Mallory Ortberg presents this whimsical collection of hysterical text conversations from your favorite literary characters
Mallory Ortberg, Texts From Jane Eyre, Henry Holt, 2014.
Hilariously imagined text conversations--the passive aggressive, the clever, and the strange--from classic and modern literary figures, from Scarlett O'Hara to Jessica Wakefield
Mallory Ortberg, the co-creator of the cult-favorite website "The Toast," presents this whimsical collection of hysterical text conversations from your favorite literary characters. Everyone knows that if Scarlett O'Hara had an unlimited text-and-data plan, she'd constantly try to tempt Ashley away from Melanie with suggestive messages. If Mr. Rochester could text Jane Eyre, his ardent missives would obviously be in all-caps. And Daisy Buchanan would not only text while driving, she'd text you to pick her up after she totaled her car. Based on the popular web-feature, "Texts from Jane Eyre" is a witty, irreverent mashup that brings the characters from your favorite books into the twenty-first century.
“In Texts from Jane Eyre Mallory Ortberg hilariously proves that she understands fictional characters better than they understand themselves. She makes me laugh like no one else.”—Rainbow Rowell
Dear Mallory Ortberg’s Publisher: Please send me 27 cases of Texts from Jane Eyre, because I ate it like it was candy coated in crack cocaine, it’s the best, and I need to give it to everyone.” —Elizabeth Gilbert
“I'm not sure what's more impressive--the ferocity of Mallory Ortberg's intelligence or the ferocity of her wit. Texts from Jane Eyre is uncanny in its sly humor and still, there is much in these pages that is familiar. Ortberg takes some of the greatest literary characters (and a few lesser ones), and offers us an entirely new and thrilling way of thinking about them and what they might be like in this dazzling digital age.” —Roxane Gay
“Witty and literate. Smart-ass humor with an emphasis on smart. I'm not sure who I'm more jealous of: Mallory Ortberg for her comic brilliance, or whoever got to sit next to her in high school English.” —Adam Bertocci
Mallory Ortberg is actually, literally the funniest person on the internet. It turns out she has also read everything. This is the smartest, most highbrow, most sophisticated literary book that will ever make you pee yourself in public.” —Rachel Fershleiser
This book, which I think probably wouldn’t work if anybody else did it, is pretty much what the title suggests. Your favorite literary characters sending texts, all from the mind of one of the most hilarious people we can think of. -Jason Diamond
For many people who grow up with their noses in books, meeting their favorite character is the ultimate fantasy. Mallory Ortberg isn't one of those readers.
"They're such assholes," the co-founder of feminist website The Toast says when I ask her who in the Western canon she'd most want as a texting buddy. "I don't know that I would want any of them to have my phone number, because they would all feel very free to text me at 2:00 in the morning just screaming."
Ortberg has put a lot of thought into the phone etiquette of literary personalities. Her book Texts from Jane Eyre, published November 4, features imagined exchanges between characters both classic and modern. From Hamlet whining about the relish on his tuna fish sandwich to Scarlett O'Hara sexting Ashley, the conversations are both LOL-worthy and true to the spirit of the works they parody.
Mother Jones: Where'd you get the inspiration for your first "Texts From" piece?
Mallory Ortberg: This is actually one of the only projects I've ever done where I can 100 percent pinpoint where it got started. It was back on The Awl when [The Toast co-founder] Nicole Cliffe was doing her Classic Trash series, and she was talking about Gone With the Wind, and somebody in the comments said, "I'm from the South and it's actually exactly like this now, except everybody has cell phones."
As soon as I saw that I was just like, "Oh God, the idea of Scarlett O'Hara with the ability to get in touch with all of her friends at any time and ask them for favors is horrific and vivid and amazing." And I immediately wrote "Texts from Scarlett O'Hara" in like 10 minutes. So weirdly something good has come out of Internet comments—I got a book deal from it.
MJ: Would you say your own texting style is similar to the way the book is written?
MO: As a medium, texting is a really great way to get out of stuff when you know that you're wrong, but you want to minimize having to make eye contact with someone as you bail on them or tell them that you fucked up. So I have definitely in my in life used a text to be like, "Oh hey, dude, I'm sorry, turns out I can't make it after all!" like five minutes before I'm supposed to be somewhere.
MO: Oh man. I've always thought that I was funny. The world has not always agreed, but…I've always just been like, "Yes, absolutely, let's do this! I will make jokes come hell or high water! Even if no one laughs."
There were a lot of different influences on me. I started reading P.G. Wodehouse when I was about twelve, and that was huge for me. And certainly the classics like Monty Python, The Kids in the Hall, A Bit of Fry and Laurie, very dry British humor. But also like Robert Benchley and James Thurber, your mid-century American humorists. And then I remember when I was a little kid my brother and I would stay up and watch Comedy Central specials and we saw Maria Bamford together. It must've been her first standup special, because I think it was 1999—she was a kid. And I just remember being captivated that someone could be that weird in a way that felt so universal.
MJ: Was the process of coming up with jokes for this book similar to how you come up with stuff you've done at The Toast? If you're working on, say, Women in Western Art History, is that just you sitting in front of Google Images looking at old paintings until something comes to you?
MO: Often it is, yeah. I love the art history ones because it's so little work for me. There's so many paintings that when I look at them, the look on the lady's face is like so clear and her body language and her posture or their physical situation is so immediately recognizable. Anyone who's been in a conversation they didn't want to have, or been getting harangued by a little kid they didn't want to pay attention to or been tired and wanted to go to bed is just like, "Yes, of course." You can instantly see in this person's face the universal sense of "Oh God, please leave me alone."
"Texting is a really great way to get out of stuff when you know that you're wrong, but you want to minimize having to make eye contact with someone as you bail on them or tell them that you fucked up."MJ: How did you know there would be an audience for something like that?
MO: It was really a calculated risk. At the time that we started it, Nicole was coming off about a year or a year and a half as co-editor of The Hairpin, and I had been working as the weekend editor for Gawker and also a place called The Gloss. So by the time we started The Toast it wasn't a complete leap in the dark. We weren't completely unknown. The time felt right enough that we were like, "Let's give this a year, and if it turns out to be the kind of thing that six people love and adore and nobody else cares about, we'll say that we had a fun time trying something new and we'll call it quits." But it was kind of—it wasn't a shock, but it was a really pleasant surprise that within the first couple of weeks it was clear to us that there were people who felt like The Toast was home for them.
MJ: Do you have a favorite thing that The Toast has published so far?
MO: I have a lot of favorites. We had a woman who wrote a piece about her first name. It was also about her Muslim-American identity and being the daughter of immigrants, and it was just thoughtful and stirring and profound, and it really moved me. That's definitely up there for me. I also love Nicole's blind items from Ontario. That's so weird. That's so Canadian. Just the blind items about, like, who was late to the potluck and what person was growing medical marijuana. I just love everything Nicole writes.
MJ: So, you're from the Bay Area—how do you feel about artisanal toast?
MO: You know, when I hear "artisan," I think of being in social studies and learning about the old classes and the rise of merchants during the late Middle Ages. So that's what I think of—I picture an old-timey guy at a fucking loom, maybe like trading with some Dutchmen. - Rebecca Cohen
Mallory Ortberg, co-founder of the not-just-for-ladies but awesome-for-ladies website The Toast, doesn't take literature too seriously—but she does know how to take serious literature and mine it for hilarity. Likewise, her new book, Texts From Jane Eyre: And Conversations With Your Other Favorite Literary Characters, doesn't discriminate. It pokes fun at—while simultaneously paying homage to—classics from the canon like Pride and Prejudice along with Gen X childhood favorites like Sweet Valley High.
Can you talk about the origin of this series, where they came from, how the texts stopped being just a one-off idea?A lot of my creative energy is spent coming up with a concept that, once I get it, I feel like it writes itself. So I’ll spend a lot of time doing something that doesn’t seem like work—G-chatting with friends or just building on each other’s jokes or just thinking of goofy ideas. And then when I find it, I’ll kind of try to refine it in such a way that it feels like “I could look at this from a hundred different angles with a hundred different characters.” I’ll often use Twitter as like a first draft factory, but as soon as I saw Dirtbag Hamlet, and I went through a couple of different versions of how he was interacting with other characters, I was like “This is done! I don’t even have to do anything now! The concept is everything.”
Do you differentiate between the way that you think about writing about characters versus the way that you think about writing about real people, the authors?I have a couple of characters in the book that are authors: William Blake, Emily Dickinson—they tend to be people who didn’t write a lot of fiction, and their public persona is very much well known as a sort of literary character in itself. When I think of Emily Dickinson, there’s not one particular poem of hers that jumps out, but I do have a very vivid image of an ill woman with giant eyes who wants to write about the sun exploding. Whereas with Shakespeare, I don’t think of this really specific guy, I think of Hamlet and I think of Macbeth and I think of Lear, and I think of what assholes they are, but how much I love them.
Do you think that’s specific to you, or do you think that that’s a universal idea that there are some creators who are so much bigger than anything they have ever made? Like Thoreau, for instance.It’s funny. If you really go back and look at his work, he acknowledged that. He was never saying “I’m going to go live in the middle of nowhere and never interact with anyone else.” But there is a mythology that has sprung up around Thoreau the character more than Thoreau the actual human being. Over the years, it’s become: If you want to talk self-reliance, you talk Thoreau. This doesn’t acknowledge the fact that he had servants come by his cabin, he lived a couple of miles away from town, people visited, he sold pies.
Your book is really funny in a smart but childlike way. How much of this comes from your childhood imagination?
You can probably subtitle this “Mallory looks around her seventh grade bedroom and makes jokes on the titles she sees on the shelf.” I wanted to use some of the most widely read books, and those are also some of the most broadly sketched characters. Take Nancy Drew: She’s kind of a cipher. What are her character traits? She has a nice car, her mother is dead, she gets tied up a lot, and she has a boyfriend Ned, but still, in every other book she’s going on a date with other guys, which I guess has more to do with dating culture of the ’40s and ’50s, but makes it look like she’s just cheating on him constantly. I think this is really funny and I just kind of love the idea of a kind of crazy teen girl who loves solving mysteries and is always like, “hey Ned I’ll be right back, I just have to go sailing with these hot guys, they promised me they’d help me solve a mystery.”
There’s an affinity that a particular kind of girl who likes to read has for Jane Eyre, the Brontes, Austen, George Eliot. How much of that exists for you, especially for Jane Eyre?I love Jane Eyre and I love the Bronte sisters. I actually didn’t read any of them until I was in college, so I don’t have quite the same connection with them that I think a lot of women do. But I also think this isn’t just a book for childless lady English majors who live with one and a half cats in a two bedroom apartment in one of six different cities. I mean, my dad likes this book and he’s not a childless lady, so I’m hopefully that some dads will read this.
But, certainly, there is a culture that I identified with. We are a weird little gang, and when we find each other there’s that moment of “Sister! Let us meet on the moors tonight!” It’s nice to find one another as adults and say “Oh, did you also have weird burial for your dogs based on the Lady of Shallot scene from Anne of Green Gables? Fantastic!” I repeatedly attempted throw myself out of the first story window of my house because I was so into the scene where Rebecca almost does an Ivanhoe.
A lot of female authors in earlier centuries were unmarried women …This is something I want to write so much more about. I would always love for my next book to be a light comic novella called The Merry Spinster and to explore those themes of glorious female solitude. I think female solitude is a mental condition as well as a physical state. You can be married and a spinster. I think spinster is an identity every woman can claim, if she will. … I feel like a lot of women, or a lot of feminists, joke about taking to the sea or living alone in a cottage as this kind of fun freedom.
Do you ever want to play up those aspects of some of the people that you write about so that people can celebrate their strangeness? So that we can all just say “Emily Dickinson was a weirdo, but she was also awesome”?
All of these characters definitely get played up. I prefer to look for somebody who is already really outsized, so they only have to be exaggerated a little bit. This book is really over-the-top, but it’s also not super far from the characters themselves, and that’s why I liked writing it so much. I just look for characters who are already really ridiculous but treated very seriously, and I just kind of hold back the seriousness and roll around in the ridiculousness.
A lot of these people were geniuses, but must have been horrible to live with.That’s what makes a lot of them memorable. Something that makes a really great literary character would often make a horrible roommate, or friend, or boyfriend. And that’s why they’re so fun to read about and it’s so great that they don’t exist. - Hillary Kelly
To appropriately describe the power of Texts From Jane Eyre and Other Conversations With Your Favorite Literary Characters, the debut book by Mallory Ortberg — the funniest writer on the Internet and the co-creator of the wonderful website The Toast — it seems best to list the places where I laughed while reading it: on the subway, laughing hard enough that the L train glared at me; in bed with a wicked case of insomnia (my chortling woke up my husband); at the Flavorwire office, where we all fought over who got to read the book first.
The beautiful thing about Texts From Jane Eyre, based on Ortberg’s original column for The Hairpin, is that it offers exactly what it says on the cover: the Western canon is parodied and spoofed through the silly modern invention of texting. Ortberg’s comedy is shot through with love and deep literary knowledge, highlighting the silly and outrageous subtext bubbling under classics from Lord Byron to Nancy Drew. It’s hilarious, wickedly smart work that also serves as a fantastic reading list. It was a pleasure to talk with Ortberg at the Flavorwire offices during her recent visit New York.
When did you realize that you were good at writing jokes like the ones in Texts?
I really love doing really stupid jokes. I remember in the sixth grade when my dad showed me Monty Python and the Holy Grail with my best friend and I drove everyone crazy by reciting every scene verbatim. So, I’ve always loved bits. But definitely, in the last three to four years is when I really started feeling like, man, making jokes about literary characters for a short amount of time is what I was put on this earth to do. So glad I found a very specific calling early in life.
I was reading your book at the same time as Megan Amran’s Science… For Her! And both books felt like an extension of the kind of manic female voice that Edith Zimmerman was using at The Hairpin when she was the editor.
Totally, and I think Caity Weaver [at Gawker] or Patricia Lockwood [poet, Motherland Fatherland Homelandsexuals] probably fall under the same umbrella, but they’re all pretty distinct. I wouldn’t say that any of us are clones of each other at all, but there’s definitely that wonderful, unhinged, zany sense of, “I want to be weird and funny and you’re gonna love it.”
Let’s talk for a minute about the Transcendentalists, like Henry David Thoreau and his Concord crew. What was up with those guys?
Somebody could write a long, thoughtful essay about how Thoreau was misunderstood, how the purpose of Walden was never “I’m going to live a life of complete solitude,” and so he shouldn’t necessarily get crap for having people come visit him and bring him marmalade. But I don’t want to write a long essay about that; I want to write jokes about how he steals pies from his neighbors and he talks to his friends late at night in Boston asking them to bring him stuff.
And his parents were pencil factory owners.
He didn’t even make his own cabin, and he literally was just like, “Can I use your cabin for two years, and then get really famous and let me not pay you or anything?” It’s such a dirtbag move, like, “Hey man, can I use your lake house for a while and write my book there?” I mean, it’s fine, but it’s very silly, and people need to treat it with the silliness that it merits. He was like, “I’m not paying taxes, whatever.” I think he owes the world a few apologies.
Did you read every book in preparation for Texts?
Kind of! I had already read all of them. I went to the kind of college that really does say, “Here is the Western canon, read it.” Which is definitely not the only thing you want to do with your English major, you definitely want to reach beyond that, but it was pretty traditional in that sense. So I read the Western canon and have a lot of thoughts about it, apparently.
It was just stuff that I felt really familiar with. I grew up in a house where there was a lot of reading. My parents were both pastors, so there was a lot of Little Women, and European and white North American classics. I love, love, love and have read a lot of other stuff, but the Western canon felt kind of like something I knew intimately. And it was full of so much silliness that it was often — like, I love the Western canon — but it’s sort of silly and it’s full of assholes. Generally people either say either, “Let’s not talk about this because we talk about it too much,” or, “Let’s talk about it very seriously and take it very seriously and Hemingway was very serious and he’s very important.” But these people are goofballs.
The Sun Also Rises is insane.
I cannot tell you how full of joy I am that his granddaughter [Mariel Hemingway] is now like a Zen lifestyle blogger. I don’t know if she blogs [ed. note: her personal blog is titled: “Living a Holistic Life”], but she writes very meditative books with, “Fill your house with lightness, and drink green juices, and stretch,” and he would’ve just gone nuts. He would be miserable. I wish that all of those guys had grandkids who all they did was do yoga and scented themselves and avoided bread. It just would’ve driven them crazy. Like, I wish so much that F. Scott Fitzgerald had like a gay grandson who just taught deep breathing.
There’s a distant relative of his who is a twee musician [Blake Hazard].
Good! May they all have twee descendants. Or simply centered, balanced people who treat the people in their lives well, as sort of like a counterbalance to, “Well I’m going to shoot every animal in Kenya and then die.” Well, where did he die? He shot himself in Florida or something? Who cares? He shot himself.
Do you feel a profound power, running The Toast and being your own boss?
Yes, I do. I really like it. It’s really cool because [Toast co-founder] Nicole [Cliffe] is my favorite person in the world, so I love working with her, and I always want to please her. I love what we get to do. I have a really high sense of motivation, as opposed to just like, “Oh, I feel like writing jokes today.” Being your own boss is really, really fun. I think it’s great. If you want to do it, you should give it a try.
It seems like you just emerged on the Internet fully formed as a comic writer. Where did that come from?
Well, I started writing on the Internet in 2011, and I was doing recaps of The Vampire Diaries for free for a website that I don’t even remember the name. After that I was working in publishing and writing a ton on the side, and I started writing for The Hairpin and then started writing stuff for The Atlantic and Gawker and The Gloss and a couple other places. It certainly wasn’t overnight. I spent a couple years trying to find out what my voice was. Turns out it was just the one that comes out of me when I talk. I was able to spend a lot of time doing it and quit my job and emerged like Venus from the sea, fully dressed in a bathrobe.
Do you get exhausted? You write so many jokes all day long, and you’re really good at it. How do you have that energy?
I conserve all my energy by moving very little. I go into like a physical hibernation. I didn’t know that this is what I loved to do until I started doing it. I think a lot of people have a talent for writing a novel. It turns out I’m just really at my best and happiest when I have to come up with a lot of jokes throughout the day. And write 400 words about them. I don’t know what I did before Twitter. I love Twitter, and it was made for me. I had no idea that it existed and then as soon as it came along I was like, “Oh, thank god, I’ve needed this all along and where have you been?”
Where do you see yourself in five years?
Probably still running The Toast. Honestly, this is the type of job I would want to do until I die. I hope that in five years The Toast has more money than anyone in the world, and I have at least one item of clothing that’s made of gold. Cause my dream is, remember the episode of The Simpsons where Homer ends up winning the lottery and he turns into a man that is ten feet tall and is made of gold and is covered in rupees? That’s the goal. That’s the dream. - Elisabeth Donnelly
More Reviews &Features:
KQED Arts / The Blueshift Journal / The Globe & Mail / Entertainment Weekly / Cafe.com / NPR "Morning Edition" / Dame Magazine / EW.com / EW.com / Elle.com / Flavorwire / The Guardian / Refinery29 / Huffington Post / New York Magazine / The Hairpin / Musing / Washington Post / Bookriot / The Atlantic Wire