How to Talk to Shakespeare, H.G. Wells, and Emily Dickinson

Understanding the literary world's recent obsession with communing with dead authors

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Woody Allen's Midnight in Paris envisions the ultimate creative writing program. In the film, Gil Pender, an American screenwriter and struggling novelist, travels back in time and gleans writing advice from literary luminaries living in Paris during the 1920s and the fin de siècle. Pender is a 21st-century, wannabe writer, a Hollywood hack who is awkward and uncertain in the presence of iconic figures like Gertrude Stein and Ernest Hemingway. When Pender asks how he can become a "real" writer, Stein tells him to strengthen the plot of his novel. Hemingway—speaking in "clean," "honest" prose—recommends he overcome his fear of death. We never find out if Pender makes it, but many of us would prefer his experience to that of enrolling in one of America's 300 graduate writing programs: no silly workshops, no other aspiring writers, and direct instruction from "true"—i.e., deceased—masters of the craft.

The film reflects a current predilection for communing with dead authors. In movies, podcasts, books, and on the Internet, people are shunning the contemporary literary scene and seeking out writers of the past. It may be that in the digital age, the reading public has grown tired of new books and new authors and yearns for literature that is timeless and traditional. Or maybe we just need to laugh—of the recent attempts to commune with dead writers, the best do so with lightheartedness rather than solemnity.

"The Dead Authors Podcast" imagines what it would be like if H.G. Wells (played in a convincing English accent by comedian Paul Tompkins) traveled to the past on his famous time machine and returned to the Upright Citizens Brigade Theater in Los Angeles with various fellow authors, such as Emily Dickinson, Dorothy Parker, Benjamin Franklin, Charles Dickens, O. Henry, Carl Sagan, and Gertrude Stein. The podcast, which is available on iTunes, benefits 826 LA, a not-for-profit writing and tutoring center that is part of the McSweeney's-Believer literary empire. In live recordings, the authors (played by a coterie of LA-based standup talent) read from "their" work and answer questions from Wells, the audience, and the listening audience via Twitter.

The best episodes combine the banter of a David Letterman interview with the absurdity of a Saturday Night Live skit. In one show, former Conan-O'Brien-cohort Andy Richter plays Emily Dickinson. In a high-pitched voice, Richter reads Dickinson's "I'm Nobody! Who are you?" Wells questions Dickinson about being a sad, lonely person and tells her not to "hide her light under a bushel." He asks about her literary influences, to which Dickinson responds, "Oh, Emerson, Blake ... but mostly me."

Like Midnight in Paris, much of the humor of "The Dead Authors Podcast" arises out of anachronisms. For instance, Dickinson doesn't understand bottled water and is appalled to learn that her private poems were published after her death. The list of books that science-fiction writer Carl Sagan (played by Matt Gourley) wishes he'd written include Eat, Pray, Love and The Help.

The humor also comes from poking fun at famous authors' personality quirks. Scott Aukerman's Ben Franklin is reminiscent of the Big Lebowski. John Ross Bowie presents Gertrude Stein as a trickster well aware of the literary shell game she plays with her readers. Marc Even Jackson portrays O. Henry as a drunk, somber writer who is only capable of writing short stories "with a twist!" Hal Lubin personates Dickens as a self-absorbed author who talks incessantly about "the poor!"

Episodes of "The Dead Authors Podcasts" only fall flat when they attempt to represent an author too earnestly. For instance, the show with Dorothy Parker (played the wry and witty Jen Kirkman) doesn't lampoon Parker so much as portray her as the drunk, bitter woman she sometimes was. Jabs at Parker's drinking and her complicated relationship with her husband come across as mean-spirited rather than playful.

Presented by

Sarah Fay is an editorial associate at The Paris Review. Her work has appeared in the New York Times Sunday Book Review and The New Republic’s “The Book.”

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