Sunday, April 17, 2011

Imaginary Author Writes Actual Bestseller

Novelist Richard Castle’s latest two books—Heat Wave, published in September 2009, and Naked Heat, published in September 2010—were met with favorable reviews and good sales, both of them hitting the New York Times, Barnes & Noble, and bestseller lists. Anticipation is building for Castle’s third novel, Heat Rises, due in autumn 2011.1

Rick Castle, as portrayed
by Canadian actor
Malcolm “Nathan Fillion”
Millions of authors struggle to find publishers,2 and tens of thousands of published authors struggle to find an audience. To have come from absolutely nowhere just two short years ago and have not just one bestseller but two is quite an accomplishment for any author.

It’s even more impressive an accomplishment in this case, though, given that Richard Castle doesn’t actually exist.3 He’s a television character.

ABC’s Richard Castle has killed off Derrick Storm, the main character in his bestselling series of crime novels. Struggling with writers’s block, he uses his connections with the mayor—connections being a convenient benefit of being both famous and fictional—to get permission to shadow a New York Police Department homicide detective in the hopes of finding real-life inspiration.4

Rick Castle in real life.
That detective, Kate Beckett, spurs not only Castle’s creativity but also his libido: Beckett is very attractive and a secret admirer of Castle’s work—yet another way Castle benefits from being somebody else’s invention—but is also irritated by both his often-childish attitude and his surprising but off-kilter insight into cases. Their interactions borrow heavily but deftly from, among other things, the Moonlighting School of Character Interaction often described as “contempt breeds familiarity.” It’s only a matter of time before these two characters get together, and it remains to be seen only whether this will happen too early, a la Moonlighting, or far too late and much too off-screen, a la The X-Files.

While the timing and mechanics of Castle and Beckett’s unpredictable but inevitable naked collision may interest the casual viewer, we remain somewhat hung up on the non-author’s real-world literary success. We’re not angry, although we admit that we do empathize with those genuinely talented writers who toil in obscurity and even (sometimes self-imposed) anonymity while figments of others’ imaginations not only appear in New York Times bestsellers but now actively write them.

What truly troubles us is that it’s not only real writers that should be upset about Castle’s success. After twelve years on the air, Murder, She Wrote’s redoubtable Jessica Fletcher has published nearly forty novels, but suffers the shame of having to share writing credit with Donald Bain, the co-author whose paltry contributions to their collaboration are (a) writing the books and (b) existing in the first place. Fletcher herself presumably is forced to split the royalties with Bain, and is left to scrape out a meager existence among the heaps of corpses in sleepy Cabot Cove, murder capital of the modern world.5

Worse yet is the plight of Magnum P.I.’s Robin Masters. In early seasons, Masters (voiced by Orson Welles, but never seen in full) is depicted as a jetsetting, seldom-seen multimillionaire novelist on whose Hawai’i estate Magnum works as head of security. By the end of the series, though, Magnum has begun to suspect that his friend and occasional irritant Jonathan Quayle Higgins (also an estate employee) is the actual author of Masters’s novels, but that Higgins, believing them to be pulpy, ludicrous, and beneath his reputation as a serious memoirist, created the “Robin Masters” pen name and then hired an actor to portray Masters in a complex and expensive cover-up of the mundane and embarrassing truth.

Given that Jonathan Higgins is no more real than Richard Castle, Robin Masters therefore lives with the double indignity of not only having failed to write a single word ever published in the real world, but also—and more importantly—being a figment of the imagination of a man who was, himself, a figment of somebody’s imagination.

Rumor has it that Masters took this pretty hard for a while, but he’s feeling better now after some good long talks with his longtime friend Harvey.

1.  We’re thankful that the title of the third book has strayed somewhat from Naked Heat’s “naughty double entendre” vibe. Continuing along the same ever-dirtier lines would have eventually resulted in the ultimate octuple-ententre of In Heat, which we suspect would be a bit too crass for much of Castle’s readership.
2. There’s often a very good reason for this: millions of unpublished authors are terrible, terrible writers. You don’t have to suck at writing to become an unpublished author, but it certainly does help.
3. Yes, we really did mean “absolutely nowhere.”
4. By “real-life,” we of course mean “not even remotely like real-life.”
5. According to the New York Times, in the twelve years of Murder She Wrote’s run, the number of murders in Cabot Cove, population 3,560, represented approximately 2% of its population.

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