There is a theory which states that if ever anyone discovers exactly what the Universe is for and why it is here, it will instantly disappear and be replaced by something even more bizarre and inexplicable. There is another theory which states that this has already happened.
— Douglas Adams, Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy
In truth, there are a ton of quotes I use from Hitchhiker’s Guide. It was a quintessential read in my teenage years, and has aged well in re-reads. The story is superb, and more importantly the prose matches the originality of the story. Hitchhiker is as fun to read as it is to follow the twisting story. Adams wrote three more books for this Hitchhiker’s “trilogy,” but the remaining three — while extremely clever in their own right — never quite achieve what the original did. Still, I enjoyed them thoroughly, and went on to read Adams’ Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency series as well. And despite his global fame, Adams was modest; when he passed away unexpectedly at only 49 years old, his gravestone read simply “Douglas Adams, Writer.” Adams was a gem, and a rarity – an original writer, whose style is mimicked the world over.
Which brings us to our point. As should be clear, I thoroughly enjoy reading Adams, and admonish a Universe that only allowed him to publish a handful of books. Of course he has had an impact on my own writing.
Recently, however, I became aware of how dangerous it is to identify too closely with a writer. I’m not talking about stalking — though that’s not recommended either — but rather enjoying them too much, and trying to be them. Somewhere in the constant parade of advertisements that pop up in my virtual life, an ad for a book caught my eye, and I bought the Kindle version. In some downtime I began reading this new addition, and found that the author — who for our purposes shall remain anonymous — had managed to copy to a remarkable degree Adams’ writing style. The story itself was cute and original, but was laced with his absurdism, his sidebars, his characters who behave in frustratingly rational ways (in our irrational world), and the lighthearted (and yet somehow deeply sympathetic) soliloquies to the reader. I am deeply impressed that the writer has managed to copy Adams’ story-telling style to such an astonishing degree.
Instead of enjoying this, however, I found it disruptive and annoying. I love Adams but he’s gone. His works are perched on my shelf and await my occasional attention. But this week I didn’t buy an Adams’ book, I bought some other authors’ book, an author I didn’t know and my expectation was that I would be enjoying an original story presented by this author, in his or her own voice. Instead, I got something between fan fiction and a creepy act of adulation. It’s kind of like an Elvis impersonator; it’s fun for about ten minutes and then you want to move on.
And it wasn’t an homage. An homage would have been original, incorporating elements of Adams’ style and story mechanisms cleverly into an original story so that they would stand out in contrast, but without interrupting the story’s flow. The knowledgeable reader would easily see and appreciate them like Easter eggs. No, this was almost an attempt to raise a ghost, a slavish imitation of Adams. After some pages, I found it sad. Maybe the author saw his or her imitation as flattery, or as carrying on a lighted torch — but the truth is, the torch has gone dark. Adams is gone. Even if he wasn’t, however — his style, brilliant as it was, was his.
Every writer becomes a writer by first reading, and falling in love with other, more established authors. Ask any writer, scratch their surface, and you’ll find a pile of earlier authors on whose giant shoulders they stand, to paraphrase Newton. And it is natural that those authors’ style(s) will inform the writer. But those authors’ work should not just provide tracks to follow, but challenge newer writers to develop their own writing style, their own voice in writing that is unique to them and which comes through to their readers. The take-away for a writer should not be to copy Douglas Adams’ style, but to find your own way to tell a story as enjoyably as Adams did.
When I want to read Douglas Adams, I’ll just pick up Hitchhiker’s Guide again.