How much influence can a fan have over an author’s work?
The answer, in short, is a staggering amount. Fan response as prolonged the length of a series far beyond its accepted death time and time again. One need only look to television for the most grievous examples, the very existence of the phrase “jump the shark” proves that a show might go on being popular far after it has stopped being good. Television series are not the only perpetrators, however. Both the Rocky and the Star Wars series suffered from lackluster later installments in the realm of film and there are plenty of pulp fantasy novels that fit this trope. The Lauren K. Hamilton books are probably the greatest offenders here, but many will attest to the almost-indecipherable thickness of prose in Tolkein’s ponderous afterword the Silmarillion as another example of this trend.
But can an author be divorced from their work for the sake of the art?
No. Not only because it comes down to the author’s decision whether or not the world in which they write needs to be revisited (in some cases, quality be damned). But also because removing an original creator from the equation is no guarantee that a lackluster sequel will be produced in order to puppet the series onward in some sort of literary necromancy. You only need to watch one of the Jaws sequels for a few minutes to understand that Speildberg had nothing to do with them. (Though Benchley might have been the original author, most acknowledge the film as the definitive version of the story). However, what happens in the case of a story that is left incomplete, if an author passes before he is able to finish telling his tale.
In most cases, the audience takes it upon themselves to finish the story. Either in their own heads, or by actually putting it down on paper, the story needs to be finished. Dating back to the Canterbury Tales, unfinished stories tend to draw the attention of younger authors looking to provide a satisfactory conclusion to something possibly great that remains unfinished.
Douglas Adams had expressed interest in adding another book to the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series before his death. Unfortunately, this was not to be so. Even more unfortunately, perhaps, this stranded the characters of the novels in a very bleak, depressing situation that it seems Adams had always intended to remedy. To this end, Adams’s widow commissioned popular Irish young-adult author Eoin Colfer to pen the ending chapters of the series.
Titled (quite appropriately) And Another Thing…, the story picks up precisely where the fifth volume, Mostly Harmless, left off, with Colfer making use of some of Adams’s notes in order to complete the story.
While many fans objected to the arrangement when it was announced (Colfer himself is quoted as being “semi-outraged at the idea of another author contributing to the series”) it seems that the well wishes of Belson, Adams’s widow, won over the public support. The novel was received to mostly positive reviews, with many crediting Colfer for “pulling off the impossible.”
However, is this sort of circumstance the rule or the exception? Should it be expected that another author will have the ability to carry off the continuation of a superbly unique story with a measure of humor and aplomb, or will this combination yield, in most circumstances, complete disaster?
This is perhaps one of the hardest things about the writing process, figuring out where a story should end. It becomes more and more difficult each passing year with the further interference of money pouring into the equation. As long as a story continues to draw a paying audience, many interested solely in the “industry” aspect of the literary industry believe that the story should never end. However, this isn’t in the best interests of the art.
There’s really nothing an audience can do to change this, the system works as well as it possibly can. A loyal audience will follow a story up until the point it becomes boring, absurd, or horrible. However, a story or series needs to reach that point in order to lose the interest of the audience. While unfortunate, it seems to be a fact that if a franchise is successful, it is likely to be pushed forward until it is driven into the ground.