About five minutes into my chat with Mallory Ortberg—cofounder of feminist humor mecca The Toast, author of Texts from Jane Eyre, general Internet spirit animal—I realized that I’d accidentally forgotten to plug my voice recorder into my phone. Her response, delivered with good-natured, schadenfreud-ic glee: “Oh no, you have to do everything all over again! Sucks for you!”
She was joking, of course; “I make mistakes and forget stuff all the time, so you are allowed to be a human being,” she told me once the talk got back on track. For a moment, though, it sounded like Ortberg was channeling one of the characters she highlights in Texts From—a collection of imagined conversations between literary figures (some real authors, some fictional creations) that might more accurately be titled Assholes in Western Literature.
In Ortberg’s hands, the canon becomes a parade of selfish, petulant whiners (Hamlet, Lord Byron, Henry David Thoreau, Jake from The Sun Also Rises), moody, overbearing messes (Cathy and Heathcliff from Wuthering Heights, Mr. Rochester from Jane Eyre, Edgar Allan Poe), and all-around grade-A jerks (Scarlett O’Hara probably takes the crown)—the sort of people you’re delighted to read about but would never, ever want to meet in real life. It’s a skillful bit of literary sculpting that chips away at great works of fiction (and the Sweet Valley High series) until it reveals the secret core that unites them all: People are terrible. And it’s really, really fun to read about how terrible they are.