It probably won't have escaped you that the Ladybird parodies have hogged the bestseller lists for over a year. It certainly hasn't escaped the attention of publishers that have been seen many of their big non-fiction titles slip beneath the radar. More parodies will follow this autumn. Quercus is publishing four Famous Five parodies while Doubleday is publishing four Shakespeare, written by myself and Professor John Sutherland. Fair to say that parody is having a bit of a moment in this country.
Not that parody has ever really not had a moment. From Jonathan Swift, Henry Fielding and Jane Austen to Lewis Carroll, Max Beerbohm and Stella Gibbons, parody has been an ever-present in the British literary landscape. We Brits love parody. It appeals to our sense of humour. Our capacity to laugh at – and with – the things we love best.
Parody is both reverent and irreverent, faithful and unfaithful at the same time. The Ladybird books have worked so well because they tap into our childhood and subvert and twist it with an adult knowingness. As children, it probably didn't occur to many of us that our parents often found reading to us a bit dull and needed a drink or two get through the night-time ritual. As adults with children ourselves, we know only too well. The Famous Five parodies appeal on much the same nostalgic level. Five Go Gluten Free should sell on its title alone.
Though parody may mock the original, it can also be a new, playful way in to understanding the original both for those who know the text and those who don't or were put off it at school. Indeed, in many ways parody is the ultimate status symbol for any writer. It is a sign that their work has become part of the national consciousness. A parody of something with which readers are unfamiliar is a waste of time. Parodies of the Ladybird books, Enid Blyton and Shakespeare work precisely because people have their own cultural references to the original.
This year has seen a wealth of celebration for Shakespeare - most of it reverential. But does he need parody? Irreverence? He might have welcomed some bracing mockery. His most tragic character, Lear, has a fool whose role is to puncture and make us laugh. Certainly there has been no shortage of writers stepping up to parody Shakespeare in some form. Tom Stoppard's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead and Ian McEwan's latest novel, Nutshell, are wonderfully inventive re-interpretations of Hamlet.
In our versions of Hamlet, Much Ado About Nothing, Macbeth and Romeo and Juliet, John Sutherland and I have both tried something a little different. On the right hand ride of the page, I have rewritten – and shortened – the plays while retaining the verse; in some cases retaining the original and in others rewriting. Not to change the meaning but to have fun and to offer different insights. To get inside these wonderful plays and, playfully, turn them inside out. On the left, John Sutherland has annotated the text in a way that both illuminates it but makes fun of the seriousness with which many critics treat their footnotes.
Parody: it refreshes the parts other critics cannot reach.
John Crace is parliamentary sketch writer at the Guardian, and co-author with John Sutherland of the Incomplete Shakespeare books from Transworld.