Looting the Graves: Resurrecting Dead Authors



I have to admit, I love a good, meaty (ewww!) zombie story. World War Z by Max Brooks had me at hello, and I think Shaun of the Dead is one of the funniest movies ever. And I very much enjoy a good historical romance as well, but when I saw the recent monster mash-up, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies:The Classic Regency Romance - Now with Ultraviolent Zombie Mayhem! , "by" Jane Austen and Seth Grahame-Smith, my jaw dropped.

It might be great fun. I have no idea. But did Grahame-Smith resurrect Austen and ask her to agree to this "collaboration"? Or, once in the public domain, can anyone exploit the author's work for any purpose? (Hint: Yep.)

Not cool, nor do I think it's cool to dig through a popular author's old manuscripts and/or hard drive looking for incomplete (and possibly ill-conceived) manuscripts, having them completed by a relative or hired gun and passed off as the author's work. (Hence, Michael Crichton has two posthumous books forthcoming.) Dicier still are situations where heirs treat the late author as a franchise and continue to produce "new work" in the "spirit of" the deceased while slapping his/her name on the new product. Or situations such as the one where Margaret Mitchell's relatives authorized the creative of an apologist "sequel" to Gone With the Wind.

In one particularly egregious example (sorry but I can't name this author because I'm allergic to lawsuits) I'm aware of, the family members of a dead author hired a publicist to occasionally plant "news items" making it appear as if their cash cow, er, beloved, is actually alive.

Seriously, seriously not cool.

The moral of this story? As an author, make your wishes crystal clear. And if you have old manuscripts lying around you wouldn't be "caught dead" putting your name behind, give some thought as to their final disposition.

I'm one of those writers who saves everything, at least electronically, as I often repurpose old ideas and like to have them around to look back on (even though they mostly make me cringe). And while I'm not nearly popular enough to warrant "grave robbing," I'm betting Austen never would've seen the zombie mash-up coming either. So I'm newly inspired to either designate someone to destroy certain files (this can be risky, especially when we're talking heirs, who might be convinced by those who stand to profit of the literary merit of the material), check into how I can prevent this legally, or destroy the most embarrassing old manuscripts myself.

So what are your thoughts on this issue? Do you believe an author's works should stand as published at the time of her death? Or are there exceptions? (For example, most of the reclusive poet Emily Dickinson's masterpieces were collected and published after her death, and I for one believe the world would be a poorer place without their discovery.) What about your own work, for those of you who write? Do you like the idea of your work, ideas, or name going on to support your heirs? Or would you rather control your own literary legacy?

Comments

William Simon said…
It's gotten to be absolutely ridiculous, Colleen. See the link below:

http://cgi.ebay.com/ws/eBayISAPI.dll?ViewItem&ssPageName=STRK:MESELX:IT&item=180346143215

The killer is the $21.95 cost. Plus, lack of licenses, permissions, rights, etc. If it's published, it's fair game for "homage"... (French for 'ripoff")
PatriciaKay.com said…
Boy, Colleen, do I ever agree with you. It made me sick to see this cover to begin with, but to see Jane Austen's name there, as if she IS collaborating on the book, is just plain disgusting. This man and his publisher should be ashamed of themselves. But of course, they aren't. And to think this book made the NY Times list. Well, in the age of Bernie Madoffs and credit swaps by greedy and immoral Wall Streeters and WMDs that don't exist, should anything surprise us anymore?
Pat
William,
And this person even swiped a photo. Seems like there's a successful lawsuit there, but there probably wouldn't be enough $ in it to make it happen. Sickening.

Pat,
Here, here. Goes hand in hand with "This Is Your Wake-Up Call: 12 Steps to Better Book Publishing" over at PW by Jonathan Karp. Provocative and thoughtful article, makes a lot of good points. http://tinyurl.com/chwppe
Kay Hudson said…
Someone told me about this on Saturday, and I thought it was a late April Fool joke. Or the latest example of the Decline of Western Civilization. I think the original no-budget b&w "Night of the Living Dead" is possibly the scariest movie I've ever seen, but there's a place for Zombies, and Pride & Prejudice isn't it.
Vicky said…
I agree the publication of this book is sickening. Some folks find it funny, but when I returned to college a decade ago, most of the classic authors we studied were men. It took incredible courage for a woman to write and publish. This zombie revision is an insult to one of the greatest female authors and to all her devoted fans centuries later.
Theresa Meyers said…
More ironic still, Jane wasn't a NYT bestseller while she was alive. (Granted, it probably wasn't even around then.) But still.

I couldn't agree more. An author's reputation is his or hers alone and they should decide what is done, or not done, with their creative works or brand name.
Joni Rodgers said…
I'm okay with the paraphrase of the iconic title, and maybe a send up or "retelling" (as "Clueless" is to "Emma") of the characters and setting. I totally agree that an author's work should not be ripped off and bastardized after her death. (My comment on that last Gone With the Wind sequel: "Rhett is no gentleman, and frankly my dear, I DO give a damn" --
http://boxingoctopus.blogspot.com/2007/11/rhett-is-no-gentleman-and-frankly-my.html )

That said, as much as I admire Jane Austen, I can't stomach P&P. I've hated that book since I was twelve. Every time I try to reread it, thinking there must be something terribly wrong with me for not worshipping it, I just end up wanting to slam my head in a door. So truthfully...I'm very probably going to read this blasphemous book and laugh my head off.

Sorry.
Apparently a lot of people feel that way, Joni. The book's selling like hotcakes. And Grahame-Smith just got a "major deal" to write a follow up about Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Slayer.

Which begs the question of how far writers should take historical figures. But I doubt Grahame-Smith's losing a ton of sleep over the ethical issues. He's too busy making money while thumbing his nose at the establishment. Sounds like fun work if you can get it.
Suzan Harden said…
This is one of those "depends" situations.

Out-and-out deception or tramping on rights I have a problem with. And I have no problem naming names (and you know who you are, V.C. Andrews' relatives!) because if they really want to sue me, well, my beagle Dax is about the only thing I own that doesn't have a bank lien.

On the other hand when books/stories pass into public domain, they are fair game. Otherwise, we wouldn't have Gregory Macguire's marvelous WICKED. Macguire didn't ask Baum or his heirs for permission.

And for cryin' out loud, how many animated and live action versions of CINDERELLA has Disney done over the years?

Seth Grahame-Smith wrote the absolutely hysterical ZOMBIE SURVIVAL GUIDE, so I planned to pick up PRIDE AND PREJUDICE AND ZOMBIES tomorrow (my day off from the pay-the-bills job). With so many scholars arguing Austen's feminist heroines predate Buffy, it makes sense that someone would have a little fun with her characters. Personally, I'd like to see Mr. Darcy whoop some zombie ass.
Cher Gorman said…
I completely agree. It made me sick to see the cover and to have her name on it too! (shuddering)

Cher
Nancy said…
The cover alone is a gross out!

I don't care how funny the book may be, it won't be in my hands.

Light,
Nancy Haddock
Keena Kincaid said…
While it may be fun to see Darcy slay some undead a** (or see Zombies kick his) this book begs the question: "when did fan fiction become a legitimate for-profit venture? Where's the line between, even if a dead author's works are public domain?
Linda Warren said…
Colleen,
I agree the cover is awful and so is Grahame-Smith. He shouldn't be able to do this and put Jane Austen's name on it. You said it all when you wrote, "Looting the Graves."
TJ Bennett said…
I don't know...I loved Pride and Prejudice (sorry, Joni, what can I say), but on the other hand, I love a good sendup also. Hey, I'm a fan of Monty Python and the Holy Grail, as well as the original two seasons of Saturday Night Live and Mad Comics. I think a send up, if done in good, clean, fun, can be quite hilarious. If they're serious, and really are just ripping off P&P or whatever for the money, and it's a hack job, that's another matter entirely. But if the book is funny and well-written, I say go for it.

I don't know why, but this discussion made me think of George Gordon, Lord Byron. He'd written a tell all manuscript about his loves (both men and women) and life which he entrusted to a friend with instructions to publish it after his death. However, after he died, his friend burned the manuscript. I will always wonder what secrets those men took to their graves...that's a situation where the author's intent clearly wasn't followed, and we are the poorer for it (I think).
Joni Rodgers said…
I'm just wondering then...how do y'all feel about "Shakespeare in Love"? How about "The Red Tent" by Anita Diamont and "Sappho's Leap" by Erica Jong? Or "Kiss Me Kate" or "Camelot" or the Reader's Digest Condensed versions of "Jane Eyre" and "The Hunchback of Notre Dame" or Anne Rice's erotic novels based on "Beauty and the Beast" or Alice Hoffman's "Here On Earth" based on "Wuthering Heights"?

You can read G-Smith's zombie book or not, love it or don't, but he has as much legal right and moral authority to use P&P as the above authors had to use the iconic source material they used. And I think it's only right for him to credit her on the cover if he's using passages she wrote. If he used material from her book verbatim and didn't credit her, that would be terribly wrong.

Work that's passed into public domain is -- well, it's public domain. It's part of the lexicon, the uber-conversation. ("Gone With the Wind" is NOT public domain, and that's why I have a serious beef with those sequels perverting her original characters.)

I think this sounds like a wildly imaginative book that deserves a read before it's condemned.
Suzan Harden said…
FYI - The two bookstores I stopped at this morning are sold out of P&P&Z. I'm so disappointed!

I think I'm going to have order it online.
There's nothing like a controversy to fuel book sales. Clearly, this book's publication has struck nerves and provoked both curiosity and laughter.

It's definitely a tribute to Austen that her work can still inspire such strong feeling so many years after her death.

I really do think this whole issue is a gray area. I can think of classic reinterpretations fron minor characters' viewpoints that worked wonderfully, and as Joni points out, the use of scripture, fairytales, and other works in the public domain has been around for a long time. What makes me squirm, though, is the use of so much of Austen's prose verbatim in this mash-up. I won't say I'm not curious about how it came out, but I still think author's intent should've been considered.

Interesting discussion. And Keena raised a good point about fan fiction becoming "for profit." But FF generally involves unapproved use of characters from copywrited material, so this is different.
Dorothy Hagan said…
IMHO, the difference here is between inspiration and bastardization. Of course good works inspire other good works (and some not so good). But where does it stop? Can we inject some Transformers into War and Peace? A time machine into Oliver Twist? (Might have helped the poor guy.) One of the most challenging things for a writer is to create something new. And to me, this seems like an unfair way to do it. Just my two cents.
Suzan Harden said…
With a little Bumblebee and Optimus Prime, I might be able to finish War & Peace for once. *VBG*