Mostly Harmful (or, The Publisher’s Dilemma)

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AMC’s Better Call Saul, a prequel to the smash hit Breaking Bad, premiered on Sunday to much acclaim and no small amount of trepidation. As Snopes covered recently, many were worried that an inferior second show from creator Vince Gilligan would undermine the immense public respect for the original series. Fortunately, the quality of the pilot episode should be enough to dissuade fan fears for the moment, though undoubtedly such concerns will haunt Better Call Saul until it reaches its own conclusion. But such is the risk run by any long-running narrative; any series, whether it be book, film, or movie, that continues to produce more and more texts risks creating a sub-par product that tarnishes the series as a whole. There’s a reason there is not a The Godfather Part IV, and that reason is The Godfather Part III.

But the risk of churning out a sub-par installment is just one of the risks of extending a series out over years or decades. Not to be morbid, but one of the biggest concerns in such literary works is the entirely literal death of the author. It seems this is hardly a new phenomenon; scholars think that Chaucer died before completing even a quarter of his Canterbury Tales.

So what does one do when an author dies before completing a long-running and immensely popular series? For hundreds of years, the only real answers to that question have been to shrug and make do with the existing material or consume unlicensed fan fiction. But in the last few years, publishing companies unwilling to part with cash-cow franchises over so trivial a matter as an author’s passing are increasingly resorting to another tactic: hire another well-known author to write a new “official” installment in the series.

British humorist Douglas Adams was mulling over writing another installment of the wildly popular Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series when he died of a heart attack in 2001. Though Douglas had publicly expressed regret for the “very bleak” ending of his last Hitchhiker’s book, Mostly Harmless, he had not written a word of the proposed novel at the time of his death. So fans were surprised at Penguin Book’s announcement in 2008 that it had hired Artemis Fowl author Eoin Colfer to pen another book in the series, aptly titled And Another Thing. . .

colferInterestingly enough, the fans of the series were generally supportive, possibly because the new book undoes the downer ending of Mostly Harmless. Despite fan acceptance, however, Colfer announced he did not intend to write another Hitchhiker’s book, telling Wired, “I do think somebody should write another [ . . . ] I think it’d be interesting to see other Hitchhiker’s books from different authors—to see how different imaginations and voices present that universe.”

This phenomenon seems especially common in British literature. Snopes has already discussed how the passing of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle did little to stem the tide of Sherlock Holmes stories and movies.  Ian Fleming wrote twelve James Bond novels; since his death, different authors have put nearly three times that number of fully licensed Bond stories—and that’s not even counting the movies. In an interesting twist, the newest novel featuring Bond will be written by Anthony Horowitz, but based off of a scrapped story treatment written by Fleming back in the 1950s.

On this side of the pond, however, not everyone takes such a sanguine view toward different authors’ exploring the universe of a dead colleague. George R.R. Martin, the author of the current popular culture phenomenon A Song of Ice and Fire, has denied the possibility of another writer finishing his narrative if, for any reason, he should be unable to. (He’s also sick and tired of fans speculating on when he’ll die, resorting to some rather colorful words to describe his feelings towards the swarms of individuals predicting his imminent demise.) Martin has long been critical against any kind of fan fiction, describing it as lazy, and has promised to never allow another author to write a story set in Westeros “while I’m alive.” Interestingly, this stance only seems to apply to the printed word; after all, the mere existence of the Game of Thrones television show and its recent spin-off video game (both of which Martin actively promote on his blog) show that Martin is amendable to adaptions of his work in other mediums. Perhaps the key to this apparent paradox is that the Game of Thrones universe represents a tweaked, streamlined “alternate universe” version of the world of Ice and Fire. Perhaps Martin does not have a problem with other creators playing with his characters, as long as they don’t do it in his sandbox.

You can look, but you can't touch

You can look, but you can’t touch.

Of particular interest to this debate, however, is that Martin has publicly expressed his fear of what will happen to his world once he does pass on, telling the Sydney Morning Herald, “one thing that history has shown us is eventually these literary rights pass to grandchildren or collateral descendants, or people who didn’t actually know the writer and don’t care about his wishes. It’s just a cash cow to them. And then we get abominations to my mind like Scarlett, the Gone with the Wind sequel.”

Martin’s disgust at the idea of another author appropriating his universe does speak to the more unsavory ethical aspects of the practice. No one really seems to mind that much that Eoin Colfer took up the Hitchhiker’s series, but it is not like Adams ever proscribed such a practice. Even though Martin has publicly expressed his desire to have the world of Westeros left unmolested after he leaves it, he is absolutely right that there will come a day when he will not be around to prevent such “abominations.” One can hope that publishers and Martin’s descendants will respect his wishes, but really, there is nothing to stop them if they chose to resurrect the franchise after the senior Martin passes away.

Maybe some people don’t have a problem with that, but I do find it a depressing prospect that there is nothing to protect the sanctity of Martin’s wishes. Hopefully, once everything is said and done, his descendants and the publisher that he has made so much money for will respect his wishes and let sleeping franchises lie.

— Ryan Scott

About Sara Korash-Schiff

Sara Korash-Schiff is a senior English and journalism and mass communications major at Washington and Lee.  She has served as  an intern for Hachette Book Group in Nashville and a reporting intern for The Springfield Republican.  After graduation, she plans to travel throughout Europe and attend a graduate creative writing program in fiction.

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2 Responses to Mostly Harmful (or, The Publisher’s Dilemma)

  1. Emily Danzig says:

    I’ve been thinking about this same subject for a while after reading that the Millennium series by the late Stieg Larsson will be continued by another author starting next year. On the one hand, the series is just too good to be done. Larsson had planned ten books, and died of a heart attack before even the first in the series, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, was even published. Just like countless fans, I reached the end of the third book and was devastated to finish. And just like countless other fans, I will preorder the new book and devour it. I cannot help but have reservations, though. Is it fair to Larsson to let someone else take on his brainchild? How can the integrity of his characters and ideas be preserved?
    If I suddenly start publishing new Harry Potter books under the name J.K. Rowling, I will undoubtable get sued. Fans would scorn me for daring to usurp such a famous and widely-loved author’s legacy. If I start publishing Harry Potter sequels under my own name, well, that’s fan fiction. The case at hand, with the Millennium series, falls somewhere in the middle. I will be very interested to see to what extent the new books continue Stieg Larsson’s series, versus using the same characters and publisher to begin a new series with a new author.

  2. Griffin Cook says:

    To quote the character Harvey Dent in The Dark Knight, “you either die a hero or live long enough to see yourself become a villain.” In the case of authors writing popular series, it seems you often you either die at the peak of your talents and become recognized as a beloved literary icon (C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, the aforementioned Douglas Adams) or live long enough to start writing books that pale in comparison to earlier, more praiseworthy publications. The “heroes” seem to have a knack for inspiring continuations of their series piloted by other writers. In the case of an author like George R.R. Martin or J.K. Rowling and the abundance of Internet fan fiction for their respective series, I almost wonder if/when more detailed copyright laws to prevent the appropriation of characters, settings, etc. by writers other than their creators will be developed. It’s easy to understand the allure for both fans and publishers to have an author’s cherished works revived, especially when there’s an empty, incomplete feeling, but perhaps authors will reassert their rights to their intellectual properties and start ending this practice in advance of their demise. Regardless of fan reception, if an author declares his or her work to be complete or material written by anyone else to be unauthorized, can it really be considered a genuine sequel or continuation?

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