“If there’s a heaven,” my mom said recently, “I imagine it’s filled with brand-new Barbara Pym novels I’ve never read.”
There’s a particular desolation to finding you’ve reached the end of a beloved author’s body of work. Just as discovering a writer can give you a where-have-you-been-all-my-life thrill, it’s easy to feel bereft when you’ve exhausted the trove—especially if the author in question has been dead for some forty years.
In an era of easily accessible books, this poses certain questions. Once, you might have had to put yourself on a list at the library, wait for a call, or line up at a bookstore at midnight—now the next title can appear on your phone the moment it’s available. Do you take the glutton’s approach—binging, immersing yourself—or do you mete out the treasures carefully?
Maybe that’s part of why so many series are so long now. People have always gone in for serials, from David Copperfield to the Bobbsey Twins. But we do seem particularly enamored of the form these days; any YA section is basically color-blocks of uninterrupted spines, volume after volume of adventures and mysteries and feuds. Has TV conditioned us to regard a stand-alone story as paltry, inadequate, or do we just crave the escape more? And let’s not forget the commercial incentive. (It does seem telling when a series like Fifty Shades—manifestly a single, albeit endless, story—is arbitrarily chopped into three parts.)
But for all of these endless series, the finite nature of a dead author’s oeuvre is something we can’t imagine away. It’s enough to make you understand the anxious rage Game of Thrones fans feel at the dilatory George R. R. Martin. Or—almost—the presumption underscoring unofficial sequels like Alexandra Ripley’s Scarlett.
I’ll admit it: there have been moments when I’ve almost wanted to create another volume of Betsy-Tacy—Maud Hart Lovelace’s autobiographical series of nine volumes detailing the character’s life from five to twenty-five. Specifically, Betsy’s Bettina. In 1959—after the publication of the final book, Betsy’s Wedding—an article tantalized fans thusly:
Coming to the end of Betsy’s Wedding, Betsy’s fans are a little sad, not only because Joe has gone to camp and will soon be going overseas, but because it is the last Betsy-Tacy book.
While in the opinion of one enthusiastic reader, “Betsy books should go on forever,” Mrs. Lovelace is not quite willing to continue the books into another generation. However, she does have plans for the final book in the series, which she is going to call Betsy’s Bettina. She feels, as the children do, that it is not right to leave Joe overseas and that to end the stories happily, Betsy should have a baby.
Ultimately, Lovelace changed her mind. She wrote, “I did a little research on it but I didn’t care to write it,” and that “I have always felt that the last lines in Betsy’s Wedding were a perfect ending for the series.” It’s hard to argue with her there. Besides, as any reader of Mrs. de Winter—Susan Hill’s sequel to du Maurier’s Rebecca—can tell you, being a superfan does not qualify you to hijack characters, no matter how well you feel you know them. When a writer’s gone, she’s gone, and we can’t argue it away.
Perhaps this is part of the appeal of a series like Sweet Valley High, for which Francine Pascal presided over a team of ghostwriters. The “author” can come and go, hewing to the formula no matter what. It’s a sort of immortality, or the illusion of it. And that, of course, precludes the need for my mom’s heaven.
Sadie Stein is contributing editor of The Paris Review, and the Daily’s correspondent.