It isn’t that controversial to say that sequels can be a mixed blessing. I’m not talking about the spin-off sequels like Longbourn or Death Comes To Pemberley, where a different author attempts to continue a previous author’s work. For this post, I’m thinking of the damage or otherwise that authors can do to their own work by refusing to leave things alone. I got to thinking – what is it that makes a ‘good’ sequel? So often, when a second book comes out, I find myself approaching it with trepidation, afraid that the affection I had for the first volume will be undermined by this second attempt. In the movie world, sequels are happening with a quite depressing frequency – as soon as a film makes some money, you can picture the network executives putting their heads together to work out how best to milk the cash cow further. But is this profit-driven outlook also leaking into the land of literature?
The most obvious example of a sequel written purely for profit is Louisa M Alcott’s Little Men and Jo’s Boys. The clue is in one of the central events in Little Men – the premature death of Meg’s husband, John Brooke. Just as Little Women was based on Alcott’s own relationship with her sisters, with the saintly Beth representing her own late adored sister Lizzie, so was Little Men rooted in true events. When Alcott’s brother-in-law passed away unexpectedly, her sister found herself in dire financial straits and so Alcott, who wrote a vast quantity of other books, decided to pen an addition to her most successful series in order to assist her sister and family financially. No matter what your feelings on Little Men (I actually liked it, but as an entirely independent creation to the original two books), you have to have sympathy with her decision. It’s like when Michael Cain was asked what he thought about Jaws III and he remarked that he hadn’t seen it, he’d heard it wasn’t very good but that he had seen the house he bought with the appearance fee and that that was lovely. Another time Michael Cain appeared in a bad film because he needed the money in order to buy his parents a bungalow – it’s one thing to criticise creative decisions, but we have to remember that authors, actors, all these people working in the creative industries – they’re people too and need to earn as much as anyone else.
Still, there are times when you really have to wonder. I read The Hunger Games and largely enjoyed it. I was aware that Suzanne Collins was following the standard Young Adult genre practice of stretching the story into a trilogy but when I read the second volume, Catching Fire, I was rather nonplussed. It was a complete clone of the first. Katniss gets nominated for the arena, goes to the Capital, meets some quirky characters who nobody else is too fussed on allying with but decides that stuff it all, she’s going to ally with them anyway (first book Rue, the second one those clockmaker people), ends up in the arena and then through her awesomeness, figures out what to do in a way that no other characters can. It’s such a clear case of an author having hit on a winning formula and then sitting down to replicate it exactly. I remember sitting in the cinema watching The Hangover II and silently matching up each of the plot points with the original – it was exactly the same. I felt like asking for my money back. With Catching Fire, I more just wanted the time back. With no fresh ideas, it just seemed like a real slog.
The thing is – I recognise that the early volumes of Harry Potter had some of this – in the first five books, Hagrid had that annoying tendency to pick up a new dangerous beastie each year (Norbert, Aragog, Buckbeak, Blast-End-Skrewts, Grawp …) and Harry was often socially isolated (losing 150 points from Gryffindor in Book #1, being chief Heir of Slytherin suspect in Book #2, being Sirius Black’s Most Wanted in Book #3, accidentally becoming Hogwarts Champion in Book #4, all that business with Umbridge in Book #5 …), but at least with J K Rowling, you had the confidence that she was actually building towards something. The books do definitely shift focus in The Goblet of Fire after the rise of Lord Voldemort – it’s a seven book whole rather than a three book coast which is what a lot of YA series can feel like.
Then there are sequels that add extra plot developments that you just didn’t want to know. I remember reading the column continuation of Bridget Jones and discovering that she got pregnant and was unsure whether it was Daniel Cleaver’s baby or Mark Darcy’s (the baby later turned out to be Cleaver’s). Having wished good things for Bridget, I felt unreasonably irritated to see her making bad decisions again. I haven’t gone anywhere near Mad About The Boy. Similarly, one of the few young adult novels I liked in recent years was Sophie McKenzie’s Girl, Missing. It was a classic girl-discovers-she-was-kidnapped-as-a-baby story and worked brilliantly – until of course McKenzie completely sabotaged her own creation by two unnecessary sequels which undermined the central points of the original and killed off the most interesting characters (one of whom was dispatched completely off-stage due to a ‘heart thing’ – as if McKenzie herself couldn’t be bothered to think it through). This is the same kind of lazy story telling that has led me to give up on multiple television shows, the ones that bunged in unnecessary curve balls in a vain attempt to generate some kind of interest and stay on the air.
The opposite problem seems to have struck George R R Martin with Game of Thrones – his sequels are a bumpy collection despite the significant improvement in his writing because he just has too many ideas. The problem with having created a fiction kingdom is that Martin seems to feel obliged to come up with enough fictional nobles to realistically people said kingdom, as opposed to keeping things manageable. This has necessitated certain creative decisions such as in A Feast for Crows when he chose to concentrate solely on the characters who were away from King’s Landing, which was frustrating given that Storm of Swords had ended with the cliffhanger of Tyrion Lannister having just killed his father and I was dying to find out what happened to him next. It is this huge sprawling narrative that is the reason why The Winds of Winter is taking so long and I myself have my doubts whether Martin will be able to tie the series together convincingly. A similar issue afflicted Justin Cronin’s The Passage trilogy – after an incredibly strong start, Cronin seemed to become overwhelmed and the conclusion was very disappointing. I have always read as kind of an innocent, wanting to find out what happened next and trusting in the author to guide me there. It is a true disenchantment to realise that sometimes the author doesn’t know the way either.
I think that another strange permutation of the sequel however can come from the opposite issue – when the author knows their way quite well but it is not the way the adoring reader would have anticipated. By this I refer to those situations when a book takes off, you read it, you love it, you feel a sense of ownership and then when the sequel comes out it’s just … wrong. A classic example of this is Dodie Smith’s The Starlight Barking. Hardly anybody has ever read it, but my mother had a copy alongside The 101 Dalmatians, to which it is the borderline unknown sequel. If I was going to explain why The Starlight Barking is so unsuccessful, I would say that it is because it so unrealistic compared to the first one. And then you would stare because having a group of dogs mastermind an escape plan from an evil monochrome-haired witch is not really in the land of credibility either. But trust me. There is a kind of ‘magical realism’ to 101, with the dogs communicating via their ‘starlight barking’ – having become well-acquainted with my parents’ wonderful Labrador, I completely believe that dogs have their own method of communication. That’s fine – I can cope with 101, even when they take down the burglar etc, it’s such wholesome fun. But Starlight Barking has the dogs all wake up one morning to find that the humans are in an induced coma. All humans. Across the world. And for some strange reason, all the dogs suddenly have the ability to fly. After some time spent investigating the mystery, it transpires that this is happening because Sirius the Dog-Star wants to convince all of the dogs to fly away to live with him on the Dog Star and so he has drugged all of the humans and non-dog-related animals on the planet in an attempt to show the dogs what’s on offer here. I am not making any of this up. And then inevitably, the dogs decide that they’re best off with their masters and everyone rushes back home before the effects of the flying powers wear off and they never hear from Sirius ever again. If Pongo had woken up and it had all been a dream, I could have been more on board but as it was, it was just weird, like something Smith came up with having taken too much cold medication. I never re-read it and it does seem as if the literary world have done Smith a favour by quietly pretending it never happened.
The concept of the sequel is one that we can all get behind – to continue the story of the characters we have grown fond of. The problem however is that when the first volume ends happily, discombobulating the characters all over again seems cruel. The Rosie Project was a witty and intelligent satire on our algorithm-based approach to love in the modern age – it was borderline perfect. With a host of interesting characters and a great eye for humour, the sequel should have been a pleasure. Simsion attempted to take the same satirical approach from the first novel to the second, this time focusing on the pregnancy industry. But The Rosie Effect did not work – I did not want to see Don and Rosie messed up again and the idea that Glen had not been an adulterer after all felt too much of an author intervention. Revisiting the scene felt like it only undermined the first novel – a bungled effort. Far worse was what I heard about Closing Time, follow-up to Catch 22 – this one appeared to depict a defeated Yossarian who had betrayed his principles – I far prefer to think of Yossarian as we saw him at the end of Catch 22, leaping to avoid the knife of Nateley’s whore and being off like a shot.
I think the main pitfall for a sequel is if that it is a fortunate thing to respond to someone else’s creation once, and that attempting to do so twice can be tempting fate. I enjoyed The Man in the High Castle but the way it concluded was rather open-ended; I read afterwards that Philip K Dick had planned to write a sequel but whenever he tried it tended to turn into an independent work. In some ways it is a shame that this intriguing world where the Nazis emerged victorious in World War II could not be explored further but is it perhaps better that Dick never tried to force it to work? A problem I have noticed with television series is that the first season which has to be pitched to network executives has to be well-planned and also complete in itself lest they not get renewed, meaning that if a second season is commissioned, it often fails to live up to the first. Good examples of this include Heroes and One Tree Hill, both of which had second seasons that had the feel of writers scrabbling for ideas. I think the same applies to novels – writers come up with a complete idea and then have to sit down and come up with another possible continuation. From my own experience of teaching, I remember knowing that if I was not completely clear on my lesson objective that I was attempting to put across to the children, I had no hope of any of them recognising it. I think the same is true of sequels – unless the author is clear on what the second story is to achieve – other than making them money and feeding the fans’ desire for more – then you are left with something disappointing – a story to scour from the mind.