JANUARY 1, 2016
AN EPISODE of MTV’s The Hills called to Maris Kreizman’s mind a line from Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse. It was 2008; ergo, a blog was born. She named it Slaughterhouse 90210 (for the Vonnegut novel and the ’90s teen melodrama) and has now released a book by the same name. “What started as a goofy mash-up designed to compare and contrast high and low culture to comedic effect […] evolved into a larger, more diverse project that aims to inspire lovers of culture to binge read as much as they binge watch shows and films on Netflix,” Kreizman writes in the book’s introduction.
Most of the book’s pages consist of an image from a TV show or film (the sillier, the better) and a line from a classic book (the older, the better). An image of Michael K. Williams as the drug dealer Omar on HBO’s The Wire gets a quote from The Brothers Karamazov: “As a general rule, people, even the wicked, are much more naive and simple-hearted than we supposed. And we ourselves are, too.” Samuel L. Jackson noshes on a cheeseburger in Pulp Fiction, accompanied by a line from The Picture of Dorian Gray: “There were moments when he looked on evil simply as a mode through which he could realize his conception of the beautiful.” Sometimes the images are things we saw on the TV, rather than on scripted shows — Bill Clinton embraces Monica Lewinsky in a crowd, and on his back is Philip Roth’s line from Sabbath’s Theater: “Many farcical, illogical, incomprehensible transactions are subsumed by the mania of lust.” Lest we fail to place the image or the quotation, a helpful index with some explanatory text identifies the sources.
Not surprisingly, much of the discourse that has sprung up around the book takes its cues from discussions of the “flattening” of culture that have been de rigueur in the academy for the past few decades whenever pop and high culture mix. And rightly so. “I came to realize that the distinction between high and low was less meaningful, both because TV has become more artful and culturally resonant than ever before and because so many of the authors I choose to read are very much alive,” Kreizman writes in an article in the Barnes & Noble Review — and indeed, in the book, living authors of the literary variety (Donna Tartt, Colson Whitehead, Zadie Smith) appear alongside their predecessors. “They participate in a larger cultural conversation where boundaries between art forms blur,” Kreizman says.
It’s far less gimmicky than it sounds — the connections Kreizman makes often illuminate both the book and the image in ways that surprise. In her review, NPR’s Linda Holmes wrote,
This book is a real live cultural argument and, for me, an important one, inventively made […] that works of what we consider high and low culture can not only be appreciated by the same people (a tiff we’ve been having in the cultural criticism world for quite a while now), but can be placed in direct conversation with each other.
There are “through lines,” Holmes goes on, that connect emotion and story across centuries, and Slaughterhouse 90210 draws these out gently and humorously.
Those commonalities are worth noting, but Slaughterhouse 90210 encapsulates something else, something that finds its echoes more generally across cultural production today. In his book Convergence Culture (2006), media theorist Henry Jenkins argued that media production in the 21st century is marked by viewers becoming less passive, more participatory in the creation of mythologies and narratives. “… circulation of media content — across different media systems, competing media economies, and national borders — depends heavily on consumers’ active participation,” he writes. “Convergence represents a cultural shift as consumers are encouraged to seek out new information and make connections among dispersed media content.” Jenkins outlines the ways that fans of series like Lost and Harry Potter found ways to participate in their favorite narratives, moving away from the passive watching and reading of the past and toward full involvement in the construction of parallel stories and worlds across mediums, from books and video to internet communities.
There may be no better extension of Jenkins’s observations (published the year Facebook made a break for the mainstream) than the rapidly expanding field of transmedia storytelling, probably best exemplified by The Lizzie Bennet Diaries, a dramatic web-series based on Pride and Prejudice that premiered in April 2012. One hundred four eight-minute episodes later, the series concluded in March 2013, having garnered an astonishing number of fans, the first Primetime Emmy awarded to a YouTube series, several “Streamy” awards, books, a production company (“Pemberley Digital”), and sequels based on the Austen novels Sanditon and Emma. In its wake have followed series based on everything from Carmilla and Jane Eyre to Little Women and Peter Pan, most of which operate on the same conceit: a classic text is updated, with the main character (usually written as a college student) starting a vlog and addressing the viewer directly as the story unfolds. Major plot points and characters are rewritten to fit into a 21st-century internet-saturated world, and for the most part, the stories work — they’re charming, well acted, and profitable for their producers through sponsorship deals.
But to suggest these are merely “YouTube series” is to miscategorize them. Part of what they do so well is what Jenkins describes in Convergence Culture: they let fans “seek out new information and make connections among dispersed media content,” and they do it explicitly — you could just follow the story by watching the videos, but it’s much more fun to fully participate. That’s done through the transmedia experience, which stretches across storytelling platforms, leaning heavily on those that allow for interaction with the audience. Characters tweet about their experiences (in character) between episodes, giving the impression that the story’s events are happening in the same universe as the fan’s, and fans can tweet back, generating new conversations, some of which are then alluded to in the videos.
That cross-platform creation, oddly enough, is pretty close to what created Slaughterhouse 90210. Tumblr is the blogging platform best suited for interaction between users, and the book started (and continues still) as a Tumblr. And so, while the blog provided a built-in audience for the book, the book feeds back to the blog; not only are they cross-pollinating, but they prompt readers to come up with their own pairings.
And it’s not all ironic observation. In some cases, new meaning is created or shifted in enlightening ways. An old phrase from a beloved Austen novel is given added dimension; participation in social media or binge-watching garners a shade of interest from the literary source.
One other recent cultural phenomenon helps illustrate this: Lin-Manuel Miranda’s runaway Broadway hit Hamilton, which tells the story of Alexander Hamilton — probably not your average American’s most-cited founding father, until now — in a style not typically associated with the American founding: hip-hop, mostly, with major historical figures like Thomas Jefferson and George Washington being played by black and Latino actors. The show has handily dismantled ticket sales records. But though even Broadway can’t reach everyone, the show’s fandom extends far beyond those who can make it to New York City and afford the hottest ticket in town, largely because the cast recording was released on yet another media platform (Spotify), debuted at No. 12 on the Billboard 200 albums chart, and in November topped the Billboard rap chart.
The most startling thing about Hamilton circa 2015 is not its casting, or its musical style, but that it is a musical that appeals to both teenagers and adults that deals with the history of America’s founding. In a pretty nerdy way, too. Jefferson and Hamilton debate tax policy and treaties in rap battles. And people can’t get enough.
Walking down the street, listening on my headphones to Alexander Hamilton rap his way through the genesis of the American revolution with Aaron Burr and the Marquis de Lafayette, it’s hard not to consider another cultural flattening — in this case, of timelines. Part of what’s so delightful about Slaughterhouse 90210 is discovering that Dostoevsky and Henry James were writing perfect Tumblr captions for movies that wouldn’t be made for a century or so. The Lizzie Bennet Diaries — and its successors — relies on viewers’ nostalgia for the books they read (or the period adaptations they watched) for its popularity, more than any vaguely Marxist frisson.
Which makes me wonder if the real convergence in our time is not so much across platforms — barely a decade after Jenkins’s book and in an age of live-tweeting, that seems barely notable — but in the flattening of history, when Mad Men can tell the story of America in the aughts and it barely matters if The Martian is set in the near past or the near future. It’s not just that we can only access the past as a repository of genres, codes, and styles for commodification, as Fredric Jameson would have it; it’s that we make meaning by mixing past and present, feeling nostalgia for culture made at a time we didn’t experience but still feel as if we own. Maris Kreizman gives us a book that doesn’t just comment on low and high culture, but history and the present and how they collide — where Lizzie Bennet’s vlog sheds new light on Jane Austen’s novel.
And that ought to mean something to us. After all, as cautionary tales tell us, the internet is written in ink; nothing ever goes away. A hundred years from now, will we even be able to tell what counted as a period film?
Alissa Wilkinson is an assistant professor of English and humanities at The King’s College and chief film critic at Christianity Today. Her writing appears in Vulture, Paste, The Atlantic, The Washington Post, Books & Culture, and others. She tweets @alissamarie.