December 13, 2013 6:48 pm

Dead men’s pens: reinventing Wodehouse, Austen and Chandler

One summer morning earlier this year, John Banville, the Man Booker prizewinning novelist, sat down to start work on a new book. Banville, a 68-year-old Irishman with a quick, self-deprecating wit and a dense, lyrical prose-style, has for the past 18 years written all of his books from a small apartment in the centre of Dublin; a quiet room with a desk, bookshelves, postcards on the wall, and a window that overlooks an empty courtyard. It is here that he wrote The Sea, the novel that won the Booker in 2005, as well as the crime fiction that he writes under the pen-name Benjamin Black.

While Banville’s daily routine on the new book was the same – he writes from 9.30am until 6pm, or “office hours”, he says – the feel of the work was different. “It’s as if, I don’t want to be mystical but it’s as if I was writing it in a kind of trance,” Banville tells me over the phone from Dublin. “That’s not usual. It’s as if I was inhabiting another voice.”

In fact, inhabiting another voice was exactly what he’d been asked to do. Ed Victor, the veteran literary agent who represents Banville, also counts the estate of Raymond Chandler among his clients. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, the estate commissioned the late Robert B Parker to write two novels featuring Philip Marlowe, the hero of seven of Chandler’s completed novels. “We had been thinking for a while that it was time to have another great writer take a crack at it,” Victor tells me. So, last year he asked Banville if he would consider writing a new novel in the voice of the wisecracking, bruised, honour-bound private detective.

“I didn’t hesitate for a moment,” says Banville. Didn’t you have any worries about getting such an iconic character wrong, I ask. Banville laughs, “Of course, I had worries! I thought, ‘My God, will I be able to do this, will I be denounced as a charlatan and a parrot?’ But when I started to do it, I found that I could do it. I found I had his voice.”

Wodehouse in 1962©Getty

Wodehouse in 1962

Banville’s The Black-Eyed Blonde, which will be published under his pseudonym Benjamin Black in March 2014, is one of a slew of novels in which characters created by long-dead authors continue to walk the earth; literary orphans adopted again and again. William Boyd’s James Bond novel Solo came out in September, the same month that a new novel featuring Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot – to be written by Sophie Hannah – was announced (it will hit bookshops in September 2014). Sebastian Faulks’s tribute to P.G. Wodehouse, Jeeves and the Wedding Bells, was published last month, while Joanna Trollope’s reimagining of Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility was published in October, the first in a series of reworkings of Austen’s classics that will see Alexander McCall Smith tackling Emma and Curtis Sittenfeld giving us a modern take on Pride and Prejudice.

Sebastian Faulks©Getty

Sebastian Faulks, whose ‘Jeeves and the Wedding Bells’ has just been published

The incentive for publishers and the estates of dead authors is clear: keeping the brand alive expands the number of titles from which revenue can be gained, while fuelling interest in the original works. But what impact do literary franchises have on the industry’s appetite for new talent? And does an increasing reliance on endless regurgitations of characters such as James Bond or Austen’s Emma signal a collective failure of imagination, leading to a fictional landscape littered with overworked zombie-characters?

Invariably, the decision to create new versions of beloved literary works or characters provokes strong reactions. When, at the request of the du Maurier estate in 1993, Susan Hill wrote Mrs de Winter, a sequel to Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, a reviewer in the Independent complained that Hill “just fiddles impotently with du Maurier’s grand inventions”. Maureen Ball, a member of the UK’s Jane Austen Society, tells me she’ll be avoiding the reworked Austen books altogether: “I know I’ll just get cross to see her lovely characters messed about with.” Faulks’s self-described “homage” to P.G. Wodehouse prompted an outcry even before it was published. “The Wodehouse canon cannot, should not, must not be material for a literary version of Celebrity Stars In Their Eyes,” fumed Michael Moran in the New Statesman.

Yet the sales figures for successful franchises suggest that many readers are perfectly happy to buy the imitation, particularly when the imitator is a stylish writer in their own right. Boyd’s Solo sold 25,000 hardbacks in the UK in its first four weeks, according to data from Nielsen BookScan. Although this made it the worst-selling of the three new Bond novels since 2008 – Faulks’s Devil May Care sold a whopping 100,000 copies in the same period, while Jeffery Deaver’s Carte Blanche sold 37,000 – Solo still significantly outsold Boyd’s most recent novel written in his own voice, Waiting for Sunrise , of which 13,000 copies were bought in the first four weeks. It’s too early to know how Solo will do in the longer term but, if Boyd writing as Fleming can sell more books than Boyd writing as Boyd, who can blame publishers for commissioning such a product?

For Michael Bhaskar, digital publishing director at Profile Books and author of The Content Machine, a book exploring the history of publishing, literary franchising “is a brilliant illustration of how publishing has different masters and how hard it is to satisfy them all . . . Risk saturates publishing,” he says. “Every year a publisher might be launching 80 books – that’s 80 new products. A lot of them are going to fail. So, of course, publishers want to mitigate their risk as much as possible.”

In this context, literary franchises – with established brands and audiences – can be viewed as a sensible hedge against more risky investments in new writers and untested fictional worlds. But Bhaskar acknowledges the potential for overkill. “The danger is that we become more like the Hollywood studios. Over the past 20 years, they’ve been taking fewer risks, and there have been more franchises. Commercially, [the strategy] hasn’t performed too badly but creatively . . . We used to have movies based on books; now we have books based on books. Where does the original culture come from?”

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In 2012 half of the 20 highest-grossing films in the US and Canada were franchises or sequels, including Men In Black 3, Madagascar 3 and the fourth Ice Age film. Anita Elberse, a professor at Harvard Business School, argues in her new book Blockbusters that this is simply smart decision-making on the part of the studios, and that entertainment businesses will increasingly make big bets on a smaller number of products. “I would guess publishers are dealing with the same problem the film industry is faced with,” she says. “Namely, there’s very high uncertainty as to what works and what doesn’t. To rely on proven models, characters or stories, that already resonate with people, is obviously one way of dealing with that.” Derek Johns, who in his long career has been an editor, publisher and literary agent, says the link is more explicit: “Everyone in publishing has sort of internalised the lessons of other businesses like film, in which brands are exploited almost ad infinitum.”

I didn’t imagine Raymond Chandler at my shoulder, approving or disapproving. I felt curiously comfortable

- John Banville

There remains, however, a key distinction between the scale of franchising practised by publishers compared with film producers: volume. At HarperCollins’ large, red brick offices in Hammersmith, London, I meet Roger Cazalet, associate publisher at the company. Tall, slightly lanky, and very polite, Cazalet has an infectious enthusiasm for fiction. When I ask whether he’s at all concerned that by investing considerable advances and marketing budgets in the Austen Project and the new Poirot novel, HarperCollins is failing to support new writing and ideas, he is courteous but firm. “We publish about 150 books a year, just in our fiction area, and we’re talking about two books here. So, no – it’s such a tiny percentage.”

Elberse agrees: “The big difference with the book publishing industry compared with Hollywood is that the amount of products being released is so many times larger . . . so just because these [franchise] books are being produced, it doesn’t mean other smaller books don’t get out there too.”

Cazalet admits, however, that brand names and literary franchises have become more attractive amid the economic uncertainty of recent years. “There is some evidence that when economic times get really tough, then the best-known authors – the best brands, as it were – are the ones that perform best.”

Couple the macroeconomic backdrop with the specific financial pressures on publishers in the new digital landscape, and established characters and authors seem like a more attractive asset. Competition online for readers’ eyeballs – and credit cards – is fierce, meaning publishers have become increasingly “brand-focused”, according to Tom Tivnan, features editor at the Bookseller, a British trade magazine. “There’s a lot of white noise out there on the internet, and you need to cut through with something recognisable,” he says.

In some ways, Sophie Hannah’s upcoming Hercule Poirot novel is a product of the new pressures on publishers, and literary estates, as readers shift to online retailers. The as-yet-untitled book will be the first new Poirot novel since the author’s death in 1976. “Mathew [Prichard, Christie’s grandson] and I had been talking and we felt it was the right time to do something new in the new digital world,” Hilary Strong, managing director of Acorn Productions, which manages the rights to the Christie estate, told me. Pointing to the decline of traditional bookshops and the rise of Amazon and other e-tailers, Strong said it had become increasingly difficult to draw readers’ attention to Christie’s extensive back catalogue. “In the old days, you could repackage an old book with a lovely new cover, and Waterstones would do a nice window display. That doesn’t happen any more,” she says. “There’s a real issue with discoverability: if you don’t have a new story, you’re not going to make it on to Amazon’s homepage. So we’re trying to do something fresh that will act as a gateway to the backlist and bring new readers in.”

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©Barker Evans

“It is not Jane’s best book”, confides Joanna Trollope, of Sense and Sensibility, the novel she was asked by HarperCollins to rework. The 70-year-old sitting opposite me is dressed immaculately in a soft navy wool jumper, her blonde hair brushed to one side. “But why Sense and Sensibility appealed to me was, one, because it was her first novel ever published. And secondly because it is about love but . . . it’s actually a novel about money. . . We’re a bit squeamish about money now, we don’t like to talk about it, but we are as impelled by it as we ever were.”

Trollope is adamant, however, that Austen purists should stay away from her adaptation. “There are few fans of classic writers who identify themselves so intimately with the writer as Jane-ites. They feel very close to Jane, and very possessive. And my message to them is, don’t upset yourselves. Don’t read it.”

Even if we are not all Jane-ites, most of us like to think that writers create something unique, that characters belong to the authors who created them. We can feel cynical about the financial interests lined up behind literary franchises and spin-offs. Yet the phenomenon of characters outliving their authors has been around for a long time. The foundations of literature itself, after all, are in iterative storytelling. By the time Homer came to write The Iliad, “he was writing it for an audience that already knew the story,” says Marina Warner, professor of literature at the University of Essex. “So I think the actual stratagem [of franchises] is an ancient way of approaching stories; you have a rapport with your audience before you even start, you don’t have to establish the characters. And then, when you take a step that is unexpected or that springs a surprise, that can be very pleasurable for the audience.”

Warner points to the character of Odysseus as an ancient, untethered version of a modern franchise character like James Bond. “Odysseus turns up again and again, until he reaches a modern apotheosis in James Joyce’s Ulysses, as the common man. It’s a step that some characters take, like Frankenstein or the creature – they sort of walk out of the book and take on this extra dimension, that allows them to live on.” For Warner, whether a protagonist outlives their original author is not just a financial decision, but hinges on whether the character possess the qualities that allow them to resonate outside their own era.

Banville says he hopes Chandler would like his new Marlowe novel. “There is the slight worry that one is gnawing on the corpse of one of the mighty dead. But I didn’t imagine Chandler was hovering at my shoulder, approving or disapproving. I felt unexpectedly comfortable doing it.”

He bristles slightly when I ask whether he sometimes thinks the money going into selling literary franchises should be spent instead on new authors and new talent. “This is new writing,” he says. “I don’t see that there’s any harm in it. Good fiction is good fiction.”

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Treble indemnity: spot the real Raymond Chandler

1. “It was one of those summer Tuesday afternoons when you begin to wonder if the earth has stopped revolving. The telephone on my desk had the look of something that knows it’s being watched. Traffic trickled by in the street below, and there were a few pedestrians, too, men in hats going nowhere.”

2. “It was about 11 o’clock in the morning, mid-October, with the sun not shining and a look of hard wet rain in the clearness of the foothills. I was wearing my powder-blue suit, with dark blue shirt, tie and display handkerchief, black brogues, black wool socks with dark blue clocks on them. I was neat, clean, shaved and sober, and I didn’t care who knew it. I was everything the well-dressed private detective ought to be. I was calling on four million dollars.”

3. “I sometimes think that Southern California looks better in the rain than any other time. The rain washes away the dust and glazes the cheapness and poverty and pretense, and freshens the trees and flowers and grass that the sun has blasted. Bel Air under the wet sky was all emerald and scarlet and gold with the rain making the streets glisten.”

Answers. (1) ‘Black-Eyed Blonde’ (2014) by John Banville; (2) ‘The Big Sleep’ (1939) by Raymond Chandler; (3) ‘Poodle Springs’, (1989) completed by Robert B Parker

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