Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Chickening Out.

I was one of the speakers at this year's Australian Children's Book Council Conference in South Australia. I had a great time banging on about comedy in 'YA literature'. In fact I enjoyed the experience so much that I crept back the next day to hear keynote speaker Eoin Colfer talk about Artemis Fowl. And he was good. It was a very funny presentation largely featuring very good stories about his two young sons. But watching from the audience,  I felt the need to ask him something. I've blogged elsewhere about my dislike of And Another Thing, Colfer's contribution to The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. I wanted to ask him how big the publisher's advance was to coerce him into doing such a terrible thing. But I don't have a loud voice so in order to be heard I crept from the audience and onto the stage to use a microphone (not Colfer's). From the stage I got a view of happy people in the audience , thoroughly enjoying Eoin's presentation. And Eoin looked like a nice guy too - a bit smaller than I'd imagined. So I 'rephrased' my question, hoping I would get around to 'How could you and for how much?' a bit later. Of course, Eoin is used to this question, usually posed by angry fanbois. And of course, an angry fanboi is exactly what I was and am. My 'rephrased' question was 'How did it feel when you were approached to write a new installment of The Hitchhiker's guide to the Galaxy?H' and this, of course, is a question he had no difficulty answering. He didn't want to do it, neither did he think it should be done (it's all there on Twitter)...

... but he had been asked by Douglas Adams' widow to do it. Okay, now I just don't buy it.  To me it sounds like the sort of lie that a publisher would tell in order to get a writer to do something they were terribly reluctant to do. 'Oh, but Douglas Adams' widow wants you to do it. How could you say no?'

Eoin told a few stories about how silly it was to be worried about the huge legacy that Douglas Adams had left, and the audience laughed obligingly. He reported he was very nervous about writing a bit where lead character Zaphod Beeblebrox has his second head removed. But he reassured us that he ran the idea by his wife, who shrugged and told him that it really didn't matter. And I could tell from the looks of the audience that they agreed. 'It doesn't matter.' And that's really where I should have jumped in and said.'But it does bloody matter.' The reason is that, for many people, The Hitchhiker's Guide to The Galaxy became a sort of philosophy of life.  We know all the lines, and the reason we know them is because they were and are so very good. It's so rare to find clever, economical comedy writing about big ideas, that when we do find it we clutch it to our hearts. Adams' writing was always about something, not just people flying around the galaxy in a stolen ship called The Heart Of Gold. When Douglas died, we all felt his loss because we knew he had other stories to tell, after all, he was our prophet, even though his output was limited. In fact, I do wish that Colfer had written the book while Adams was alive, then Adams had come along and reworked it thoroughly to cast over it his own inimitable style. He was terrified of deadlines. Very bad 'blank page' syndrome.

It would be rude to have said this to Colfer, but I very much doubt that Neil Gaiman would have accepted the offer to write a sixth HHGTTG book. This isn't because he has higher moral values than Colfer, it's just because he knows enough about the original work to leave it alone. Years ago, when he was just a journalist, Gaiman wrote a book called DON'T PANIC about the whole HHGGTG phenomenon. He would have interviewed a number of very devoted people in order to construct the book, which is very well written, as we would expect from Gaiman. He does not try to imitate Adams because he knows it's well nigh impossible and would upset a lot of people, notably the devoted people to whom he had spoken. If you want to know the strength of this devotion, read Hitchhiker by M.J. Simpson. This was the first biography of Adams to appear, discounting the earlier Gaiman book about the series. It is not an easy book to read, because MJ crowds it with facts that could only possibly be of interest to rampant diehard fans. MJ later got into trouble when he covered the release of the HH movie via his website Magrathea. He stated, quite plainly, that the movie was a terrible disappointment after the book and had left out far too much. The review was four pages of bitterness and contempt, which he supported with well-chosen quotes from the book and the film. And MJ had a point. The movie was only just okay. It only just managed to score 'Fresh' on Rotten Tomatoes, and it really shouldn't have. The best thing they did was cast Martin Freeman and the thoroughly delightful Zooey Dscshanel as the slightly star-crossed couple Arthur Dent and Tricia Macmillan. The Jim Henson work with the Vogons was good too. But Ford Prefect and Zaphod Beeblebrox were both terribly miscast, and the result was a movie that didn't really cover much of the stuff that was in the books. There was some very clever new stuff like the 'Point of View Gun' which is such a good sociological idea that it surely must save been one of Adams' own. We'll never know. He's dead, which is as inconvenient as it is sad. MJ's four-page review of the movie was so blistering that it caused a cyber-war. He was flamed practically to death by people I can only assume to be employees of Disney,who were behind the movie. I read the very last bit of The Restaurant at the end of The Universe last night, and the prose was just perfect. It's probably a shame that Adams didn't stop there, because everything that comes after isn't as good. 

To many people, HHGGTTG was so much like quasi-religion that the idea of someone continuing to write the series after Adams' death is a little like someone adding bits to the New Testament. "I decided to give Jesus an extra head. It made the last supper scene very funny. The left head says, 'Eat, for this is my body,' then the right head says 'Drink, for this is my blood.' After all, it's only a story. I mentioned the idea to my wife Fatima and she agreed."

But back at the conference I looked out at an audience of people who hadn't grown up with THHGTTG, who were pron=bably only familiar with it through the dire TV shiow and movie and who would have thought my reverence for Douglas Adams a little extreme. So I didn't ask the question about the publisher's advance, I just nodded as I heard all of the answers that Colfer had already given to the media.'I had no option.' 'I felt my hands were tied.' (I wish they had been.) And when Colfer was accused of avarice (not by me), he pointed out that he made plenty of money from the Artemis Fowl books and he would have written one of those if he needed the dough. Although, in 2011 I noted that And Another Thing was heavily promoted and certainly appeared to be selling by the truckload. And, I would opine, it would have made slightly more royalties for Colfer than the Artemis Fowl books.

Anyway, I didn't ask my money question, even though I had warned Colfer that I would and that he wouldn't like it. We were running out of time. I also didn't want to ruin what had been a perfectly enjoyable presentation by ending on some sourness. Anyway, Colfer has done the book, and history can't be undone. My own view of Colfer's HH book is that it isn't very good. I think he gets the characters about right. But where he screws up is where he segues into vast tracts from The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy 'guidebook' itself. He does this far too often. He's not good at it because these segments are never funny, but - more importantly - they never make a point or advance the story or get you to look at something in a different way. And that's what Adams was good at. He was notorious for his writer's block, hence the idea of Colfer writing a first draft then having Adams overwrite has merit, but that's all And Another Thing is; a first draft, and I sincerely hope we don't see any more of these. I also challenge Eoin Colfer to write a gag as good as this one from Adams:

Ford: You may not like the leap into hyperspace. It's unpleasantly like bring drunk.
Arthur: What's so bad about being drunk?
Ford: Ask a glass of water. 

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