Saturday, December 10, 2011

What Would Watson Do?

Scott D. Parker

Just last month, I read and enjoyed Anthony Horowitz's Sherlock Holmes novel, The House of Silk. As is my usual practice, I read no reviews prior to finishing the novel. When I did read the reviews, I was struck with the preponderance of a single word: pastiche. Interestingly, that word didn't enter my brain during my own reading (actually listening) of the book, but, perhaps, it should have.

In my own review of the book, I commented on how well Horowitz did in capturing the spirit, vocabulary, and feel of John Watson's writing. As I read the book, I ceased thinking it was Horowitz writing the book, but that it was Watson's (nee Doyle) pen that wrote the words.

Isn't that the definition of pastiche? That you forget the original author as you read the newer book? That the modern author has so completely assumed the style of the former that you think it's the former's own words? My next question was this: is this style of writing relegated only to Holmes stories?

This past summer, I read the newest James Bond novel by Jeffrey Deaver. I don't remember seeing reviewers commenting that it was a pastiche of Ian Fleming. Carte Blanche was a Deaver novel written about Fleming's creation, but with a modern sensibility, a complete reboot, to be honest. If you want a Bond-novel pastiche, that's more along the lines of 2008's Devil May Care by Sebastian Faulks, which was written to be a pseudo-sequel to the last Fleming novel.

While I haven't read but the first in the series, the late Robert B. Parker's main detective, Spencer, will live on in future novels written by future authors. This was the announcement by the publisher and I can't help but wonder if the authors selected will be instructed to maintain the Robert Parker style versus their own idiosyncratic stylings.

Why do we do this? Why do we pigeon-hole authors, their characters, and their writing styles to a certain, compartmentalized segment of the literary world? Is it, for example, that we prefer Holmes to live in Victorian times and sound like Victorian English because "that's just the way it's supposed to be"? When you start to think along these lines, a certain amount of imaginary pairings start to form in your heads. What would a Holmes novel sound like if Hammett was the author? How about a Spencer novel written by P. D. James? A Perry Mason book written by Michael Chabon? Heck, what if Doyle himself wrote a Continental Op tale?

In music, these kinds of pairings spark one-off, crossover experiments. Metallica integrated an orchestra with their songs and, arguably, are better for it. Brian Setzer rearranged classical standards to be performed by his big band and the results are fantastic. Just this year, the Ebene String Quartet issued "Fiction", their album of jazz and rock songs reconceived as a string quartet. If you listen to the Turtle Island String Quartet's version of John Coltrane's A Love Supreme, you will find a wonderfully new appreciation of the sax man's work. To me, these kinds of albums spark new interests in both the original version and the new.

So why are experiments like this not the norm in literature? Are we so conditioned to having Holmes and Watson always live in 189- that we don't want them to sound like the pulp heroes of the 1930s? Are we so worried that if Spencer starred in a story that "sounded like" Agatha Christie wrote it that we'd throw the book across the room?

What do you think?

Song of the Week:

Brian Setzer Orchestra's "The Nutcracker Suite" Well, since I mentioned it, here it is, in all of its jazzy glory.

Tweet of the Week:

That ABC edits Charlie Brown Christmas to make room for commercials basically proves the point of the show.

--Scott D. Parker

Yes, I'm quoting myself. Every year, I look forward to watching the Charlie Brown Christmas special. I'm old fashioned enough to prefer watching it on TV--commercials and all; remember when Dolly Madison did the ads?--to make it more of an event rather than something you can watch any time (or dozens of times) on a DVD. I know it so well that, each year, I get chagrined at the edits and cuts ABC makes in favor of (a) more commercials and (b) to account for the original 32-minute running time. That basically defeats the point of the entire message, right? It's ironic that Charlie Brown (in 1965) and the Grinch (in 1966) basically said all that needs be said about this most wonderful time of the year...over forty years ago.


Dana King said...

the problem with another author making too much of a change in voice would be critical to Sherlock Holmes and Spenser novels, as they were written in the first person. How to account for the dramatic change in style? Head injury? Stroke? Maybe readers unfamiliar with the original works wouldn't notice, but they don't care about the characters, either. Might as well write something new, instead of doing the literary version of a Hollywood remake or reboot.

Which reminds me of the real problem: the characters. If we are to invest ourselves in the Sherlock Holmes stories, we have to suspend our disbelief long enough to believe Holmes and Watson were real people. In that case, they lived in Victorian England, with the styles and customs of the day. Same thing with Spenser and Boston. If too many changes are to be made, why bother with the original characters, as so much of what made them who they are is rooted in when and where they were.

Dana King said...

As fate would have it, I was listening to Brian Setzer in the car while running errands this morning. That Nutcracker was a blast. Thanks.

Gerald So said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Gerald So said...

It seems to me the restrictions placed on characters and authors naturally stem from the choices authors must make when creating characters, just as people are shaped by their upbringing and life choices.

Once defined by these choices, characters are expected to stay consistent; the author's fictional world as a whole is expected to stay consistent. People are more allowed to change than characters, but if they do so too often, they're seen as weak of character.

If you separate a character from the world and author that helped shape him, unless the new author painstakingly follows the original, the character will change. Individual readers are left to decide how much the character can change and still be recognized as himself. Some critics said Deaver's Bond wasn't Bond enough.

Still, I would say experimentation is the norm in literature. Many if not all authors begin by imitating their idols, gradually experimenting with their own innovations. Parker, for example, asked, "What if Philip Marlowe lived in 1970s Boston?" The typical result of such experimentation is not just a new spin on an existing character, but a new character entirely.

Dana King said...

" Parker, for example, asked, "What if Philip Marlowe lived in 1970s Boston?" The typical result of such experimentation is not just a new spin on an existing character, but a new character entirely."

You've made my point better than I did. Go ahead, move a character into a different place and time. Just don't pretend he's going to be the same guy. Make him different, and, hopefully, better for the new world he's in.