Classic versus Contemporary Writing – A Reader’s Dilemma

“The old lags familiar with the Wooster family set-up might like to practice a scale or two on the piano while I bring the tyros up to the mark on the important distinction to be made between my Aunt Dahlia who, though loud of voice and firm of view, is on the side of the Seraphim, Dominions and Powers, and this Aunt Agatha, who is so deeply imbued with shades of darkness that in the aftermath of bloodletting even Vlad the Impaler might have yielded her first dibs with stake and Mallet.”

This is an excerpt from a book titled “Jeeves And The Wedding Bells“.  However misleading the title might be, this is not a book by P.G.Wodehouse, who is synonymous with the Jeeves character. The author here is Sebastian Faulks – a well known novelist, journalist and broadcaster – best known for his historical novels like Birdsong, The Girl At The Lion d’Or, and Charlotte Gray. In addition to these, Faulks has authored a novel, Devil May Care – as a continuation of the James Bond books, and of course Jeeves And The Wedding Bells – a continuation of Wodehouse’s Jeeves series.

Faulks refers to this particular work of literature as a “homage to P.G.Wodehouse”. What got me thinking is why would an accomplished author write books that mimic the writing or take up on characters from existing works – and classic cum popular books that too. Faulks says he attempts to encourage the younger generation to experience Wodehouse’s literature if they haven’t read his books, and the older generation to reminisce about the books they have grown up reading. But in that case, readers can opt for original Wodehouses.

No doubt a writer might want to pay tribute to another literary influence, but by himself suggesting links to a well known series by a well known and widely read author, Faulks puts himself in a position of inevitable comparisons with Wodehouse. And that is something hard to match up to. I am three chapters down this book, and it is indeed funny. If I read the book as a book by itself, the writing is laugh-out-loud and the language usage impeccable. And I feel this is how Faulks should have presented the book – as an original piece of work, with his own characters and situations. Comparisons with Wodehouse cause the humor quotient to falter and tend to take away from Faulks’ writing. I will review the book in its entirety once I finish reading.

We are familiar with movie remakes or sequels made decades after the original, that fail to match up to their predecessors. Have you come across other books that are written as “homages” or “tributes” to famous authors or characters? What do you make of them? A book that fails to match up is obviously bad literature and worth staying away from. But what about a book that is actually good and its only flaw seems to be the lingering presence of a beloved author? Would that “mimicry” be termed a success or would the writer rather have published it as an original piece? What do you think about such books? – good originals, good adaptations, but inexorable comparisons pulling you apart as a reader.

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4 thoughts on “Classic versus Contemporary Writing – A Reader’s Dilemma”

  1. That is an interesting question. Unofficial spin offs based on characters are be termed fanfiction and they are not necessarily looked down upon. The Shades of Grey series was borne out of fanfiction written based on Twilight! Who would’ve have thought a successful but critically panned series would spawn another successful but critically panned series! But then it is termed successful in the commercial aspect and not in the literary sense. I believe Faulk’s work is an authorised continuation of the character and therefore cannot even be termed a spinoff. When a successful author like Sebastian Faulk alludes to and continues Woodhouse’s work, there could be a plethora of other reasons besides wanting to acquaint the present generation with the latter’s work. One of them could be his own wish to create a story around Jeeves but we can only surmise. And I’ll have to agree with you about living upto the original work. The moment he referred to Woodhouse’s creation, it is inevitable and maybe necessary too that his work would be held upto and critiqued in the light of the original work.
    Great post! Not often do posts make a reader question stuff! Cheers 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for writing in. Apologies for my delayed response. Yes, it is mentioned in the book that this one is completely authorized from the Wodehouse estate. The book is very funny indeed; the only downside being people I have talked to about it don’t find it worth reading, just because of the Wodehouse tag. If it was published by itself as an original piece, it would have got more readers. In spite of being a good book, it misses out on account of comparisons – and not just reading and comparing; most don’t even want to read it considering it is not written by Wodehouse himself. As a reader, it makes me wonder how many books one might have missed by inadvertently judging the book or the author.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Many of the authors I know tend to entertain themselves with fanfiction, whether written or mental, from their favorite authors or their favorite settings. It’s a form of inspiration, I think. When presented with the opportunity to try your hand at writing your favorite series, especially with the full blessing of the estate, it’s too good to pass up and I don’t think there’s any reason for an author to – I mean, presumably there’s a publisher out there who wants it done and is going to give it to somebody. Somebody, somewhere is going to get paid (probably) and you never can tell how successful a book is going to be. As for making a book like that into an original piece…well, Jeeves is very recognizable, as is Aunt Agatha and Wooster and the whole crew. You can change the name and the locations, but as long as you’re keeping the flavor, I think it stops looking like an homage and starts looking like a ripoff, unless you’re deliberately spoofing it. I think it would be better to suffer the inevitable author-to-author comparison than get accused of stealing another author’s ideas and just changing the names to protect the guilty.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. This is informative. Thanks for writing in. My concern has been about books like these not receiving adequate readership on account of the inevitable comparisons. I’m about a quarter into this book and it’s absolutely funny, but as I recommend it to people they shrug it off as “not an original Wodehouse”. Sebastian Faulks’ “Birdsong” is the only other work of his I’m familiar with, and from what I have read about him he mostly writes historical fiction that leans towards serious themes. So it’s really commendable that he took up the challenge to continue with a Wodehouse series, and did a great job of it too. This has got me curious about more such “homage literature”. Do you have any more recommendations of books written as tributes to other books/authors?

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