Can't they take a joke?

From one of my favorite Tumblr
blogs, Better Book Titles.
I've read two and a half books (I'm in the middle of a third) that make extensive use of previous literature to tell their stories. The first was Jim Hines' Codex Born*, then there was Diane Setterfield's The Thirteenth Tale, and now it's Ronald Frame's Havisham. I love these kinds of books for so many reasons. I love the cameos by my favorite characters from classic literature. I really, really love the literary in jokes**.

Whenever I finish a meta book, I lament the fact that there aren't more of them. But I can understand that, apart from trying to be funny in print, negotiating the permissions must be a nightmare. Jim Hines manages to use more recent books for cameos and jokes and plot points, but I suspect it's because he's friends with or acquainted with so many science fiction and fantasy authors that he can just call them up and ask. (He cites them at the end of Libriomancer and Codex Born, with an asterisk point out which novels he made up.)

But the other books I've read in this category have to rely on out of print novels when they go meta. Jasper Fforde mines Charles Dickens. Setterfield took Jane Eyre. It's a shame that authors are restrained from doing the same things with twentieth and twenty-first century stories. Last year, Rebecca Rosen wrote a piece for The Atlantic about how copyright protection and its attendant problems is making it hard to release out of print books from the mid-twentieth century in digital format. I'd argue that it's also stifling creativity. And it's squandering an opportunity to resurrect books from obscurity. There are several classics that I read just because Jasper Fforde made a joke about them in his Thursday Next series***. Hell, I read Great Expectations because of Fforde.

I talk about chaining in my research classes, a technique of following a trail of references in articles back and forth through time as scholars discuss an idea. Meta novels are a much more fun version of that. Following the references to characters and settings and plots leads you to new stories better than book reviews can.


* The Libriomancer series should be required reading for all book nerds, literature wonks, and other assorted word geeks.

** One of my favorite jokes comes from Jasper Fforde's The Well of Lost Plots. A character builds a bomb out of copies of Das Kapital and Mein Kampf. The conflicting ideologies create an explosion.

*** This series should also be required reading.

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