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Mallory Ortberg channels characters through her own voice Add to ...

‘I read my first P.G. Wodehouse when I was 12,” said Mallory Ortberg, co-editor of general-interest blog The Toast and author of Texts from Jane Eyre: And Other Conversations with Your Favorite Literary Characters, over Gchat. “And I read a lot of, for whatever reason, old-fashioned joke books, like from the 1950s. Very off-colour and sexist and old-timey, but I thought they were hilarious.”

Without Ortberg’s name attached, Texts from Jane Eyre might have seemed a little iffy – a one-note joke, or an overlong salute to the classics (talking about books is great; talking about loving books tends to get old after the initial statement). It does salute great books, but it more often roasts them, sending up the terrible attitudes inherent in great literature, and the awful traits its heroes display: Scarlett O’Hara is a total sociopath, Hamlet a petulant manchild who sponges off his mom and treats his girlfriend like trash. As she put it to The Guardian recently, “Eighty per cent of my output is ‘Mallory clowns on the Western canon,’ and I’m happy to be that person.”

One of the best things about Ortberg’s writing, however, is that while she usually has a point, it’s never the point. Social commentary isn’t what gives belly laughs, but Ortberg is great with a non sequitur; she is actually funny. She’s also very adept at turning her critiques into concepts. “I would characterize it as – comedy writing?” she replied, asked what she’d call her work. “… Comedy writing with a vaguely literary bent? I quit. I’d go with ‘humorist,’ but to me ‘humorist’ is just a rich comedian.” It’s odd to think of her that way – the term “comedy writer” feels somehow specialized and mercenary. But then, the term is a lot more expansive now than it once was.

Now that it’s possible to “do humour” in one of many forms, for any reason – you can invent your own context – humour takes on new dimensions that had once seemed exclusive to poetry and fiction; you could argue that some of the most vibrant forms of both are now essentially comedy writing. Ortberg, who says she wrote fan fiction prolifically as a preteen – about the Canadian TV show Big Wolf on Campus, and maybe the band Hanson – points out that the texts are fiction of a sorts.

Consider Patricia Lockwood, a renowned capital-P Poet whose second collection, Motherland Fatherland Homelandsexuals, was published by Penguin earlier this year. Lockwood has 48,100 followers on Twitter, which I would call the best gateway to her work, but that would imply that Twitter is not her work. I don’t know if I “got” poetry until I followed Lockwood – poems had always felt like problems I couldn’t solve. But reading her tweets, it suddenly made sense that a line could contain its own world with its own logic, or characterize a speaker outside the context of a story. (The kind of tweeting Lockwood does is also rooted in its medium, playing off and hijacking its conventions – an absent period can change a line’s entire tone.)

“Some of my favourite tweeters write tweets that are like perfect little globes,” Kimmy Walters, who tweets as @arealliveghost, told Sheila Heti for The Believer. “… I didn’t write a whole lot of poetry before I used Twitter. People started telling me that what I was tweeting was poetry, and my initial reaction was ‘[Eff you].’ Then I found out that poetry is not all written by rude men who want to crush me under a glass of whisky.” Poetry works well on Twitter, and on Twitter it arguably works best as comedy, which saves a writer from getting too self-indulgent. An earnest line is less shareable than a joke, which makes a great vector from one world to another. And the same X-factor that makes a joke funny is what makes a line resonate, anyway: the part that works for no reason.

(This is not limited to Twitter, of course: Take, as just one example, the Facebook page Window Seats/Canopy Beds, which belongs to a character who “struggles to market her soup zine” and is “fiscally conservative but pretty liberal otherwise,” in the words of its creator.)

Ortberg is essentially a satirist, but her mocking is typically oblique, and it usually outgrows its subject, becoming something else altogether. When author and professor David Gilmour told Emily M. Keeler that he didn’t teach writers he didn’t “truly, truly love. Unfortunately, none of those happen to be Chinese, or women. Except for Virginia Woolf,” Ortberg responded with “The Life of Virginia Woolf, Beloved Chinese Novelist, As Told By David Gilmour,” which is just that, and is funny for being absurd as much as for blowing up Gilmour’s prejudices. When Jonathan Franzen wrote that weird rant for The Guardian about his problems with modern life and his “failure to have sex with an unbelievably pretty girl in Munich,” she wrote a fairy-tale dialogue between the narrator and her grandmother, who gives detailed instructions on how not to have sex with Franzen.

Ortberg’s “texts” feel true to the stories she draws from, but they’re also transposed into her voice, which is more and more recognizable. I asked her if she thought of herself as a channel for old characters or an inventor of new ones. “Ooh, I like that mental image, like I’m a 19th-century mystic at a Ouija board trying to channel Mr. Rochester,” she replied. “I do like to think of the original character and hone in on their most over-the-top, grandiose traits.” Does she feel any tension between the author’s imagination and her own? “No tension, no remorse,” she said. “I regret nothing.”

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