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Literature : Interview

Take The Shelf, Re-Take The Shelf

by Nicolle Elizabeth

Nicolle Elizabeth talks with author John Reed about the tenth anniversary edition of his novel Snowball’s Chance.


John Reed.

This summer, Melville House will release a tenth-anniversary edition of John Reed’s Snowball’s Chance as part of their Neversink Library, with a new afterword by James Sherry. When the book was originally released, it caused a firestorm both in the publishing world as well as legally. Snowball’s Chance is a parody of Orwell’s Animal Farm. It was released a decade before Pride and Prejudice and Zombies and the rest of the now wildly commercially successful novels birthed out of other classics that were placed in every chain bookstore windowsill in the country. At the time of his book’s publication, Reed, National Book Critics Circle board member, Brooklyn Rail books section editor, writing professor, and respected original literary renegade was quoted as saying, “My intention is to blast Orwell. I’m really doing my best to annihilate him.”

Nicolle Elizabeth What made you want to write Snowball’s Chance?

John Reed You know, when authors give their reasons, they’re always a little full of crap. Given my current thinking on where we are in this nation, our total failure to care about anything but ourselves, or even ourselves, it’s hard not to speak to the political motivations of the book. As a product of the U.S. school system, I was brainwashed with Animal Farm, taught to believe not only in the “Cold War” (Orwell coined the term), but to believe revolution is impossible. The pigs, after all, were born smarter than the rest of us. Oppression, greed at the top, lives of toil—all inevitable. To that, Snowball’s Chance gives an answer. It holds up a mirror to resignation—our murderous resignation.

In terms of a timeline: I was walking down Fourth Avenue, the afternoon of September 10th, 2001, with my wife and a few other people. I think we were walking with friends, but in my memory we are surrounded by countless people, maybe ghosts, who were wearing business suits covered in dust; all the next day, such a procession would file past my apartment building. The day was bright, sunshine bleaching the sidewalks, and I had an incongruous idea for some sort of dark novel. I had the feeling of what I wanted, and a title, but nothing else. “Hey,” I said to my wife, “Snowball’s Chance, isn’t that a great title?” She wasn’t impressed, but I was sure. Two days after 9/11, while I was lying in bed watching the news, the whole of the story came to me. Ten days later, I’d written most of the draft. Fourteen days later, I had a complete draft with some sore spots. And twenty-one days later, I’d started polishing.

NE Do you see a progression of books re-visited over the years? If yes, how do you feel about them? What is your stance on the recent slew of revivals such as Pride And Prejudice And Zombies? Do you think Fast Food Nation was a re-written version of The Jungle?

JR Well, it’s a referendum on the canon. Canonical literature is a completely artificial platform, which bears no relation to quality. It does make things easier—that same old academic backlist, year after year—and it does provide a reservoir of readable material that’s safe—i.e., not controversial (not anymore, at least)—and acceptable to our constipated cultural moment. There’s a tendency to want to shrink the world, to believe that as a writer or a reader, you’re participating in an inheritance. Shakespeare, to Dickens, to whoever, to whoever, to yourself and your self-published novel. Of course, complete idiocy, and a statistical impossibility. There were 250,000 people in Shakespeare’s London, and there are 300 million Americans, and compared to the few dozen writers in Shakespeare’s generation, there are, I’ve heard, six million writers today. To make the claim that there aren’t brilliant writers today is numerically ridiculous. In fact, much of what we read today—the great works of the nineteenth century—is obviously inferior to recently published works, and, if judged by today’s standards, unpublishable.

I think the popularity of these retakes on canonical books also represents something of a resistance to the modernist idea of the artist as hero. It’s clear that collaborate efforts can do extraordinary things—take artist collectives, for example, or corporations—and that the notion of a mad, lone genius is a paltry concept of creativity. Back to Shakespeare: here’s a writer who collaborated broadly and had the backing of the Queen. Not exactly a lone artist in a drafty loft. Film, of course, plays a role in promoting a collective ideal (Shakespeare’s model was parallel to that of a contemporary writer/producer), in that we’ve come to accept that collaborative works are indeed “art.”

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. Maybe a year before that came out I was talking about doing a zombie Shakespeare play. I had it all outlined. Like my play, All The World’s A Grave, A New Play by William Shakespeare. It was going to be all lines from Shakespeare, reconstituted into a zombie comedy. I got no traction. But I of course wanted to do it in a comprehensive way—really do it in Shakespeare’s language. Pride and Prejudice and Zombies makes no serious attempt to forge a story that makes sense—it’s just a big goofy failure, which is its appeal. It’s a kind of erasing of the author’s personal canon. Another example: Arthur Phillips wrote a satirical Shakespeare project that came out last year. He too offered a new play, but not in Shakespeare’s language. His short, campy history was cobbled together in the language of Renaissance fairs—but not to the fault of the book, which was primarily a satirical novel.

Dunno about Fast Food Nation. How about Infinite Jest as a rewrite of Magic Mountain? I’ve been pitching that piece since Infinite Jest came out. People tend to assume that’s a derogatory argument; it’s only a derogatory argument if it’s important to you that art is a solitary process, which it isn’t; it’s only a derogatory argument if you prefer a culture that marginalizes creativity (i.e. creativity is only allowable if it’s solitary), and empowers business (i.e., business is corporate, or, solidarity).

NE Do you see Snowball’s Chance as a veritable referendum on Orwell or no not at all?

JR I do see it as that. But I also think it’s a celebration of Orwell, or the Orwell previous to his later-life betrayals. I expect that the earlier incarnation of Orwell, the one who wrote Animal farm, would get a kick out of Snowball. The English have loved to hate Snowball, and I fancy he’d secretly delight in the liberties I took.

NE Can Snowball’s Chance be applied in a classroom and if so how?

JR Oh yes, absolutely. I don’t think Animal Farm should be taught without it.

NE What made you choose to write Benjamin the Donkey die as a hero in this version?

JR Well, it seems to me a hallmark of Orwell’s cynicism that Benjamin the Donkey was unable to channel his wisdom into, well, love. My experience with people like that, working people, is that they are giving, in contrast to the cultural cliche that Orwell falls into. One of my primary objections to Animal Farm is the assumption that there is a “smarter” class—the pigs—who will inevitably rise to power. There’s a well-known Depression-era photograph of an out-of-work man standing next to a campaign poster. The out-of-work man has an incredible face—wise, intelligent, and of a hard-won honesty. In counterpoint, the politician in the campaign poster looks like a moronic, inexperienced, dishonest weasel, who’s never done anything for anyone in his life. And isn’t that really what we’re talking about? A political caste that lacks the human experience to understand suffering or self-sacrifice.

NE So this (Christopher) Hitchens issue was a big deal. What happened? He didn’t like the book and then called you a “Bin-Ladenist” and then also the Orwell estate went mad? Letters were written?

JR Hitchens had a book out then, Why Orwell Matters. There was a real question as to whether or not Orwell would make the transition, or should make the transition, to a post 9/11 paradigm. Certainly, in terms of Animal Farm, there was that question. Communism was most definitely not the enemy, and the reorientation of the Cold War—the “terrorists” would serve as our enemy for the next fifty years—made for an awkward rhetorical transition. Suddenly, Animal Farm looked weird, and 1984 looked quaint. Hitchens need not have worried—an atavist agenda has long buoyed irrelevant classics—but in the case of Orwell, there was an added complication. At the end of his life, Orwell had taken a turn to the right (Hitchens in fact followed the same model), and turned over a list of “crypto-communists” to the British Secret service. The list was offensive, inhuman, and enormously destructive. Hitchens had sought to dismiss the list as inconsequential, which it wasn’t.

Snowball’s Chance was a creative response to Animal Farm, which was in a very real way an iteration of the cold war mentality that had allowed U.S. interests to annex the world. Animal Farm had been backed by the CIA, both in a film version and as an educational text. The accessible book taught the lesson: revolution is hopeless, and Communism is bad. It is, ultimately, a justification for political somnambulism. Snowball was rightly perceived by the right, Hitchens among its critics, as an attack on Animal Farm‘s parable of complacency. It was also viewed as an attack on Orwell, and, somehow, as part of the mud-slinging about Orwell’s list.

Hitchens had said some creepy things about the book on the radio, and I showed up at a talk of his at Cooper Union, and when he said I was a Bin-Ladenist, I spoke out of the audience to say I was not. Rachel Donadio, then at the New York Sun, wrote up the confrontation. I was then afforded an opportunity to debate Hitchens on the BBC, but my mic kept going off.

Oh, the letter from the Orwell Estate. Yes, we got something of a cease and desist letter from the Orwell estate. That got us a New York Times piece, which in turn got us the coverage that led to Orwell. I, of course, was hoping they would sue. It’s easy to forget, but satire was then under siege in the U.S., and it seemed very likely it would not remain a protected creative act.

NE Given your difficulties with the Orwell Estate, and the copyright laws being what they were in 2002, do you see in irony in the pirated European version of Snowball’s Chance?

JR Yes, well, I guess, the joke’s on me. There is a Russian version that’s been pirated on the Internet. It’s on the torrents, which I don’t monkey around with. If you add up the number of downloads, well . . .

NE How many I heard a rumor it had two million downloads?

JR I added up the downloads, and however true that statistic is, the number is huge. About two million. In defense of the Russians, they can’t really seem to get it straight that I’m not the dead John Reed. We did very well with the foreign rights of my fourth book, and my editor sheepishly informed me that she believed they thought I was the guy in Reds.

NE So what is your stance on the copyright issue—what was it ten years ago, and has it changed now?

JR Copyright is promoted as this thing that benefits artists, and I guess it does. On the other hand, copyright is the bane of our existence. It’s a creative, economic, and political impediment. Creative: you have to limit your influences (unlike Shakespeare); economic: after you publish a work, or put out a record or whatever, you no longer have access to it—distribution imprisons the work; political: creativity is administered by the corporations that own these pinholes of distribution.

If I wanted to put my money where my mouth was, I’d make some stuff available to the public domain. I’ve been working on a few plays about sex and revolution—two things that should be free—and, I don’t know, maybe I should make them public domain. What do you think? I’m looking for input.

NE So this book was inspired by but not at all a copy of Animal Farm?

JR Snowball is a parody of Animal Farm. It’s Animal Farm on steroids: the language, the pace, everything. And the political message is completely subverted. Textbook parody.

NE What is your stance on the parody issue? What was it then, and has it changed now?

JR Oh, ten years ago, parody was under assault. It looked like it would no longer be a protected right. But not only did the Supreme Court defend it, parody is well on its way to protected status in the United Kingdom, where it wasn’t protected in 2002.

NE Where will the book be ten years from now?

JR Well, I’ll have a few on my shelf.

Nicolle Elizabeth is a contributor at The Brooklyn Rail, The Believer, Words Without Borders, The National Book Critics Circle blog, The Rumpus, The Faster Times, Best Women’s Travel Writing and many other publications. She is the poetry editor at Word Riot and was always a class clown. She is at work on her first novel and can be checked out here: http://glassatlassassafras.blogspot.com.

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