2014 columns, Books

Reviving the literary dead

by Carody Culver , April 29, 2014Leave a comment

The Black-Eyed Blonde


‘I’ve never much liked the word “pastiche”’, observed author Lynn Shepherd on her blog back in 2012. ‘It always sounds rather condescending to me – as if the meticulous re-evocation of another’s style is some rather inferior form of passing off’.

Shepherd is well qualified to discuss such matters: in 2010, her novel Murder at Mansfield Park – a bold rewriting of Jane Austen’s beloved novel, in which Fanny Price is revealed as a scheming gold digger and a murder mystery propels the narrative – was met with a warm critical welcome. Shepherd has described the novel as ‘Jane Austen meets Agatha Christie’ and her approach to writing it as ‘literary ventriloquism’.

Is this a fair label to give writers who take what was essentially someone else’s idea and make it their own? Is it ventriloquism – a creative and clever act in itself – or more like lazy literary upcycling?

Whichever side of the fence you sit on, resurrecting the work of dead writers has become a weirdly meta subgenre of genre fiction. It’s hardly a recent development – Ian Fleming’s estate has been commissioning novelists to write Bond novels since 1967 (Kingsley Amis produced the first of these, Colonel Sun, using the pen name Robert Markham); after years of legal wrangling, Scarlett, Alexandra Ripley’s sequel to Gone with the Wind, was published in 1991 to a universally unenthusiastic critical reception and phenomenal sales.

More recently, however, the art of the literary revival – either as a one-off or as a series continuation – seems more common. In 2011, PD James turned her crime-writing prowess to the world of Austen’s Sense and Sensibility and penned a murder mystery sequel, Death Comes to Pemberley, which turned out to be neither amusing nor thrilling (my book club never forgave me for making us read it).

This year, John Banville, writing as Benjamin Black, published The Black-Eyed Blonde, a Philip Marlowe mystery that revives the original hardboiled PI and takes place before Raymond Chandler’s final Marlowe novel, Poodle Springs (which, interestingly, was finished by author Robert B Parker, since Chandler died before the manuscript was complete). Banville/Black’s novel doesn’t strike quite the same laconic, deadpan note as Chandler’s originals, but his language and characterisation feel impressively accurate; this isn’t just a case of mimicry, but a considered continuation of Marlowe’s adventures that many Chandler fans are sure to appreciate.

Has the growing popularity and prevalence of fan fiction made us more receptive to the practice of writers adopting other writers’ imaginative offspring? Perhaps so; and, like a lot of fan fiction, these literary revivals are respectful re-workings of someone else’s intellectual property ( as opposed to parodies such as Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, which are, if you’ll excuse the pun, a different creature all together, since humour is their primary intention). From a creative perspective, carrying on another writer’s work offers us the chance to traverse hitherto unexplored facets of beloved characters and situations; from a practical perspective, it allows us to conclude narrative trajectories that were never finished in an author’s lifetime.

Of course, not all readers are likely to enjoy reading about their favourite fictional figures if a different author is behind the keyboard. I have to admit that despite enjoying The Black-Eyed Blonde, I couldn’t get past the thought that it wasn’t really a Marlowe novel because it wasn’t by Chandler – not so much because it felt inauthentic, but because it felt theoretical, somehow, an instalment of Marlowe’s story that never actually took place in the world Chandler created.

But perhaps that’s part of what makes these new‒old books an increasingly prevalent outcrop of the literary landscape. Ultimately, readers can choose their own adventure – and if you refuse to believe that Fanny Price was capable of the sly antics portrayed in Murder at Mansfield Park or that Rhett Butler and Scarlett O’Hara encountered each other with the improbable frequency depicted in Scarlett, you need never pick up those books. Perhaps, just as a tree falling in a forest doesn’t make a sound if no one’s around to hear it, a literary revival doesn’t have to be real unless you want it to be.

Carody Culver is a Brisbane-based freelance writer, editor and part-time bookseller. 

ACO logo


Kill Your Darlings

What We’re Reading: Readings staff share their September picks

Looking for a book recommendation? Staff from Readings bookshop share what they’ve been reading this month. Read more »


Chris Somerville

The Readings Prize Shortlist Showdown: Chris Somerville defends Heat and Light

At our recent Readings Prize Shortlist Showdown event, six writers gave a speech in defence of the book they believe most deserves to win the Readings Prize for New Australian Fiction. Author Chris Somerville spoke in praise of Ellen van Neerven’s debut work of fiction, Heat and Light. Read more »


Elizabeth Flux

The Readings Prize Shortlist Showdown: Elizabeth Flux defends In the Quiet

At our recent Readings Prize Shortlist Showdown event, six writers gave a speech in defence of the book they believe most deserves to win the Readings Prize for New Australian Fiction. Writer and Voiceworks editor Elizabeth Flux spoke in praise of Eliza Henry-Jones’ debut novel, In the Quiet. Read more »


Rebecca Shaw

Girl Gang: The value of female friendship

For two years I was the only girl in my class, along with four boys. Perhaps this would have been some kind of fantastic Lynx-filled utopia for a boy-crazy pre-teen girl, but for someone who was just beginning to figure out that she didn’t like boys in the same way other girls seemed to, it wasn’t what you could call ideal. Read more »


Rebecca Shaw

Written On the Body: Fat women and public shaming

The policing and subsequent shaming of women’s bodies is not unique to famous women. It happens to all women. Feeling entitled to denigrate fat bodies, and fat women’s bodies in particular, is one of the last bastions of socially acceptable discrimination. Read more »


Rebecca Shaw

Right Direction: The value of fandom

I have a pop-culture confession to make to you, Internet. It isn’t something I’ve been trying to keep hidden for fear of seeming uncool, because that ship sailed long ago. But it is something I haven’t opened up about until this point. I, Rebecca Shaw, have become a One Direction fan. Read more »


Anwen Crawford

Throne Of Blood: Justin Kurzel’s Macbeth

For more than four centuries, we have found versions of ourselves in Shakespeare’s plays precisely because his characters are so human in their flaws and follies. At the same time, the arc of these characters’ stories unfolds somewhere above and beyond us, in the realm of grand tragedy or grand comedy, or both. Read more »


Anwen Crawford

Memorable Chills: Edgerton’s Gift

The Gift is Australian actor Joel Edgerton’s directorial debut — he also wrote, produced, and stars in it — and it bodes well for Edgerton’s directing career. A psychological thriller, The Gift is efficiently and quite memorably chilling, at least for the first half. Read more »


Joanna Di Mattia

Escaping The Wolfpack: Inside and outside the screen

The Wolfpack introduces us to the six Angulo brothers, who were kept virtual prisoners for 14 years in their Lower East Side apartment. More than a captivity narrative, this is a film about the influence of cameras and screens, and the transfixing, liberating power of cinema. Read more »


Alexis Drevikovsky

Have You Ever Felt Like This: Going Round the Twist again

Working from home one day, I took my lunchbreak away from my laptop and flicked idly through the TV channels, hoping for a midday movie with Reese Witherspoon or, even better, an old episode of Cheers. What I found was beyond my wildest dreams. I excitedly texted my mate Alison: Round the Twist is on ABC3! Read more »


Jane Hone

How the Golden Age of Television Brought Us Back Together

I recently heard someone say that it used to be that at 6pm, everyone would sit down to watch The Cosby Show. It seemed at once a quaint and almost sci-fi notion ­– millions of people watching the same show at the same time. How things have changed. Read more »

glitch abc tv

Stephanie Van Schilt

A Glitch in the System: The ABC’s undead gamble

In one gasping breath, Glitch shows that the ABC is stumbling towards something beloved by TV audiences the world over, but that regularly eludes the Australian and film and TV industry: genre. And not just any genre, but the ‘return-from-the-dead’ zombie-style genre. Read more »


Katie Williams

The More Things Change: Choice and consequence in Life is Strange

You can either be a benevolent hero or a monster, but few games deal with the multitudes contained by actual people. And what does it matter, anyway? There’s no such thing as regret when it comes to in-game decision-making – not when you can so easily restart the game to see what outcome will result from choosing Option B instead. Read more »

svfw crop

Katie Williams

Silicon Valley Fashion Week?: Fashion, technology, and wearability

Last week saw the inaugural Silicon Valley Fashion Week? (yes, with a question mark) unfold in San Francisco. The show promised ‘drones, robots, and mad inventions’, and tickets sold out swiftly; attendees were clearly eager to see more inventive clothing in this heartland of nerds. Read more »

AnimalCrossing copy

Katie Williams

Digging For Meaning in Utopia: Storytelling in Animal Crossing

Animal Crossing is a series of games in which – as my partner once remarked incredulously – ‘nothing ever happens.’ In its latest incarnation, Animal Crossing: New Leaf, you become the unwitting mayor of a town populated by anthropomorphic, bipedal animals. Read more »

Straight White Men - Public Theatre - Photo by Julieta Cervantes

Jane Howard

Unbearable Whiteness: Young Jean Lee’s Straight White Men

Though I am delighted to see Young Jean Lee gain traction in Australia, a work by playwright who is a woman of colour should not be such a rare occurrence; nor should this only come in the form of a play that blends effortlessly into the fabric of the work that is programmed around it. Read more »


Jane Howard

Putting Words In People’s Mouths: Performing the unseen, speaking the unknown

‘Do you ever get the feeling someone is putting words in your mouth?’ A performer asks an audience member in the front row. ‘Say yes.’
‘Yes,’ comes the reply.
This theme ran through multiple shows at Edinburgh Fringe this year, where occasionally audience members, but more often performers, were asked to perform scripts sight unseen. Read more »


Jane Howard

The Impenetrable City: Getting lost at Edinburgh Fringe Festival

I just saw a one-on-one performance piece that ended in my bursting into tears and the artist sitting with me and holding my hands in hers for maybe ten, maybe fifteen, maybe twenty minutes. We had a shared piece of history, and her work was delicate and took me by surprise, and I have a cold, and I am homesick, and I don’t know why I’m in Edinburgh, and I’ve cried a lot, and now I’m in a gallery because I couldn’t face another show. Read more »