Invisible Ink: No 189 - When books become brands
Sunday 08 September 2013
Like it or not, authors are popularised by their most famous creations and, when films are produced from them, the work becomes a brand, so Conan Doyle is feted for Holmes alone and Arthur C Clarke is simply the 2001 man. There are 23 Jane Eyre movies, and after the recent Chinese ballet version at Sadler's Wells, I daresay No 24 is planned.
W Somerset Maugham's Of Human Bondage has been filmed three times and The Painted Veil twice, yet many would say that the writer's greatest strength lay in short fiction. Those stories remain tricky to amass because there are so many different collections.
Many consider short stories to be literature's poor cousins, which is absurd in Maugham's case, because they read like compressed novels. "Rain" concerns temptation and the victory of the flesh, as a zealous missionary drives a whore from his plantation town only to succumb to rape and death, while the puta triumphantly returns to her former ways. It was popularised in the bizarre semi-musical 3D film Miss Sadie Thompson, starring Rita Hayworth, but "The Fall of Edward Barnard", elegantly sardonic but not so filmable, remains barely known.
Daphne Du Maurier has been branded more by Rebecca than by her brilliant short fiction, which is often overlooked, and her ungathered stories are still turning up even now, so that there's no single collection available. I'd argue similarly that William Faulkner, Alan Sillitoe and H G Wells have had their superb short stories passed over in favour of the work that brands them, with only John Cheever taking the reverse position, because his story "The Swimmer" captured the state of a nation in a handful of pages and defined him as a writer.
A branded work is one with a defining style which is so easy to grasp that you can parody it, so when J K Rowling made a move into crime, it made perfect sense that she should use a pseudonym to avoid endless comparisons with her children's fiction, Harry Potter having branded her almost too indelibly. With a theatrical version of Wolf Hall in the offing, Hilary Mantel may find herself becoming branded as "the Henry the Eighth writer", which would do her dazzling back catalogue a disservice in years to come.
Few writers are one-trick ponies; they explore many styles and subjects through their careers. But when their most popular work is reduced to a brand, much of the rest becomes invisible.
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