Some time around the early 1980s certain scribes started to bring the merits of “shrink lit” to the attention of literary publishers and by extension to the public … four centuries, I might add, after the Japanese developed the Haiku style of written expression. I raise the nexus because I can’t help think that the traditional and venerable style of Haiku was one of the influences motivating the rise of shrink lit. Other more contemporary catalysts have included the whole technological communications revolution and the increasingly busy lifestyles of people, etc.
Shrink lit, as the term implies, reduces famous and highly vaunted literary works to concise light verse – usually comprising around 8 to 12 lines of rhyme. Long and complex novels, plays and poems, are subjected to a radical scaling back process. The books are pared back to the bone whilst trying to preserve the essence of the story and hopefully the spirit of it as well (this is the theory at least!). Great for readers with short attention spans!
In the early 1970s one of the pioneering manifestations of this light-hearted form of imitation was an American book called Shrink Lits: Seventy of the world’s towering classics cut down to size, by Maurice Sagoff. This work took on the task of economising many of the best known fictional classics such as Don Quixote, Gulliver’s Travels, Dante’s Inferno, Shakespeare and The Hobbit. The gruesome and brutal Old English epic poem Beowulf is rendered thus:
Monster Grendel’s tastes are plainish.
Breakfast? Just a couple Danish.
King of Danes is frantic, very.
Wait! Here comes the Malmo ferry
Bring Beowulf, his neighbor,
Mighty swinger with a saber!
The inclusion of The Great Gatsby, Lolita, Moby Dick and Catcher in the Rye in Sagoff’s collection gave the book a distinctly American flavour. I seem to recall that Anthony Burgess not long after this attempted a more homogeneously British collection of verses based on the modern English novel replete with his characteristic snobbery and acerbity.
Australians, being the reactive/adaptive creatures they are, weren’t long in assembling their own home-grown version of shrunken literature – Oz Shrink Lit: Australia’s classic literature cut down to size, edited by Michele Field. Oz Shrink Lit has proved to be popular over the years with uni students who are English majors, especially those assailed by a sense of oppression at having to tolerate an undemocratically chosen syllabus which necessitates tediously long and sometimes just tedious novels.
67 Aussie books, each one cut down to a handful of summarising verses, the sheer range of texts is impressive. Among the shrunken classics are The Man From Snowy River (outrageously punning on ‘regret’), The Harp in the South (could be retitled “An Ode to the NSW Housing Commission” once given the Oz downsize treatment), A Woman of the Future, Summer of the 17th Doll and Puberty Blues. Juxtaposed against these Australian classics are harder to categorise entries in the collection: Clive James’ Unreliable Memoirs and, somewhat bizarrely, the Sydney White Pages.
The book comes in a handy, appropriately reduced size, 148mm x 90mm – just right for slipping through recession-shaped holes in coat pockets, losing on the bus, etc. Each verse is decorated with charming illustrations by that effervescent trans-cis Pacific cartoonist, Victoria Roberts. Victoria is really good at giving the countenances of her creations that look of crumbled anxiety, perturbed faces conveying a sense of harassed humanity in the onslaught of a perplexing post-technological age. Not only that, she is extra good at drawing kangaroos and dogs!
Oz Shrink Lit is the sort of book that would make any self-respecting dilettante salivate, offering as it does (the mirage of) instant erudition in an economy of words. Anything that can make Classics Illustrated look complex deserves our sincere admiration. For a particular tasty sample of Oz Shrink Lit’s humorous, condensed versification we need go no further than it’s take on Peter Carey’s Bliss, a quirky, modernist novel in the fabulist tradition (later translated to the screen in a vivid, memorably offbeat 1985 movie adaptation):