Martin Davies offers a Christmas guide to not-quite classic fiction
Christmas! Dreary outside, cosy inside – what better than to curl up with a good read? And if you’re in the mood for something reassuringly familiar, something rich but not entirely strange, what better than a tale firmly rooted in a novel you already know and love? Yes, it’s time for you to dip into the world of literary spin-offs, reimagined classics, crazy mash-ups and favourite characters resurrected from the literary grave. In publishing at the moment, standing on the shoulders of giants is all the rage.
Of course, writers have taken inspiration from the works of other writers since the invention of the pen (and probably long before that). But if you can’t tell your Sense and Sensibility (J Austen) from your Sense & Sensibility (J Trollope), here’s a quick gallop through some of the complexities of spin-off fiction.
First stop should be ‘continuation literature’, which isn’t so much spinning off from the original as attempting to recreate it. For a publisher, the formula is relatively straightforward. 1) Identify a classic fictional series curtailed by the death of its creator; 2) Invite a big name to continue the series, with the blessing of the original author’s estate, if appropriate; 3) Inform the press, let the review column inches pile up and watch fans of the original series queue up for copies (whether out of enthusiasm, or simply out of curiosity, you care not); 4) Repeat if possible.
This approach can be applied to works both old and new. Recent examples of the former include Sebastian Faulks on Jeeves and Wooster, Sophie Hannah’s Poirot and both Faulks and William Boyd on James Bond. (Nothing new there: Kingsley Amis kicked off the ‘official’ post-Fleming James Bond sequence with Colonel Sun back in 1968.)
And for a more recent series getting the same treatment, look no further than David Lagercrantz’s The Girl in the Spider’s Web, proof that a trilogy (particularly a best-selling one, in this case Stieg Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy) doesn’t need to stop at three.
From continuation literature, it’s a relatively short step to reimaginings, the retelling of a much-loved classic story by a contemporary author: again, not really a spin-off, but a recasting of something familiar into a slightly different form. To get the hang of this, take a look at the Austen Project, a series from Harper Collins that invites six big names in modern fiction to rework (and update) the Austen oeuvre. So far we’ve had Joanna Trollope’s take on Sense & Sensibility, Val McDermid on Northanger Abbey and Alexander McCall Smith on Emma. Alternatively, ignore the Austen Project altogether and just re-watch the 1995 film Clueless, in which Alicia Silverstone is a C20th Emma Woodhouse all at sea in Beverly Hills. Funny, neat and wildly popular, it’s a tricky act to follow.
Sticking with Austen, a different approach to reworking the classics can be found in novels like Jo Baker’s Longbourn. The trick here is to create fiction that runs in parallel with a familiar work, but is told from the point of view of characters on the periphery of the original. This is the territory of Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, and allows scope for all sorts of creative playfulness, whether as comedy, farce or serious fiction. Stoppard went back to Shakespeare’s Hamlet; in Longbourn, Baker returns to Pride and Prejudice. Austen’s characters hover on the edges, but it is the lives of the Bennets’ servants – their hardships, hopes and tragedies – that take centre stage; proof if any were needed that new work framed by a classic story can be both satisfying and fresh.
And perhaps, since we’re on the subject of Austen, it would be wrong not to mention crossover fiction like PD James’s Death Comes to Pemberley, which seeks to blend the conventions of crime fiction with the world of Pride and Prejudice; nor the horror mash-up genre represented by Seth Grahame-Smith’s Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. If you’re not familiar with that one, a line about the local ball will give you the general flavour: ‘…despite having their gowns soiled with bits of blood and brain, Catherine and Lydia had been fortunate enough never to be without partners’. We could hardly be further from Longbourn.
Stepping even further away from the originals are the authors who take a minor character in a classic novel and use them to tell an entirely new tale. Recent examples include Ahab’s Wife, where Sena Jeter Naslund creates an entire world around a character mentioned in only a handful of lines of Moby-Dick. But perhaps more famous than any is Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea, set before the events of Jane Eyre, and telling the story of Mr Rochester’s first bride. And the minor character who has escaped most successfully from his original milieu is perhaps Thomas Hughes’s Flashman, the bully of Tom Brown’s School Days, who, in the hands of George MacDonald Fraser went on to enjoy a career that lasted for twelve novels over 36 years.
But what of fan fiction, in which enthusiasts of a given novel or series write their own continuations, spin-offs and crossovers? How does fan fiction differ from all the above? Mostly, it should be said, by the degree of respect accorded to it by the literary establishment. William Boyd taking on Bond is a literary event – a student in a bedsit doing the same thing is fan fiction. But of course the literary establishment isn’t always quite as astute as it thinks. When someone calling herself ‘Snowqueens Icedragon’ first published fan fiction on a Twilight website, it’s fair to say that traditional publishers weren’t stampeding towards her door. By the time EL James had reworked her first efforts into Fifty Shades of Grey, thing were rather different.
And what of my own particular area of literary piracy? Sir Arthur Conan Doyle didn’t consider his Sherlock Holmes stories his greatest works, but they have proved a very happy playground for later writers. For continuation literature, Anthony Horowitz’s The House of Silk appeared with much fanfare – and the blessing of the Conan Doyle estate – in 2011; but his was not the first authorised continuation of the author’s stories. Conan Doyle’s son Adrian, working in conjunction with the well-established crime writer John Dickson Carr, had produced a collection of Holmes short stories back in the 1950s.
As for reimagining the Conan Doyle originals, the medium that seized the initiative was cinema. Conan Doyle had created a character who was, in the author’s words, ‘as inhuman as Babbage’s calculating machine’; and from the beginning of the twentieth century, script-writers, actors and directors competed to re-imagine the stories with their own take on the great detective. You need look no further than the various film and television versions of The Hound of the Baskervilles to see how they fared: from the genial double act of Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce to the almost-horror Hammer version with Peter Cushing; from Peter Cook’s comedic Holmes to Benedict Cumberbatch’s manic genius, no two Hounds have been alike.
It’s interesting that Anthony Horowitz’s Moriarty, his sequel to The House of Silk, is a Holmes story with very little Holmes in it. Instead, the leading British detective in the novel is Athelney Jones, a policeman mentioned briefly in Conan Doyle’s originals. And Jones is not the only Conan Doyle character to forge a solo career. My own novels about Mrs Hudson and her scullery maid companion began as a single chapter written for my father; but too much fun was to be had to leave it at that, and a series was born. And, given that the original Conan Doyle stories lack for strong female characters, I’ve always enjoyed Irene Adler stealing the limelight in Carole Nelson Douglas’s Goodnight, Mr Holmes.
As for crossover fiction, if you’ve ever wondered what happens when Conan Doyle’s work meets the traditional Western novel (what, you haven’t?), look no further than Steve Hockensmith’s Holmes on the Range – further proof that standing on the shoulders of giants can reveal some unexpected and diverting vistas.
Would Conan Doyle have objected to any of this? I like to think not. When the American actor William Gillette was seeking to insert a romantic interest into his stage play featuring Sherlock Holmes, he cabled Conan Doyle with the question May I marry him? – to which the author is reputed to have replied You may marry him, murder him, or do anything you like to him.
Writers ever since have been taking him at his word.