The Elements of F*cking Style

Posted on July 27, 2011


In making over William Stunk and EB White’s The Elements of Style for the 21st century, Chris Baker and Jacob Hansen have created more than just a helpful parody. They’ve revivified an important literary classic for a modern audience – without a single zombie, vampire or werewolf added to the text.

The apotheosis of this Frankenstein genre?

There’s a long tradition of literary parodies that match or surpass the original book. Gulliver’s Travels, Don Quixote and Northanger Abbey for instance. More recent parodies, such as Snowball’s Chance and The Asti Spumante Code, haven’t been as successful as their source works.

But in 2009 Quirk Books published the Austen parody Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, and almost overnight gave classic literature a much-needed shot in the arm. Two years later, however, they’ve almost shot the ‘classic parody’ genre in the foot.

Via Quirk Classics, the imprint they established in 2010 specifically for this brand of zombiefied literary classics, they have now published six monster mashups – the original Austenomicon, a prequel and a sequel; Austenpussy; Tolstoy T-1000; and, most recently, Kafka with kittehs – and four other titles.

Their success with this Frankenstein genre inspired others to try their hands at similarly revivified pastiches: Hodder & Stoughton, via Hachette in Australia, chose Queen Victoria: Demon Hunter, while Grand Central Publishing, another Hachette imprint, followed rather too quickly with Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter.

Random House gave us Little Women with Werewolves, and Simon & Schuster opted for Jane Slayre. Kensington Books went for Wuthering Bites while Sourcebooks recently came out with Alice in Zombieland. The others are too numerous to list but if you’re really keen Geek Speak magazine has done the hard work for you.

It was hilarious at first but enough already. Hence, it was both amusing and alarming to hear of the publication of The Elements of F*cking Style, by Chris Baker and Jacob Hansen, the guys behind Coming amidst the still-expanding pop culture parody craze ignited by Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, the fear is that it’s poorly timed at best, nothing more than a wagon jumper at worst.

As the title implies, it’s a burlesque of William Stunk Jr and EB White’s well known but dreary 1918 composition rule list The Elements of Style. But you’ll note, thankfully, no monsters (although some may take offense at the ‘monstrous’ language, which is often gratuitous). And that’s not the only difference. The Elements of F*cking Style is, as its subtitle makes plain, a helpful parody.

Let’s be obvious: the asterisk is for display purposes only; this is not a book for anyone even remotely prudish about ‘bad’ language, sex or drugs. But despite its facetious title, it is more than just a parody, even a helpful one. It’s actually an attempt to educate Gen TwitFacePlus (nominally) about grammar and style by turning Strunk and White’s fusty rules into “incidental learning”.

That they have to pick up a book – made of paper! – and read it obviously makes this anything but incidental, but the intention is solid and I knocked it over in an hour. I’ve never said that of the original, and I actually like reading about grammar.

Baker and Hansen follow Strunk and White’s structure almost entirely. Thus Rule 3, “enclose parenthetic expressions between commas”, becomes Rule 3, “use commas to parenthesise shit”. Although, in a sign of the times, they have added a short chapter towards the end, congratulating any reader with the attention span to have made it that far – not just through a book, but a book on grammar (even one as slight as this, weighing less than an iPhone 4.)

By couching the rules in language ‘the kids’ use, referencing Hunter S Thompson and Bret Easton Ellis instead of Shakespeare and the Bible, and offering tips that accommodate the realities of 21st century digital residents – “if you find yourself debating whether to add an ‘s to Jesus, Google it” – the authors have modernised the source material, rather than merely satirised it.

Spending an hour with The Elements of F*cking Style is likely the easiest, most entertaining grammar lesson you’ll find, and for that reason alone it surpasses its inspiration. Of course, the book is its own double-edged paper sword: by calling itself The Elements of F*cking Style it automatically excludes itself from serious discussion or formal use – in schools, for instance, where it would actually be effective – and instead relegates itself to fad parody status. It may as well be called The Elements of F*cking Style, Ninja Style.

The Elements of F*ucking Style is published by St Martin’s Griffin/Thomas Dunne Books, RRP US$9.99. Buy it while the AU is super high!