Monday, August 13, 2012

On Writing — To Be Or To Be Someone Else, The Resurrection of Marlowe

I’ve covered this territory before, but with the announcement that still another contemporary writer wants to take over still another legendary writer’s characters there are some questions.  Mine is: Why?

Raymond Chandler
The first thing that comes to my mind is that known characters like Holmes, Spade or Marlowe, in this latest case, gets the writer some level of instant recognition.  This provides a sales advantage in a cluttered marketplace.  The writer doesn’t have to fight the anonymity of starting from scratch with an original character — or as original as one can get. The theory is if you liked Raymond Chandler’s Marlowe, you’ll like the clone rumored to be on its way from John Banville aka Benjamin Black.  Though, in this case, the writer is well known, there is marketing power in combining all the known names together.  That would be literary writer (Banville), his genre nom de plume (Black), and one of the most famous fictional detectives ever (Marlowe).  In the corporate world, the process is called “value added.”

Then again, I’m not inside Banville’s head, so I can’t know.  And I suspect that Banville is more capable of getting inside Chandler’s head than I am of getting into Banville’s.  So I shall leave well enough alone.

John Banville
The second thing that comes to mind is that some writers may want to make a game of it or they are excited by the challenge. Lord knows, writing James Bond books became a kind of playful hobby for half dozen writers, with such literary lions as John Gardner and Kingsley Amis, participating.  Then again, possibly even our lions fall on hard times and need the money.  The truth is that many genre writers are paid far more than the so-called literary ones.  But popular writers joined the Bond game as well. Best selling thriller writer Jeffrey Deaver took a shot at it.  And another highly respected writer, William Boyd, is expected to have his own post Ian Fleming Bond out next year.

The third possibility that comes to mind when we ask “why” is homage.  A writer can be so enamored with his or her predecessor that continuing the series is a way of honoring the one who went before.  As I understand it, Max Allan Collins, for example, worked with Mickey Spillane before the legend passed away and Mike Hammer’s life in crime fiction was extended with the original writer’s blessing.  Cool.  That isn’t likely the case with Chandler and Banville.

Or finally and fourth, the writer doesn’t have a great deal of imagination and has to feed upon someone else’s carcass to create something of his or her own.  That sounds harsh.  Oops.  Art is created in many different ways and who am I to judge? Certainly I wouldn’t have created private eye characters if there hadn’t been a whole slew of them before me.

Though, whatever it is, using some other writer’s characters without permission* goes against my perhaps misdirected sense of honor and order.  Which Bond is this? The Deaver Bond or the Amis Bond? Of course that may be the purpose of the game. How about a writing competition among the top performers?  They could be Olympic-type events.  Now, competing in the Hammett are….  So and so won the Gold in the Macdonald.  And why wait until their gone?  Who won the Banville this year?

Perhaps I’d be more likely to appreciate adaptations — that is if there is a significant difference in say, time, place or interpretation.  If Banville brought Marlowe into 21st Century L.A., that might be something.  Or maybe bring Sherlock Holmes into the present.  Oh, the BBC did it and a mighty fine job as well.  And now we have it on an American network TV, coming soon to a TV set near you.

*In the case of a dead writer, the estate may grant or withhold permission.  If the writer's work is in the public domain (quite likely Sherlock Holmes for example, though there is some debate), one may pillage Doyle's characters.

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