Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Character appropriation

by Rick Blechta

I’ve been considering and then working on this post for quite a bit of time (for these things), but I’ve seen something recently that really pressed a nerve with me. I also don’t like calling people out, but while this topic has been percolating in my brain, I’ve found that I’m getting more upset about the situation rather than less. I simply cannot remain silent. So here goes…

Like the current trends in movies, publishing is constantly looking for ways to maximize their chances of cashing in to the max on every book they publish. That’s why the movie industry presents us with old TV shows packaged as movies. The idea goes that they have a built-in audience, and unless the movie is particularly awful, fans of those shows will come out to see their favourites (Brady Bunch, anyone?).

In books we see the popular creations of long-dead authors revived in pastiches. To be honest, I’ve found some of these that I’ve read to be very good. However, they come with an element of “sharp practice” to my mind. Would Rex Stout, for instance, be happy about someone using his characters and continuing his series? At its root, doing this is simply a blatant money-grab by the publisher. Find an author willing to do the work, an estate that’s willing to okay it to share in the money made, and the deal with the devil is done. Again, unless the product of this unholy alliance is particularly dreadful, the resulting books should be successful. Readers get their fix of favourite characters and the publishers et al make money. What the original author would think is probably not even a consideration.

But is it right?

I’ve heard of book publishing contracts where the publisher demands the rights to the author’s characters, in other words, they own the characters. If the creating author comes up with a bestseller and then wishes to end the series or move on to something else (or dies), then it is very easy for the publisher to continue on without skipping a beat. To me, that’s just wrong. I’m sure the publisher could justify their demand (“We put all this money into these books and we deserve some protection against the loss of our investment.”), but we’re dealing with something creative here — the creation of a particular writer, not a mass-produced widget to which you can purchase production rights. (The author in this case was told she had to agree to this particular demand or the book deal was off.)

Would we stand for a painter being hired to continue the works of Rembrandt, or a composer to write Beethoven’s Tenth Symphony? That would be the same type of thing.

At this point, I’m not calling out authors like Type M’s Vicki Delany whose Sherlock Holmes Bookshop Mysteries (which are, by the way, excellent) make use of the Conan Doyle characters, but they’re used as reference material for characters of her own creation. Vicki is definitely not writing The Extended Series of Sherlock Holmes Mysteries here. Her series is simply an homage to Holmes and Watson.

What got me going on this topic was a book I saw in the catalog of a remainders warehouse from whom we occasionally purchase books or videos. I’m referring to a series created by two authors appropriating George Bernard Shaw’s characters from his play Pygmalion, to whit Eliza Doolittle and Henry Higgins. From the copy provided for this particular book, it’s a cozy mystery involving the characters in question with solving murders at a race track, and is the second in a series.

What is bugging me about this is that a) the book’s two authors are using someone else’s characters (hopefully with permission) and b) using them in a way that the original creator certainly never intended. If I know anything about Shaw — who was a noted polemicist he would be severely put out by this situation and would not have let it happen.

I’m sure the authors are very lovely people and the books are quite fun, but I’m sorry, I feel what they’re doing is wrong and an egregious example of character appropriation. It shouldn’t be happening. We writers should be working to create our own characters, not borrowing them from other writers and using them in ways not intended.

What do you think?


Sybil Johnson said...

Interesting post, Rick. I certainly object to any publisher demanding the rights to an author's characters. I've read some of the Nero Wolfe and Hercule Poirot books written after the authors died. I know the Hercule Poirot ones had the blessing of the Christie estate but, honestly, I didn't find them that great. The Pygmalion example is interesting. Hadn't heard about that. Doesn't seem right somehow.

Rick Blechta said...

Yes, continuations of series or the use of iconic characters may have the "blessing" of an author's estate, but who are those people giving their blessing? It may just be money-hungry relatives.

I have no problem with new books being written after the creating writer's death (or decision to stop writing those books) as long as the creating author has stated that they don't mind other writers using their characters.

Wonder if we'll see books Y & Z in the Kinsey Milhone series. Based on what I know of her, I doubt that Sue Grafton would have been okay with that. But I would bet that her publisher sure would like to see it happen!

Sybil Johnson said...

Her publisher probably would but it sounds like her family won't let that happen.

Charlotte Hinger said...

I not only agree--i'm very passionate about this issue. I didn't even read SCARLETT the sequel to GONE WITH THE WIND. I won't read any book--none--based on someone else's characters.

Aline Templeton said...

I totally agree, Charlotte. If you can't think of an original idea for a book, you shouldn't just steal someone else's reputation. The only one I've read was death at |Pemebrle and I was soory I had.