Let ’em sleep when they’re dead

I’ve been thinking a lot about literary continuators for the past couple of days. Continuators are writers who take over popular series characters created by someone else. I saw somewhere that novelist Ace Atkins is taking over the Spenser novels of Robert B. Parker, and I’m just not sure what to think of it.

Then Salon did an article on the practice here: The writers who keep popular authors alive. It specifically mentions Parker’s works, along with Robert Ludlum’s Jason Bourne series and Jeffrey Deaver’s update of Ian Fleming’s James Bond.

My initial, knee-jerk reaction is that I hate the idea of a continuator — especially in the instance of Parker’s work. He and his work will be forever tied to Boston, and Atkins, like me, is from the deep South. Atkins, despite attending Auburn University, turned out to be a pretty good writer (nominated for a Pulitzer for his reportage at the Tampa Tribune). But he’s not Parker; nor should he try to be.

I don’t think I’m alone in my reaction. The idea feels like a cash-grab by the author’s estate and/or publisher. But that’s an unkind view. While Parker’s work isn’t as popular as it was in, say, the mid-80s, Spenser and his crew are still read widely and much loved.

Maybe that’s the thing: We all want our heroes to live forever, right? Maybe this is the way (the only way) for them to live on for us. If I relate the idea to comic books, I realize that dozens (maybe hundreds?) of artists and writers have worked on Batman, or Superman, or Spider-Man. But comic books traditionally have been most closely tied to their publishing company, not their writers/artists. I’m not saying that’s right or wrong–it’s just a key difference between how the public perceives novelists vs. writers/creators in another genre.

It’s unkind of me, but I often think of a literary continuator as someone whose own work isn’t cutting it, who is riding the coattails of another author’s fame. That doesn’t appear to be the case with Deaver or Atkins. Both guys have carved good careers for themselves (bordering on great for Deaver). So I wonder why they’re doing it. Deaver, as I understand it, was a huge fan of Bond. Maybe Atkins was a huge fan of Parker. Maybe it’s just an easy payday. Who knows?

I likely won’t give Atkins a chance to impress in his forthcoming Spenser novel. For me, Spenser, Susan, Hawk and the rest of Parker’s beloved cast of characters died the same day he did. I may pick Atkins’ book up and read through a couple of chapters while I’m browsing Barnes & Noble, but I doubt I’ll buy it. It will have to be exceptional for me to even attempt to accept those characters written by anyone other than RBP.

The more I think about it, the more I don’t like the idea of a continuator. There’s a difference in, say, finishing someone’s final work. Creating whole new novels with someone else’s characters just feels like — well, it sort of feels like someone got paid to write fanfic.

Let the writer (and his characters) sleep when he’s dead. Everybody deserves a rest, right?

Edited to fix the link to Salon.com, which wasn’t working in the first post.

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6 thoughts on “Let ’em sleep when they’re dead

  1. I by and large agree with you the way it’s handled now, where a beloved series is handed over to one or two writers to take over. Perhaps it’s just the money grab. The appeal is that the characters live forever, but by and large, everything probably should come to an end and books are usually not meant to go forever. Or are they?

    Lets look at the comic book comparison. Being a comic book junkie from childhood, I find that I gravitate to the ‘good’ writers (and artists) that pop up every five years or so and just pretend that the bad ones didn’t exist. I still get the fulfillment factor of seeing /my/ character well done, and by the exposure the cream of writers and artists rise to the top.

    On that note, what about fanfiction (the ugly word in respectable writing circles)? Writing for someone else’s world is nothing more than fanfiction at its stripped down heart. In the true fanfiction world, a writer gets to practice his/her craft in a world that is easier because it already exists, and harder because of the challenge of stretching your own voice to be believable in the borrowed world’s framework. Fanfiction is the most awesome of free exposure testing grounds, and again, the cream always rises to the top.

    Perhaps if some of our favorite series characters were handled like a comic publishing company with their rotating stable of staff and freelance writers, perhaps we’d get the same sense of selective continuity to our favorite characters by gravitating to the writers who do it well. And unlike fanfiction, it gives more struggling authors /paid //exposure as well.

    This kind of thing is already done in general romance and western genres etc, as well as established shared worlds like the Star Trek novels. I’d love to see it more in the ‘dead white guy’ series.

  2. I love that “fanfic” is one of your tags.

    I basically agreed with you, although I can see hiring a continuator to finish a particular series with a specific arc (which you see in fantasy all the time — basically a really long story broken into pieces, as opposed to the serials you tend to get in mystery). They did this with the Wheel of Time series. The author died before he finished the last book, so without a continuator there would have been no way for readers to find out how the story ended.

    You’re talking about something a little different, though, and I agree, it feels quite mercenary.

  3. Let them sleep when they’re dead…at first I thought you were talking about me, but then I read the whole thing. You have a great point here, and I agree…I would love my characters to live forever. And we do have a vested interest in Batman, Spiderman and other larger than life characters. We can only hope out writing will set us apart and add us to the ranks 🙂

  4. We don’t usually agree on literature, but on this, we do! I’m waiting for one of my favorite authors to write something historical with just a little fiction thrown in, By the way, his initials are BWM!

  5. My first reaction was indeed similar to yours. How could anyone continue the Spenser series especially a southerner ( like myself) ? I have read a number of comments and thoughts about Atkins as the”continuator” and most seem to dislike the idea. Think I shall give him one chance. If “Lullaby” doesnt work for me its adios.

    • Thanks for chiming in, tarheeltalker … I’ll probably browse through some of Lullaby, but … I just don’t know that I can pull the trigger and buy it. Spenser, Hawk and Susan have been great characters, and they’ve earned their rest, IMO.

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