The cover version is big in the world of music. Bands and singers regularly indulge themselves by recording their own version of a favourite track and, on occasion, surpassing the beauty of the original.
Jeff Buckley is generally regarded as having recorded the definitive version of Cohen’s “Hallelujah”, though my editor disagrees.
The literary world has started to indulge in its’ own take on the cover version. I first became aware of the development at a meeting of Independent Booksellers where Harper Collins announced the launch of the “Austen Project”, where six bestselling contemporary authors each take one of Austen’s well-loved stories and write their take on the novel.
The publisher was very excited; we booksellers were very perplexed. Why exactly did the works of the great lady need an update?
There could be no doubting the quality of the authors recruited: – Joanna Trollope, Alexander McColl Smith, Val McDermid, and Curtis Sittenfield are all already respected in their own right. Doubtless they are all massive Austen fans and like a singer, they could not resist the chance to riff on one of their favourite works.
Still, as years of Saturday night talent shows have proved, the desire to mimic one’s idol does not guarantee success. None of the 4 books published so far by the Austen Project have been slated –but neither have they received rave reviews.
In 2011, P.D James, a respected novelist with 17 books and several screen adaptations to her name, wrote a sequel to Pride and Prejudice: Death comes to Pemberley. Despite James’s vast experience and her massive love of Austen, the book was rather like a pint of milk that is on the turn – drinkable but ever so slightly off.
On the 400th centenary of his death, Shakespeare is receiving the same treatment. Back in 2013 Hogarth Press, an imprint of Penguin Random House, announced it had commissioned a range of A-list writers (Margaret Atwood, Anne Tyler and Howard Jacobson, amongst others) to “reimagine Shakespeare’s plays for a 21st-century audience”.
Their remit was to move the plays from stage to page; to turn them into novels that would be “true to the spirit” of the originals but which, beyond that, could be whatever the novelist pleased. Jeanette Winterston’s take on The Winter’s Tale – The Gap of Time – has been pretty well received but I have just finished Anne Tyler’s Vinegar Girl (her take on The Taming of the Shrew) and I found it rather dull.
As with a remake of a successful film blockbuster, the commercial attraction is of a safe, ready-built audience who can be attracted for a second bite by the attachment of a modern star name. This is low risk, uninspired and possibly cynical publishing.
The internet is already awash with Fanfiction. This is when authors openly take existing stories or characters and write their own tale. It is a great outlet for non-professionals to scratch their creative itch but surely we expect a little more effort from our top professional writers.
There have been occasional successes in the field of updates on a literary classic. Emma Thompson wrote the utterly charming Further Tales of Peter Rabbit, Jo Baker a credible below stairs Austen novel called Longbourne and Jean Rhys an excellent Jane Eyre prequel – Wide Sargasso Sea. Yet most turn out slightly below par. William Boyd wrote a Bond novel, Mitch Collins an elderly Sherlock Holmes, Sebastian Faulks a Jeeves and Wooster story. All are adequate, but nowhere near the quality of work their author’s are usually capable of.
Perhaps trying to write in another authors’ style is rather like wearing someone else’s clothes; no matter how much you want them to, they are unlikely to suit.