Shrink Lit: the Great Tomes of Literature Writ Very Small!

Literary & Linguistics

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.

‘The Harp’ shrunk into ‘Down & Out in Surry Hills’
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!

Cut-down ‘Bliss’
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):

Always selling, always nice,
Ad Man Harry snuffs it twice,
Wakes to find he lives in Hell,
Now his wife does adverts well.

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Letters to the ABC: Brickbats, Bouquets, Recognition by any name!

Creative Writing, Media & Communications

Over the years it has been fascinating to see what kind of fan mail on-air personalities at the Australian Broadcasting Commission get from your average “Joe or Jill Blow” punter in suburbia. Below is one such paean of praise received by the popular ABC Television personality Tim Bowden in the early 1990s. Included also is the program team’s deeply meaningful and well thought-out reply to the writer on behalf of the venerable Tim.


 

 

25th February 1992

87b Worthog Road

CAREY GULLY SA 5144

Mr Tim Bowden
Presenter, ‘Backchat’
ABC
GPO Box 9994
SYDNEY NSW 2001

Dear Tim,

I am writing to the ABC because I know that the National Broadcaster (trademark copyrighted) is just as committed to critical environmental issues as is the present Commonwealth Government(?). I am making my concerns on this matter known in the hope that the ABC, through the intervention of your own cutting edge, “finger on the pulse of the nation” [insert additional preferred cliche here] feedback mechanism, will take the necessary steps to preserve a vital endangered species in this country.

The species in question is the Shakespearean Teledrama! This threatened creature, so important to the intellectual and cultural ecosystem of the country, has not been spotted on Australian screens for bulk aeons of time! It was last sighted on Oz TV in the late 70s and early 80s when the ABC ran several episodes of the brilliant and highly ambitious BBC Shakespearean production which set itself the task of bringing all 37½ of the Bard’s plays to the small screen in one series.

Since then the ABC Drama Department has obsessively overdosed on contemporary crime and police shows, meanwhile archetypical dramas in the shape of the great, classic tragedies (Hamlet, King Lear, Macbeth, Othello, etc) have been driven to the point of televisual extinction. I am outraged at the ABC’s flagrant and criminal neglect of the much-beloved ‘Shakes’. I am so ropeable that I could happily strangle the Head of Programming with the ABC’s own Lissajous curves! The ABC has a duty to protect this globally-imperilled species and not let it disappear without trace, denying Australian taxpayers the enrichment to be had from such magnificent Shakespearean fauna.

I must warn you that if ABC TV does not rectify this deplorable omission, I am quite prepared to discipline those responsible for this monumental neglect! If Commission Masthead, Lord Talbot Duckmanton, is not willing to subject himself to a humiliating public act of retribution, I am willing to accept a token proxy in his place, someone sufficiently symbolic of the organisation’s ethos but none the less highly expendable. Tim, I believe that’s your cue to take one step forward …

Yours in good faith, flage-u-later,

SS

Mistress Sloane Snodgrasse
Dominatrix-General

_______________________________________________________________

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March 14th, 1992

‘Backchat’,

ABC-TV,

GORE HILL,
Sydney, NSW

Miss Sloane Snodgrasse,
87b Worthog Road,
CAREY GULLY SA 5144

Dear Miss Snodgrasse,

Tim is very busy at the moment, being tied up with various projects including writing his book on WWII, Hitler: South Hobart RSL’s Part in his Downfall, but he asked that we pass on his best wishes and commends you for your enthusiasm as an obviously avid viewer and supporter of the ABC.

Tim would like you to know that the National Broadcaster always appreciates any correspondence it receives from a fawning public and that every letter is valuable to someone, somewhere, at some time.

Yours sincerely,

D. Hemingway-Browne,

Personal Assistant,
‘Backchat’