We are suckers for sequels. We fall in love with made-up people and their made-up lives, yearning for their return. Curtains close, screen credits roll, there are no more pages to turn, and yet we want more. Hollywood has made a fortune off our inability to let go, as have publishing houses. There was a time when “serious” writers almost never wrote sequels. They gave us staggering, multi-volume works of literary toil, say Lawrence Durrell’s The Alexandria Quartet or John Updike’s Rabbit trilogy. But Leo Tolstoy churning out a follow-up to Anna Karenina? Not likely. If a book had been conceived as a stand-alone novel, it usually remained so, at least in the author’s lifetime.
Until recently, sequels were more likely to be written by less-talented writers, feeding on great novels as carrion to sustain their puny careers. The most-abused author in this matter is surely Jane Austen, who was first ripped off in 1913, when Sybil Brinton slapped together a potpourri of various Austen characters and plots in Old Friends and New Fancies: An Imaginary Sequel to the Novels of Jane Austen. Why cannibalize one classic when you can ruin them all?
Austen’s novels have since been routinely abused by chick-lit writers such as Emma Tennant, Jane Gillespie and Joan Aiken. But she’s hardly alone in her posthumous misery. Bram Stoker’s great grand-nephew, Dacre Stoker, and his co-author, received a million pounds for The Un-Dead, to be released later this year. Although no one has seen an advance copy, I’ll be willing to bet that Dracula Part Deux will be every bit as thin as the Stoker scion’s literary credentials (a former coach of the Canadian Olympic pentathlon team). Pulp authors routinely write series, not just sequels, that feature the same cast of characters, be they crusty detectives, sci-fi heroes or romance-addled heroines. Given the dictates of his genre, it’s astonishing that Dan Brown has waited six years to pen the next instalment of the Robert Langdon adventures, to be released this fall. Faced with the ignominious fate awaiting their best work, writers of serious fiction are now following suit. In 2007, Charles Webb penned Home School, a quirky follow-up to The Graduate, which parachutes us back into the suburban lives of Ben, Elaine and her mother, the infamous Mrs Robinson.
Vikram Seth too has taken matters into his own hands. He is working on a sequel to A Suitable Boy titled, what else, A Suitable Girl. In the self-described “jump sequel”, slated to be released in 2013, Lata is now a 79-year-old grandmother and once again looking for a suitable mate, this time for her grandson.
Encore: Seth’s (left) A Suitable Girl will release in 2013. Tekee Tanwar / AFP
This is one publishing trend that ought to make us readers happy. Better a less-than-brilliant sequel penned by the talented creator than an expedient knock-off from a wannabe. Whatever the flaws of A Suitable Girl, it will be far preferable to the usual hack job. The odds, however, are stacked heavily against Seth.
Unless they are part of a planned series, sequels to our favourite novels tend to disappoint. The problem lies most often with us, dear readers. We’ve already decided how it would all have turned out between Rhett and Scarlett, and don’t want anyone—be it Margaret Mitchell or Alexandra Ripley—telling us any different.
Sequels also necessarily transform our most beloved characters, and they don’t necessarily age well, such as Mrs Robinson in Home School. The wicked, sexy barracuda turns into a malicious, horny grandma, and I for one couldn’t forgive Webb for doing her in. A great novel is like a self-contained piece of art, fully realized from the opening line to the pitch-perfect ending. Reopening that narrative inevitably runs the risk of desecration.
Write to Lakshmi at firstname.lastname@example.org