Why We Parody
In Praise of Rewriting Familiar Stories, And the Eight Reasons for Homage
Holy Wr*t! is a collection of irreverent and heartwarming short stories (and nonfiction pieces, like this one), reimagining the world of the Bible. Email subscribers get each new story delivered free. If you haven’t already, please sign up below!
When I was in elementary school, one of my teachers read our class The True Story of the Three Little Pigs. It’s a children’s book that retells the classic fairy-tale from the wolf’s point of view. I remember being completely transfixed. As far as my eight year-old brain could work out, the Big Bad Wolf was a quintessential villain. Yet there he was, in a hardcover book with shiny pictures, recast as a victim of circumstance: innocently knocking on neighbor’s doors to borrow a cup of sugar, and puffing down their houses on accident, on account of his terrible head cold. I was delighted. I didn’t know you were allowed to change a story like that.
It turns out that there is a long and storied tradition of rewriting someone else’s book. There are even names for it: parody, pastiche, homage, satire. Jane Smiley did it with A Thousand Acres, which is a near scene-for-scene recast of King Lear, set on a farm in Iowa during the ‘70s. Personally, I prefer Christopher Moore’s Fool, which is a lot less high-brow, but a whole lot funnier. Once you start noticing this sort of thing, you’ll find it everywhere: Disney’s The Lion King is just Hamlet with singing warthogs and a happy ending; West Side Story is really Romeo and Juliet, at least at the level of plot.
There’s a certain delicious feeling—a combination of recognition and surprise—that comes along with these sorts of reimaginings and retellings. For the last few months now, I’ve been rewriting Bible stories on Substack. Since I’m taking a break during the month of April to stockpile some more fiction, I figured we all might enjoy a closer look at the genre(s) of literary borrowing. What happens when you take a familiar story and change it just enough to make it new—but not so much as to make it unrecognizable? As it turns out, any number of things might happen. Eight things, at the very least.
A while ago, I came across a wonderful essay by Margot Livesey called “Writing in the Shadow of a Masterpiece: On Homage.” Livesey discusses this very phenomenon—in which a person places their work in conscious dialogue with an earlier piece of art—and calls it “homage.” Homage, at least in some artistic circles, is respectful, even loving, in its use of imitation and allusion. It’s a kind of intertextual tribute. One can imagine homage existing on the same spectrum as parody and satire, where parody exists simply for playful imitation (think: Pride and Prejudice and Zombies) and satire is created for the purpose of japing critique (think: The Colbert Report). Regardless of definition, it’s the enumerated list at the end of the essay that’s most helpful for our purposes.
Livesey ends by quoting her painter friend, Gerry Bergstein. “Why embark on such a hazardous enterprise [of paying homage to other works of art]? I put this question to the painter Gerry Bergstein… whose beautiful, witty work often draws heavily on art history. He came up with eight answers…”
To provide a contemporary update of older themes that often contradicts the original
To make a cultural critique
To demonstrate political, or other forms, of social evolution
To distill the earlier work
To develop the traditions of a beloved forebear
Any combination of the above
As a joke
I really like this list, especially because it feels so random, so all over the place. (Why, for instance, does “Any combination of the above” not come last, which would surely be more appropriate?) You almost get the sense that Gerry spent five minutes at the kitchen table, chewing on his pencil and jotting down items as they occurred to him. Yet it’s an absolutely brilliant list.
Today, I’d like to start with just one item on that list. More precisely, I’d like to show you how it works within a specific story from Holy Wr*t!—or at least, how it might work. You can be the final judge as to whether it does. I’ll begin with the very first story I ever wrote, and coincidentally, the very first item on Bergstein’s list.
Item number one for ‘Why bother with homage?’ is this: “To provide a contemporary update of older themes that often contradicts the original.” As I understand it, this one applies to the Big Bad Wolf, telling his side of the story of the three little pigs. And it applies to a little story of mine called “Goliath Has a Near-Death Experience”—which is a reworking of the classic story of David and Goliath, told from Goliath’s point of view. Rather than an aggressive behemoth, as he is in the Biblical canon, Goliath comes across as melancholic—aloof, even. “People always want things from you when you’re nine feet tall,” thinks Goliath. All Goliath wants is to be understood:
He had always secretly believed he wasn’t really a giant; it was the world that was the wrong size. This wasn’t simply because doorframes were a labyrinth and bathtubs an implement of torture, or even because dogs would bark for miles around whenever he went for a stroll, and children would lay out pennies for him to flatten. A person could get used to that. It was the smallness of everyday situations. He would bring up the latest news from Ashkelon or a new textile pattern he had observed earlier that day. People would stare at him, uncomprehending. “Gawd, you’re just so big,” they would say. “Thank you,” he would mumble. “I hadn’t noticed.”
Bergstein says there ought to be a contradiction—so where is it? For this kind of homage, the contradiction doesn’t occur at the level of factual details. One can imagine a retelling of David and Goliath where the plucky underdog loses, or one where Goliath decides that he’s a lover, not a fighter, and asks if they can hug it out instead. But that’s not what we’re doing here. None of the story’s observable details can change; if they do, it’s a different kind of thing.
Instead, the canonical plot is as unalterable as the law of the Medes and Persians. The giant still bellows, and the slingshot still brings him down with a crash. The Big Bad Wolf still huffs and puffs; the witch in Wicked is still green and very upset that Dorothy's house has landed on her sister; Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are still dead. What’s different is what—or, more often, who—is in focus.
The quickest way to change the focus to switch perspectives: villains become protagonists and minor characters turn into major players. We invert our sympathies, and explore entirely different sets of internal motivations. Plunged unexpectedly into Goliath’s interior life, we understand that his giant size is to be pitied rather than feared. His height is the cause of his total alienation from the world, and therefore, unexpectedly, a source for our empathy. We are given his backstory—one which doesn’t override the original plot, but inflects it with an entirely different meaning. In my little reimagining, Goliath has been gang-pressed into military service. His threats and scare-tactics on the battlefield are simply a kind of real-politick aimed at limiting bloodshed by encouraging surrender: “The real point of war, it seemed to him, was to make the other fellow stop fighting. He figured a little theatrics on his part would spare them having to kill each other to get there.”
What does it all mean? It means that we’ve run into a contradiction in theme. The original David and Goliath story is a celebration of underdogs. My retelling is a kind of wistful tragedy for anti-heroes. When the stone from David’s sling hits Goliath square between the eyes, it knocks him and us and everything else into an alternate reality—one in which we are forced to meditate upon a peculiar question: what is a giant without his body? As it turns out, he’s simply a lost soul, just like everybody else.
What’s more, Goliath’s tragedy is complicated by a wrinkle of hope. When the big man decides that his own body is best left for dead, you can be happy he’ll finally get something he wants. And you wonder too if maybe the world has failed him, in its own cruel way. You wonder if you and I have failed him too. If even Goliath can be a sympathetic character, then maybe it means that the world is far bigger—with much more room for imagination and compassion—than we had originally anticipated, when we were only measuring bigness in terms of a giant’s height, or victory in terms of monsters slain.
In a few weeks, I’m hoping to put out a follow-up post, going through a few more items from Bergstein’s list, especially for cases where a story does start messing around with the original plot. Still, I want to keep things simple at the start, so we don’t miss the main point: whether you’re an author or a reader, it’s really fun to find entirely new stories hidden inside the ones you thought you knew. It’s fascinating to connect the same dots in order to draw an entirely different picture. Those extra layers of meaning—the dramatic ironies, the winking allusions, the alternate explanations—are something you just can’t get with a story that’s completely original. You get to place yourself inside a unique kind of suspense: between knowing and not knowing, between one explanation of events and another. The basic tension of most stories is there to compel us to find out what happens next. The basic tension of these inside-out retellings forces us to consider not simply what happens, but why.
That’s all folks! Before you go, please do me a kindness and tap the ❤️ icon below. It really does my heart good. And if you want to go even further, drop into the comments and tell me about your favorite parody/homage/retelling.