Friday, October 10, 2008

Sequels from different authors

How do you feel about book sequels written by someone other than the original author, usually many years later?

I’ve been chewing on that question this week, after reading an article by Rosalie Higson in The Weekend Australian Review about Australian author Colleen McCullough’s new offering, The Independence of Miss Mary Bennet, a sequel of sorts to Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice.

McCullough (best known for the Thorn Birds and her Masters of Rome series) has re-imagined the Bennet sisters 20 years on, with the tuneless, personality-challenged Mary being the focus of the story.

In this story, Mary breaks free after her mother’s passing and, with a crusading fire in her belly, sets off to write a book about the treatment of the poor in industrial northern England. She encounters dangers and romance, before emerging as a “most exotic orchid”.

This concept of re-imagining literary characters is nothing new. A number of writers have created sequels to classics whose original authors are no longer with us. And literary critics have long turned their nose up at the practice, demeaning it as cheap way to cash in on fans’ hunger to know more about characters they hold close to their hearts.
McCullough herself admits she loves to annoy the literati, which was one of the aspects that appealed to her with this project (along with wanting to understand “why Jane Austen didn’t like Mary, to whom she devoted a whole eight sentences,” and explore “whatever happened to Mary?”).

For me, the question is not why a writer would want to write about another author’s characters. The answer is obvious: they either love or are fascinated by a character or characters, and believe they can deliver the next chapter in their lives. In popular fiction this is called “fan fic”, and is most commonly found in the world of sci and fantasy, where novels are regularly churned out featuring characters from television shows (e.g. Buffy, Angel and Star Trek) by writers who have no connection to the original creations.

The question for me, is how would the original author feel about it?

The Guardian’s Books Blog tackled the subject when a second sequel to Gone with the Wind was released. The blog author is perplexed by the way in which these types of sequels are so reviled.

The blog points out that sequel writing exists unmaligned in other formats such as film and television, where fans and critics don’t seem overly perturbed by the fact that numerous writers are involved.

The blog puts it down to literary snobbery, and asks why sequels, prequels and companion books can’t have literary merit in their own right.

But unlike the “fan fic” – whose original characters and stories were developed by a team of writers – novels are traditionally written by individuals. Characters are created in their minds and further developed on the page.

To have another writer interpret your characters and take them in directions you might never have foreseen for them could be either flattering or insulting.

It’s not about the new writer’s background, talent, or even intention. It’s a question of whether anyone other than a character’s creator can truly tell you what might happen next.

It also treads sacred ground with fans as well, who have their own ideas on what may or may not have happened after the last page of the original book. How will fans of Pride and Prejudice (who may or may not have picked up one of the 20 plus other “sequels”) feel about D’Arcy having ambitions to become Prime Minster and Elizabeth being unhappy, as is the case in The Independence of Miss Mary Bennet.

McCullough’s novel intrigues me, purely because Mary is such an under-drawn character in Austen’s classic. But I’m not sure I want my experience of the rest of characters in the original novel influenced or challenged by anyone other than Austen. And that’s obviously never going to happen.

I’d be really interested to hear people’s thoughts on the subject.

Have you read a sequel to classic by another writer? Did you love it, hate it or were indifferent? Do you not care: a good story is a good story?


BooksPlease said...

I've avoided all the "sequels" to Jane Austen's books because like you I don't want my images of the characters altered or influenced by another author. I find it hard enough to watch a dramatisation and have decided not to watch any more.

The only sequels I've read are Susan Hill's Mrs De Winter and Sally Beauman's Rebecca's Tale, both follow ups to Daphne Du Maurier's Rebecca. I can't remember much about either of them, although Rebecca stands out in my memory as a great book. So maybe they weren't up to much and I'm glad I can still read Rebecca without any outside influence.

Anonymous said...

I've avoided Austen sequels too, partly because I wouldn't know where to start, or which ones are any good. One based on a minor character like Mary appeals a lot more than one that might mess with Elizabeth or Darcy though. When I've read other Austen-related books I've tended to automatically compare the writing to Austen, which usually doesn't help!

I just read The Dark Clue, by James Wilson, which is a 'sequel' to The Woman in White. I liked the story but was a bit freaked out by how much darker he made Walter.

Linda Jacobs said...

I've never read a sequel written by someone else but I don't think I'd like it very much. zI just might look for one, though, the next time I'm at the library.

ash is hot said...

I was handed an Austen "sequel" by a friend who couldn't form an opinion about it.

'Mr Darcy Takes a Wife' by Linda Berdoll picks up where Austen left off in 'Pride and Prejudice'. The story structure is quite similar but her writing style lacks creativity; it was almost as if she was trying to literally embody Austen and write as she once had. It was very well researched but it still lacked that special something Austen gave to her characters.

It was an enjoyable read, especially the first few chapters that were very raunchy, but a very long and drawn out one.

I am all for sequels. I think it's wonderful people become so involved they feel compelled to continue on the narrative.

After a few coffees and a slice of cake, my friend and I came to conclusion it's best to go in with no expectations because it is very likely you've imagined something very different when the original narrative ended.

ash is hot said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Gustav said...

My view is similar to the song writer and singer Van Morrison who stated he had no problem with other artists doing remakes of his songs.

Van said it was a tribute to hear other artists remake his songs such as Rod Stewart who did a remake of "Have I told you Lately".

In the end the key is the proper recognition and respect towards the original artist and a remake that complements the original.

Its not an easy feat and I admire those artists who are brave enough to give it a go.

the ink-stained toe-poker said...

What about March? won the booker. And Geraldine Brooks is one of them everybody either loves or hates too.
Where does it sit in your wee profile of the sequel then?

Anonymous said...

Fabulous post...I've just written my thoughts about this book on my own blog. My initial reaction has been "OH NO!" because the writing style and the character of Mr Darcy and Lizzy and Jane especially - I do think Jane Austen would cringe.

But I'm going to read the novel and see if my opinion changes.

Kate said...

Hey Paula, thanks for the kindly comment on! much appreciated. Now, to task...I really enjoyed Independance of Mary Bennet. Cracking read. A bit 'Colleen McCulloughey' in places, but that's to be expected as she's the author. I loved that she didn't change Mary very much. She was still stubborn and opinionated and naive, but we saw so much more in her character when bits were told from her perspective. The ending was a bit hasty, and I got sick of Jane and Lydia and Elizabeth's stories taking precendence in some chapters (they had their limelight in P&P), but on the whole, quite entertaining. I also really liked the 'precursor' to Jane Eyre, 'Wide Sargasso Sea' by Jean Rhys and again, the characters were different because it was told from a different perspective. Does this mean old character + new POV = new character? You've already read my views on the 'death' of the author, so fair play to all and sundry, I think, but only if the original author's not around anymore to collect the royalties!!

Paula Weston said...

Hi Kate,

Thanks for the follow up! Based on other reviews of this book, I'm pleasantly surprised you enjoyed it so much. I may yet be tempted to read it...