If you look up the word “parody” in the dictionary, you’ll find it means imitating a piece of literature to poke fun at it—à la Fifty Shades of Chicken and Bored of the Rings. At Columbia College Chicago, though, it often means drawing ideas and inspiration from an existing story to create an original one, and it’s something that writers have been doing for centuries. Gustave Flaubert took Miguel Cervantes’s Don Quixote and came up with Madame Bovary; James Joyce took Homer’s Odyssey and came up with Ulysses; and in the 1950s, Carlos Fuentes took John Dos Passos’s Manhattan Transfer and came up with Where the Air is Clear.
As part of his coursework, Columbia College graduate student, Goreyesque editor-in-chief, and Literary Chicago contributing writer Todd Summar wrote just such a parody last spring, taking Herman Mellville’s classic, “Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street,” and creating “Tony’s Hat Lies Disused and Vulnerable,” an original short story that was recently published in PANK Magazine—a magazine that, according to The Review Review, reaches approximately 100,000 readers in well over 100 countries around the world, and accepts only 1% of its total submissions. Clearly, then, parodying can yield effective results. It needn’t be mocking, nor an homage, either. And, as Todd explains, it shouldn’t be a fill-in-the-blanks, paint-by-numbers endeavor.
I have it on good authority that this short story of yours is a structural parody of “Bartleby the Scrivener.” What was the process of parodying like in this case?
I had been wanting to write the story of a group of young kids playing in a trailer park, and the social and political dynamics that existed between these kids, for a long time. There was a certain incident with one of the kid’s hats that stuck in my mind from the time I was five or six and I had always wanted to write a fictionalized version of it but I could never figure out how to approach it. When we read Bartleby in class and were tasked with the assignment of creating our own parody, I realized that the classic story would be a perfect model for the story I already wanted to tell.
Had you already been developing the voices of the characters before Bartleby?
No, I had not been developing the voices, though the main character is an amplified, brattier version of me when I was a kid so that was relatively easy. Bartleby gave me a loose sort of framework to follow, but once I started down that path, it took on a life of its own. These characters sprang from my memory, passed through some sort of Bartleby filter, but then ran off in a completely different direction.
So, then, all you got from Bartleby was a roadmap for how to arrange major plot points? Did you lay this roadmap out from beginning to end before you started writing?
I also got a certain tragicomic, persnickety tone from Bartleby that I infused into my narrator’s voice. In that story, I enjoyed how the reader could see past what the narrator was presenting, revealing less about the people around him, and more about his own flaws as a person. I thought that was quite effective so I stole that for my story. In terms of plot points or structure, Bartleby was just an inspiration really, not even a guide. The narrator fancies himself as a sort of boss, and must confront an obstinate “employee” he doesn’t understand, but I think that is where it ended. I didn’t really have a roadmap before I started writing, and I had no idea how it was going to end. At one point, I even considered having Tony getting hit and killed by one of the cars, but that’s just because I have a dark mind.
Well, that would have been more in keeping with the original story’s ending. Was this your first experience parodying a story?
Yes. I understood the benefit to doing it as a writing experiment to better understand structure but I never would have done it on my own. And truthfully, I wasn’t even sure if my story would satisfy the assignment since it veered pretty far off from the basics of Bartleby.
Do you think you will continue writing parodies in the future?
I think if there is a story whose structure or other elements I really like, and can think of a way to use it to unlock certain potential in a story idea I already have (which I did with this story) in a way that makes it a better story than it otherwise would have been, I’d be all for it. I’m certainly not above stealing successful techniques! It would be important to me, however, to be able to fashion the story into its own original entity so that no one could tell it was actually a parody, unless they were looking very closely. There are also certain stories that fascinate me because of their structures or other elements, that I’d love to parody, but that I’d be too intimidated to touch!
What should writers look for when considering stories to parody?
I guess writers need to make sure the structure and tone of the original story matches the new story they want to tell. And, for me, it helped to already have a completely independent story idea in mind. Some other parodies I’ve read just didn’t seem to work because they were simply painting by numbers and mimicking the original. I think you have to be careful to parody, not mimic.