Marx, as the Chairman of the Reception Committee in Duck Soup: Prim and proper and radiating worthiness -- just waiting, in other words, for someone to hit it with a pie.

©2009 Ben H. Winters, author of Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters

For more information please visit and

Thanks, Ben.  I wish you much success!


bermudaonion said...

Great guest post! I love this line - "It has not gathered around itself the unmistakable stink of importance." It sounds like Ben has a great sense of humor.

Lisa said...

Wow! How incredible that you had Ben as a guest poster! And he is so funny. LOVE the post. LOVE. Have not read it yet, but it is on my list for sure. I have to read Pride and Prejudice and Zombies first.

Mari said...

What a wonderful guest post. I like the respect he shows for Jane Austen and her writing, as well as for her "passionate fans". I am sure there are many who are not too happy with these mash ups. :)

April said...

What an excellent and fun post!! I have this book and can't wait to read it!

Serena said...

I'm going to take a different approach here and call out Mr. winters on his copout answer to the Persuasion question. I think that not doing Persuasion with sea monsters, since it is based on the water, was a personal decision, given his amusement with the Palmers... He could have simply left it at that...and not maligned a perfectly well-written novel -- though lesser known.

Stephanie said...

I think this is the cleverest, wittiest, and funniest guest post I've ever read. Like Mari, I appreciate his respect for Jane Austen. Thanks!

Suko said...

Wonderful guest post, Anna and Ben! I haven't had any guest posts on my blog but this makes me consider having one in the future. I really enjoyed reading this post.

Staci said...

I really enjoyed this guest post!

Natalie W said...

Very interesting interview . I'll have to read the book sometime.

Becca said...

Incredibly entertaining guest post! I have not really had any desire to read these books (as I watched a book trailer for this one and was turned off by it) but I might be willing to give it a try after reading his humorous post explaining why he chose these books to 'poke fun at'. How much spirit must be in the writing as Ben seems full of wit, character, and spirit.

wisteria said...

Very interesting post. I can't even imagine reading this book. I'm so curious now.

Anna said...

~bermudaonion: His sense of humor is evident in the book as well, though the sea monsters just didn't work for me.

~Lisa: I'm looking forward to your thoughts on both the sea monsters and the zombies!

~Mari: While the sea monsters didn't work for me, the mashups themselves don't bother me. They're fun in their own way.

~April: I hope you enjoy it!

~Serena: I wonder if the sea monsters would have integrated better with Persuasion? No idea, since I haven't yet read that book.

~Stephanie: Glad you enjoyed it!

~Suko: Thanks! Hope you have some author guest bloggers in the future.

~Staci: Thanks!

~Natalie: Hope you get a chance to read it. I'd love to hear your thoughts.

~Rebecca: Even though it didn't work for me, I totally think it's worth a try.

~Wisteria: You should give it a try at some point. I'm glad I did, even though I wasn't able to finish it. I've seen several positive reviews.