Friday, August 8, 2014
August 8, 2014: Virginia Voices: V.C. Andrews
[In about a week I’ll be taking my annual August pilgrimage with the boys to my home state of Virginia. So here’s another annual Virginia-inspired series, this one focused on interesting voices from the state and leading up to my next Guest Post!]
On popularity, branding, and when an author becomes a product.
Much of what I wrote in this early 2013 series on popular fiction would apply to V.C. Andrews (1923-1986), the lifelong resident of Portsmouth, Virginia who became late in her life one of the most popular American novelists of the last quarter of the 20th century. Andrews’ debut novel, Flowers in the Attic (1979), quickly became a bestseller and has remained a mega-hit ever since; she would publish a novel a year for the remainder of her life, each a bestseller in its own right. Andrews’ books and themes combined the Gothic mysteries of an Edgar Allan Poe with the tangled, incestuous family secrets and histories of a William Faulkner, but in an intensely readable style that was all her own. “I think I tell a whopping good story,” she once noted in an interview, “And I don’t drift away from it a great deal into descriptive material.”
Andrews died of breast cancer in 1986, and yet has published more than 60 books in the quarter century since. These aren’t mostly posthumously released books by Andrews, however (she was prolific in her brief time as a novelist, but not that prolific), but rather ghost-written works; the Andrews estate hired horror novelist Andrew Neiderman to complete the manuscripts that were unfinished at the time of her death, and Neiderman has gone on to publish more than 50 additional novels, all under the name and in the style of “V.C. Andrews.” Indeed, the Andrews estate apparently never intended to release Neiderman’s name or identity, and he was only identified by outside investigations; as far as the official narrative goes, all of the books have still been written by “V.C. Andrews.” Andrews’ books aren’t the only popular series for whom this kind of posthumous branding has occurred—see the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew empires, among others—but given the very brief 7-year period in which she published her own books, it’s a particularly striking case.
It’s fair to say that all truly popular authors become brands at a certain point, not only in our own era (Tom Clancy, Dan Brown) but in earlier periods as well (Harriet Beecher Stowe, Mark Twain). But it’s also fair to say that there’s something different about the case of an author who published eight books while she was alive and has “published” more than seven times as many since her death. Those eight books unquestionably established Andrews’ popularity, as well as the style and stories that drew readers in and kept them coming back, and I’m not trying to downplay her work or role. But more than twenty-five years after her death, with no end in sight to the books and series that bear her name, “V.C. Andrews” has become far more of a commercial product, a business, than an author. Which, the cynic in me might say, makes this Virginia voice perhaps the most telling of all those I’ve traced this week.
Guest Post this weekend,
PS. What do you think? Voices from your home you’d highlight?