Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Propping up the corpse

There's an old comedic literary device, wherein the heroes of the piece end up with some critical third party dead in their hands; and in order to make their schemes go off right (frequently it's to make money, though sometimes it's to avoid being killed by goombahs or somesuch) they "prop up the corpse" to make him look like he's still alive and kicking.

The modern "classic" example of this is of course, "Weekend at Bernies"; though examples go back to Shakespeares time and before.

Unfortunately, in real life, it's an established practice in the publishing industry. Propping up the corpse.. or perhaps just the retired, or less capable, or couldn't be bothered... body of the writer to crank out yet another sequel and keep that revenue stream flowing.

The most egregious examples of this in modern literature (and I use the term loosely here) are of course V.C. Andrews of "Flowers in the attic" and the innumerable sequels; and Frank Herberts "Dune" series, which the publishers at least had the courtesy to not pretend it was Frank still writing them, and assigned a "co-author" to write them with Franks son Brian.

Arguably worse, is the case of Tom Clancy.

Fans of Clancy's "Jack Ryan" novels broadly agree that the last one Clancy actually wrote entirely by himself was most likely 1996's "Executive Orders", or perhaps 1998s "Rainbow Six".

Large portions of the follow-on book "The Bear and The Dragon" were written in an entirely different style, and with a very different use of language (including a lack of many of Clancy's characteristic uses; and numerous constructions that Clancy absolutely would NOT use). Worse yet, there were numerous technical errors that Clancy simply would not have made (indicating that Clancy never even bothered to proof the book).
An aside: Neither Fierfox nor Bloggers spellchecker understand proper apostrophe use. That's OK I suppose since neither do most people who speak English, but it irritates the hell out of me.
The damage only got worse; as it was abundantly clear that "Red Rabbit" and "Teeth of the Tiger" were entirely ghostwritten; with perhaps just an outline and a few paragraphs of description, plotting, and "mood"/flavor text contributed by Clancy.

There is at least an excuse for this I suppose; in that the Jack Ryan arc of the "Ryanverse" was intended to end with "Executive Orders" and John Clarks arc was intended to end with "Rainbow Six"; and Putnam (Clancy's publisher since "The Hunt for Red October") insisted on three more books to fulfill a contract obligation.

Also, it was asked by both the publisher, and the production companies for Clancys movies and video games that a "hook" to continue the series with Jack Ryan Jr. be added (this seems to be the sole reason for the entire book "Teeth of the Tiger").

The reason I say "Perhaps worse" in Clancy's case, is because the author is maintaining the pretense of writing these books himself; rather than creating a "House Name" or co-crediting a subsidiary author etc... as is the convention when the supposed primary author is still alive.

Clancy has been concentrating on his non-fiction for 10 years now, and can't very well turn his real name into a house name, and still publish his non fiction under it (well he could, but it would be absurd).

To my mind, the proper way to handle it would be but at least he could put in a "with" or "writing as" credit in there, or perhaps "Tom Clancys Jack Ryan in "whatever" by "whoever" as the continuing authors of the "James Bond" books have done for example.

Fleming wrote 12 Bond novels and three collections fo short stories before he died. Then, Kingsley Amis (who can be fairly said had as much a claim on Bond as Fleming did), John Gardner, Charles Higson, Raymond Benson, and now Sebastian Faulks have written further novels in the series, all under their own names; with either the "Ian Flemings James Bond" or "Writing as Ian Fleming" credit tacked on.

It lets you know what to expect, or what not to; at least as far as I'm concerned. I don't go into a John Gardner (the best of the continuing authors by far) Bond book expecting Flemings Bond. I don't read a Benson Bond book expecting Gardners (actually I'd prefer not to read a Benson at all).

Unfortunately, I am sad to report, there is another corpse being propped up; and this one, like Clancy is still alive. At least however unlike Clancy, they are honest about him having a co-author, supposedly his son.

I'm speaking of W.E.B. Griffin.

Now I know, some find Griffins stories repetitive, and some say it presents an unrealistic picture of the social strata of the military, and of the police. Certainly Griffin reuses both plot and character elements frequently; and perhaps his subjects are treated in an almost hagiographic way.

All that said, I have always enjoyed his writing. Griffin wrote good stories, with lots of great, snappy dialogue; and lovely insight and detail elements.

Unfortunately, my use of the past tense in "wrote" seems to be accurate.

The first couple of books where Griffin is credited with his son were reasonably good; though not up to his previous standard. This is understandable, as clearly Griffin was becoming less involved with the actual writing (he is after all, 79 years old). The beginnings of the "Presidential Agent" series were, if far fetched; at least greatly entertaining.

Unfortunately, the last several novels produced under their joint names, have been I think poor imitations of Griffins previous work.

Not only are they unoriginal and repetitive; but they are rife with mistakes that Griffin would not make, and would be certain to correct if he had even proofed the books.

For example, Griffins personal favorite scotch (and not coincidentally my favorite mixing whisky. I first heard of it as a teenager through Griffins novels) has been "The Famous Grouse" since world war II.

The Famous Grouse, is a fine blended Scotch Whisky; composed primarily of The Glenrothes, Highland Park, and The Macallan single malts (and others). It is not however a single malt whisky; and in the most recent presidential agent novel it is repeatedly referred to as "The Famous Grouse single malt". In fact it is always referred to as "The Famous Grouse Single Malt", which is quite stilted and jarring; not something you would expect in normal speech patterns.

This in and of itself is a jarring error, but not exactly ruinous to a book. The problem is that such errors are scattered throughout, and the same errors are repeated many times. In fact, it seems that stock "Griffin like" touches were added (and repeated ad nauseum), to "Griffinize" a text written by some other, less experienced and far less deft writer. The dialogue is missing it's characteristic punch, the plotlines are obvious and lack dramatic tension...

Simply put, Griffin didn't write this book; and I doubt his son did either (his son would have shown more respect for his fathers work).

The recent entries in the "Men at War" and "Honor Bound" books are significantly better in this regard. I believe that Griffin had a major hand in their writing; but again, the dialogue, plotting, and detail are simply not up to standard.

Worse still, each of these books seems written not as a standalone novel, but a bridge to further material; designed to boil the pot and generate revenue.

In fact, in the case of the "Badge of Honor" series, "The Corps" series, and "The Brotherhood of War" series; all had been brought to their natural and quite satisfactory conclusions; but were then re-opened with new books, only tangentially related to the original plotlines, series, and characters.

Please, William E. Butterworth the fourth, if you are writing these; protect what is left of your fathers legacy. If you must, re-read everything your father has written; study it carefully to maintain consistency, style and detail; then write one final concluding novel to each series, wrap up the plots left unresolved, and let them go.