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

Wikimedia Commons

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.

And playful should be the point. When these conversations pop up in more serious arenas, the effects are troubling. In AfterWord: Conjuring the Literary Dead, a new anthology from University of Iowa Press, writers and critics conjure up sober exchanges with past authors. Each of the contributors was given the same prompt: If you could sit down with an author who has preoccupied, influenced, or troubled you, what would you ask? Most of the essays imagine thoughtful interactions with writers like Samuel Beckett and George Orwell; yet somehow, they resemble silly parlor games more than meaningful journeys to the Underworld. When Cynthia Ozick confronts Henry James about his sexuality it feels embarrassing rather than funny or witty. Twenty-first century ideas do little to enhance 19th-century personalities like James. The highlights of AfterWord include Margaret Atwood's essay on negotiating with the dead and Jay Parini in conversation with Robert Frost. Parini has experience resurrecting the dead. He penned the final days of Leo Tolstoy in his novel The Last Station: a Novel of Tolstoy's Last Year. One wishes that Afterword editor Dale Salwak had asked seasoned biographical novelists such as David Lodge and Colm Toíbín to contribute. Like Parini, Lodge and Toíbín understand the risks involved in writing a serious account of a literary master.

The too-serious problem also arises in White Crow Books's Conversations series. Simon Parke, an ex-priest in the Church of England, imagines conversations with Tolstoy and Arthur Conan Doyle, drawing on letters, books, and essays for the authors' responses. (Parke also enacts conversations with Vincent Van Gogh, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Meister Eckhart, and, yes, Jesus.) Parke writes that the series allows us to "meet the people for ourselves," but the results are tedious. The reality is that we will never know Tolstoy or Conan Doyle and are therefore limited to our vague impressions of the people behind the work. The beauty of never knowing our literary idols is that it prevents us from "figuring out" a novella like The Kreutzer Sonata and reducing it to mere themes and symbols.

Yet if YouTube is any indication, the conversations-with-dead-authors phenomenon has become a way for elementary and high schools to do just that. In these clips, one student typically dresses up as an author while the other assumes the role of the interviewer. The students then enact a "conversation" that includes facts from the author's biography and banal explanations of the author's work. The results are mixed. In one clip, Walt Whitman plays a Nirvana riff on a guitar:

In another, a student playing Mark Twain with a makeshift cotton-ball beard actually reads from Roughing It.

Many of the students attempt to imitate Oprah and more often than not they ask what a poem or story or novel is about. Most are trying to get credit for completing a school project without taking it too seriously. But how many points are these students given for understanding the ridiculousness of what they've been asked to do and how many for correctly expressing the "theme" of Walt Whitman's "This Compost"?

Perhaps we should take our cues from the makers of The Muppet Show, which—way back in 1979—understood the absurdity of acting out a fictional interview with a dead writer. In one episode, Sam the Eagle speaks to a Muppet he thinks is William Shakespeare. "Are you the William Shakespeare?" Sam the Eagle asks. When the Muppet says he is, Sam the Eagle tells him how much he loved The Sound of Music. The Swedish Chef reads Hamlet's "To Be or Not to Be" speech. Laughter ensues.

We want to hear what you think about this article. Submit a letter to the editor or write to letters@theatlantic.com.