'Wit's End' and other jaunts across pop-culture boundaries

Witsend_l"No one in novels watches TV," a character declares early in Jane Austen Book Club author Karen Joy Fowler’s Wit’s End, by way of explaining why she no longer thinks printed literature is a truly living medium. There are several levels of irony included in that casual dismissal: This character happens to be a wildly successful novelist herself, for one. And Wit’s End happens to be a novel in which lots of people watch a lot of TV. Fowler’s characters chat casually about Lost, Prison Break, 24, Star Trek: The Next Generation, Battlestar Galactica, Bones, and more. She really does capture what it’s like to be a post-millennial pop-culture junkie without beating the theme into readers’ heads, and that alone makes me respectfully differ with the solid B that Wit’s End received in EW recently. I wolfed it down over the course of two recent plane flights, and I can’t recommend it highly enough.

Wit’s End has also gotten much attention for the way its plot turns on characters’ use of Wikipedia, LiveJournal, and fanfic sites. The websites themselves come to life practically as vividly as some of Fowler’s secondary characters. As io9’s Annalee Newitz has put it, this makes the novel a kind of "science fiction in the present": "While there are no aliens here, or artificial intelligences who come to life, Wit’s Endmanages to skirt the edges of science fiction themes beautifully,hinting at the ways our lives have become the stuff of science fictionwithout us noticing." And these big, explicit nods to the world that Web 2.0 has wrought aren’t so different from those incidental TV references, are they? In both, Fowler is playing with the communities created by a popular medium — the incredible collective experiences shared by people who watch a series or user-edit a website.

I think the reason I like Wit’s End so much is because it fits into one of my favorite kinds of entertainment: pop culture about other kinds of pop culture. The Truman Show was a movie about TV; the fourth-season finale of Curb Your Enthusiasm was a TV episode about Broadway (Mel Brooks’ The Producers). Have any of you out there read Wit’s End? And even if not, do you have any other favorite cross-media works of art like this?

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  • Verity

    This is weird…I just started “Wit’s End” the other night. I’m only about a third of the way through it but I’m really enjoying it so far. I’ve only just gotten to the parts about blogging and fanfic sites so I can’t comment too much on the pop cultural aspect of the story just yet but I am excited to see there is more to look forward to.
    As for similar stories, this isn’t quite the same, but I’ve always enjoyed Jasper Fforde’s series (Thursday Next, Nursery Crimes) because they are a clever blend of real world and literature (though the “real world” in the books are really more like alternate universes but nevertheless). They also poke fun at the writing process and distinguish the “real” characters from the “fictional” ones with jokes about telling each other apart.

  • Verity

    …continued from below.
    In one of the Thursday Next novels, Thursday has to hide out in an unfinished work of fiction. She explains to two other characters that she can identify them with her eyes closed because she can hear the difference in their voices. They on the other hand require a bit of direction. “I know!” said Anna. Without the “said Anna” bit, the characters are completely lost.
    They really are hilarious novels and the humor is done in such a way that makes the reader feel intelligent for actually getting it.

  • Lise

    This post immediately made me think of Jasper Fforde’s novels as well. I love those books! For anyone who loves reading and books, I highly recommend. His skewering of the conventions of nursery tales, Harlequin novels, detective lit, etc… is brilliant.

  • Nancy

    I had not heard of this book, but it’s going on my reading list, as are the Jasper Fforde books. Thanks for the tips!

  • Anonymous

    I love Jasper Fforde, too!
    I would also recommend the TV series (available now on DVD) “Slings and Arrows,” which is about a theatre company.

  • StaleCake

    Simon Vozick-Levinson, you would LOVE “Putting On The Ritz”, the door-slamming farce by JOE KEENAN (head writer of Frasier) about a gay lyricist and his hag composer, strong-armed into writing a revue for the untalented wife of thinly-disguised DONALD TRUMP. High-frickin-larious.

  • cimagato

    Thanks, I love this. Just ordered Putting On The Ritz and Wits End. Getting my summer reading in place. (I’ve already read all of Jasper Fforde’s available books–he’s amazing.)

  • Nat X

    I guess it’s not the same thing, but I’ve always loved how Stephen King mentions popular movies, books, and songs in his stories. Popular culture is a big part of our lives, so it makes his characters even more real when they mention things like that.

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