We all love a sequel, don’t we? As readers – and viewers – we get so involved with fictional characters and their stories that we are reluctant to part company with them once a book – or a programme – is finished. We want to know what happens to them next . . . and then next after that, and so on. Even better than a sequel then, is a series (not to mention the bliss of the box set), and ultimately a never-ending serial. Which is why TV (and radio) soaps are so popular. We can turn on to, or tune into, them several times a week, every week, so that they become part of our lives for ever.
Coronation Street, EastEnders, Home and Away, The Archers. Yes – you’ve guessed. These are my soaps of choice. And oh how I love them! And I don’t mind owning up to this. But why do I use the words ‘owning up’ as if they were a guilty pleasure? As if they were a lesser form of artistic and cultural engagement? I always find it amusing when people say that they never watch or listen to soaps yet at the same time seem to be well up to date with the goings-on in Ambridge and/or Albert Square. They just ‘happen to be in the room’ when some other member of the family is watching! I happen to think that when soap operas are on top form they are excellent; and when they are not so good there is much pleasure to be derived from their inconsistencies and idiosyncrasies. And, on a more writerly level, as an author there is much to be gained from paying attention to the techniques of their narrative successes and failures.
And it seems to be the same with books: lots of readers like and want sequels. This goes all the way back to childhood. Think of all those series – all those Enid Blytons; all those Chalet School books, (back in the ‘olden days’); the Harry Potter books, just to name a few. Of course, there are sound commercial reasons for authors to write, and publishers to publish, series. You hook your readers, reel them in and then keep feeding their appetite for more of the same. Addiction is the aim. In the adult sphere, crime fiction, for example, flourishes in this way.
Sometimes this commercial imperative extends to publishers commissioning writers to write ‘sequels’ and ‘pre-quels’ to much loved classics long after their ‘proper’ authors have died. (Pause for a cynical moment here.) And sometimes, such a lot of hype is generated that people lose all perspective. We saw this recently with people queueing outside book shops waiting for the midnight release of Harper Lee’s Go Set A Watchman. Why, for heaven’s sake? OK, people camp and queue outside shops when there are sales on but at least there is a logic to that – heavily discounted products are limited and if you want them you have to be there early. Go Set A Watchman, however, is not a limited edition, neither is there any danger of not being able to get one’s hands on a copy; there are thousands and thousands of them on display everywhere you turn at the moment. So why this seeming inability to wait until morning? Were these people intent on staying up all night to devour it instantly? I doubt it.
The answer (but only in part) seems to be that people love the idea of a sequel so much that they just can’t wait! (The fact that Go Set A Watchman isn’t really a sequel to To Kill A Mockingbird is another issue.)
Still, as long as quality is maintained, there is nothing wrong with this reading preference. But perhaps we should have a balanced approach here. Enjoy our series, soaps, etc. but not to the exclusion of other forms. ‘As well as’ and not ‘instead of’.
So this is how I like to organise my own reading and viewing. But what about my writing? Well, I’ve noticed that many of the comments – posted on Amazon and expressed to me personally – from readers of my novel, Clad In Armour Of Radiant White, mention a wish for a sequel. And the last sentences of the book do hint at possibilities ahead for Ellen, my main character. But it’s no use asking me what does actually happen next because I haven’t a clue. Neither do I have any desire to find out. If I’d had a sequel – or a trilogy even – in mind from the beginning, then that would be another matter. But to graft one on now has no appeal.
I am reminded of a Guardian Book Club session I attended, many years ago now, on Peter Carey’s 1988 Booker Prize winning novel, Oscar and Lucinda. He was in attendance and was asked by a member of the audience whether he ever wondered what had happened to one particular character in the book (Wardley-Fish by name). Without hesitation, he answered an emphatic no, leaving us in no doubt that he neither knew nor cared about the fate of the fictional Wardley-Fish. And a murmur of disapproval at such a seemingly callous response rippled around the room. Sadly, there would be no sequel here!
Perhaps, for some writers, their job is to create characters that ‘stay with’ their readers in their own imaginations rather than in further volumes?