After a bit of back and forth and a tussle over semantics, Jeff Mariotte has heroically cleared up his comments about March and has raised some interesting points. (See my previous post for background.)
As an author of "licensed" novels (based on such disparate material as the Angel television series and Conan the Barbarian), Mariotte complains "that our books are not reviewed, not taken seriously by the literary establishment, seldom accorded any measure of respect by that establishment.... It's entirely possible that a book written as work for hire, and approved by a copyright holder somewhere, is as good as an entirely original novel or a pastiche based on characters created a hundred, or a thousand, years ago."
The licensing agreement, Mariotte contends, is "the only substantive difference between Geraldine Brooks writing a novel set in the world of Alcott's Little Women and me writing a novel set in the world of Howard's Conan."
On the one hand, I agree. Many deserving books are probably overlooked and should not be. And I, for one, have enjoyed many such novels.
On the other hand, I do think that there is an important and obvious difference between serial novels (Star Trek, Hercule Peroit, etc.), whether written by the same author or by a number of writers, and books like March. Most licensed serial novels remain pretty faithful to the character, world, and vision of the original source. Novels of the second kind incorporate somebody else's creation, usually from a source that has indisputably entered the literary canon (which is, I'll admit, a nebulous concept); the author changes the character or the setting to such an extent that it becomes a different world altogether. Nobody would mistake the battlefields of the Civil War in Brooks's novel for the March family household in Alcott's; nobody would think that March is even of the same genre as a children's book like Little Women. Books like Grendel or Wide Sargasso Sea cannot in any way be regarded as an entry in a series or a sequel to the original. Their obvious dissimilarities do, indeed, make these new works stand apart from the original creations.