Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Midnight in the Garden of Should and Sequel

So P.D. James has decided to bring "Death" to Pemberly, Jane Austen's setting for the gentility, romance and beloved characters of "Pride and Prejudice."
Here we go again.
Scarlett O'Hara found true happiness with Rhett Butler in Alexandra Ripley's sequel to "Gone With the Wind."
Holden Caulfield, the perennial adolescent of "Catcher in the Rye," became an old man in "Coming Through the Rye," a book legally challenged by J.D. Salinger, author of the original; it was eventually--glad to hear it--limited to publication across the water in Great Britain.
They're called "derivative" works, and I dislike them.
When an author creates and peoples a fictional world, using years of time and learning to do it, why should all that simply be lifted for use by an up-and-comer writer (with the exception of James, who has earned her own stripes)?
And, in reverse, why would a writer want to spend so much time reworking someone else's creation?
I learned this the hard way.
When I was 11 or 12, assigned to write a novel over the weekend, I sat down with enthusiasm and ideas to write my very own Nancy Drew mystery. Having been a fan of the Cherry Ames nursing series, I had noticed two listed authors, Helen Wells and Julie Tatham (also the creator of Trixie Belden). Tatham picked up the series after Wells turned to new projects.
Great idea, I thought. I could do that. I'd use the same framework but write my own story.

My English teacher didn't agree. She slammed a bright red D- on top, and added scathing comments about plagiarism.
It hadn't even occurred to me that I had taken someone else's work, in the sense that I used it. I was so embarrassed, and so young and ready to cry, that I never explained the idea and the original storyline I'd created to the instructor. Sad that she didn't bother to talk with me about it.
Perhaps that was the impetus to my dislike of derivative works. The old envy bean growing in my garden--Wah; I couldn't do it, so why should they?!)
But I suspect it's more about quality control.
More than one critic has said it, and I agree: these so-called sequels aren't as good as the original--meaning, they're lame. They're not as interesting, as authentic or as well-written. In truth, they're more like cold leftover pizza served on the literary table. Bleah!
As a writer, I can't stomach the idea that someone might take a character I created and turn her into an adult psychopath, a naughty librarian or any other incarnation that I didn't intend. I can only imagine how upset these developments would make Martha Mitchell (whose family authorized a sequel), Austen or Salinger.
And they're not the only ones. Lately, flipping books like hot properties seems the in thing to do. Are publishers encouraging this? Possibly. There is certainly a lot of promotional effort behind some of them.
But I see it as yet another step in the erosion of copyrights, as well as capitalizing on someone else's justly earned fame to sell a book.
I get parody and satirical or political takes on the old favorites. Even simplifying the classics for modern or younger consumption rings true. These efforts are not the same thing as going beyond what is perhaps the most famous ending in literature to revisit that "tomorrow" of Scarlet's thoughts. Frankly, I do give a damn. So just don't do it.
I don't want to meet Heathcliff on a motorcycle or Emma Woodhouse stuffed into a slinky bra and high heels as a modern-day hooker. Anyone contemplating those directions is invited to amputate their keyboard fingers.
What's wrong with using one's own ideas in a book?
Camping out in a famous author's yard this way is nothing more than selling cheap trinkets on the steps of a famous museum. They might have a moment's attractive appeal, but they lose it fast at home.
So give me Emma in Austen's own writing, and give me Heathcliff in the dark, deranged manner Emily Bronte wrote him. It was her only novel, for pete's sake--leave it alone.
And now, I must return to my new novel: "Midnight in the Garden of Should and Sequel."