Creativity Within Constraints

Over the weekend, I read Val McDermid’s version of Northanger Abbey. This is one of The Austen Project books, wherein half a dozen very fine writers are (re)writing contemporary versions of Jane Austen’s novels.

I don’t mind saying my first reaction on hearing this was ‘but why?’ What could possibly be the point? The original books are there, readily available for reading, and by general consensus, are some of the finest writing in the English language.

Well, okay, not according to my stepfather. As a schoolboy in the steel and coal communities of South Yorkshire in the 1950s, being made to study Pride & Prejudice for O Level left him with a lifelong loathing of Jane Austen, the Regency, Bath – pretty much anything tangentially linked to a fiction that was so far removed from anything in his own daily life to that point and his primary interests in science. No, he’s not dumb – he went on to get a doctorate in Chemistry and more besides. The book just wasn’t for him.

So is that the point? Would a modern version be more relevant to him – or his current equivalent – and somehow get Jane Austen’s genius for unpicking human relationships in under the radar? Maybe so, but what’s in it for the likes of me, who’ve known and loved the originals for decades? I simply couldn’t see it, and honestly, only picked up Northanger Abbey because I’m such a great admirer of Val McDermid’s work. I started reading mostly in hopes of finding out what could possibly have convinced her to do this.

Wouldn’t it be just like one of those pointless shot-by-shot remakes of a popular TV show? For instance, I cannot see what’s to be gained by remaking Broadchurch as Gracepoint, even up to the point of using David Tennant with an American accent? Where’s the creativity in that? Though I’m equally down on remakes that diverge from their source material. I watched the first dozen episodes of The Killing and the further it diverged from the original which had held me so enthralled, the crosser I became. If they wanted to tell a completely different story, why not do something properly new?

On the other hand… I’ve watched both versions of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Swedish and English, and enjoyed them very much in different ways, while being very familiar with the book as well. Each production followed the source material closely, adapting it intelligently for visual rather than written story-telling, while the variations in performances did bring out different nuances and explore different aspects of that original. Somewhere in the multiverse, there’s the world that got the ideal version with Daniel Craig and Noomi Rapace…

Besides that, I know for myself that finding the room for creativity within constraints can be great fun, as well as a worthwhile test of a writer’s skills. I’ve written a couple of short stories for licensed properties; Doctor Who, Torchwood and Warhammer 40K. Those projects come with huge amounts of established detail and guidelines which you absolutely cannot break as an author. The challenge of doing something genuinely, satisfyingly new within those boundaries of characterisation, tone, background etc, is considerable – and that’s what makes it so rewarding.

The fun of working within the constraints of a theme is one reason why I’ve been involved in anthologies from Tales of the Ur-Bar, The Modern Fae’s Guide to Surviving Humanity, Legends – just to name a few. It’s why I’m really hoping Temporally Out of Order reaches the Kickstarter’s stretch goals, so I can write up my idea… I’m also really pleased that open-submission slots are available for that anthology, because working within these sorts of boundaries can often be a valuable learning experience for new writers.

Well, I won’t spoil this new version of Northanger Abbey for potential readers. I will just say that my reading time was emphatically very well spent. This retelling is great fun and so well crafted on many levels. A reader won’t need the least acquaintance with Miss Austen to thoroughly enjoy an excellent contemporary story. Most impressive of all for me, there are twists to surprise even those of us familiar with all the ins and outs of the original.

Author: Juliet

Juliet E McKenna is a British fantasy author living in the Cotswolds, UK. Loving history, myth and other worlds since she first learned to read, she has written fifteen epic fantasy novels so far. Her debut, The Thief’s Gamble, began The Tales of Einarinn in 1999, followed by The Aldabreshin Compass sequence, The Chronicles of the Lescari Revolution, and The Hadrumal Crisis trilogy. The Green Man’s Heir was her first modern fantasy inspired by British folklore in 2018, and The Green Man’s Quarry in 2023 is the sixth title in this ongoing series. Her 2023 novel The Cleaving is a female-centred retelling of the story of King Arthur, while her shorter stories include forays into dark fantasy, steampunk and science fiction. She promotes SF&Fantasy by reviewing, by blogging on book trade issues, attending conventions and teaching creative writing. She has served as a judge for major genre awards. As J M Alvey, she has written historical murder mysteries set in ancient Greece.

5 thoughts on “Creativity Within Constraints

  1. The other analogy one can draw, Juliet, is to renditions, depictions and interpretations of plays (e.g. Shakespeare). Unless you argue plays are meant to be redone over and over again, and novels are not, every direction of a Shakespeare play is unique.

    Also consider that some plots and scenarios just beg for use and reuse–The Count of Monte Cristo comes to mind. Bester’s The Stars My Destination really is Count in space…but is also awesome.

    1. I don’t see the parallel between re-writing novels and countless productions of plays. Plays are meant to be performed over and over again. A novel is not meant to be re-written – as far as I’m concerned it’s a one-time only deal and re-writing it is pretty pointless.

      I say this without having read any of the Austen Project titles. I don’t want to read them. No one writes Austen like Austen (certainly not PD James, who is a very good writer, but her “Death Comes to Pemberley” did nothing for *this* “Pride and Prejudice” fan).

      If other people enjoy the Austen Project books, I am happy for them – but I’ve no interest in reading them. I’ll stick to my beloved originals.

      1. Interesting… I think plays are different, because there is that expectation of repeated performance, and the creativity of an actor is somehow different to that of a writer, in many if not all respects, in my mind at least.

        Re-using plots is a further step removed, surely? That takes us into archetypes and such like, so there’s plenty of room for creativity without undue constraint? That said, for me, if I read a novel and suddenly realise ‘oh, it’s The Count of Monte Cristo with different hats’, that will often be the kiss of death, unless the author is really bringing something new to the party.

        And thinking about sequels to classics, very few authors can manage that. I enjoyed Death Comes to Pemberley but only because I firmly disengaged critical faculties on account of my great admiration and affection for PD James…

        There was a slew of Austen sequels when I worked in bookselling – and also half-baked Guineveres in Arthurian retellings – which I read for strictly professional reasons – and they were all eminently forgettable!

  2. It’s not just the creativity of the actors either – it’s also the creativity of the director that makes repeated productions of the same play different.

    I’ve read some of the Austen sequels – out of a morbid curiosity that rapidly dried up when I realised that no one writes Austen like Austen.

    I’m afraid I just couldn’t disengage my critical faculties with Death Comes to Pemberley – I really wanted to, but it just didn’t work for me (nor the TV version which I half-watched last Xmas!) – despite the fact that I love both Anna Maxwell Martin and Jenna Coleman.

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