There is no industry on earth (apart from perhaps the petroleum business) that makes more money on the backs of the dead than publishing does. Think about it, some of your favorite writers are dead. Homer? Dead. Jane Austen? Dead. Well anyway, this is nothing new. Often the most cherished of our writers is not most cherished until they’ve passed on. What has changed in recent years is the growth of a controversial sub-genre within the dead author trade, and that’s the posthumous publication of unfinished works by prominent writers. This season we’ve seen unfinished works by Nabokov and Ralph Ellison, published in various states of disrepair. (The Nabokov book, The Original of Laura, is nothing more than 138 hand written index cards. Despite the beautiful design of the book, which is a series of facsimile copies of the notecards, perforated, in case the reader wants to punch them out and rearrange them into their own post-modern, Nabokovian novel fragment, the book is flat out unreadable.) And coming next fall is David Foster Wallace’s final work, which supposedly exists in two distinct drafts, though it is as yet unclear which draft was the revision. The Wall Street Journal ran a great piece here about this recent wave and rather than parrot what they’ve said, we suggest you read it.
The fact that Nabokov left instructions to burn his unfinished manuscript upon his death got the staff around here wondering what is the right thing to do? To print or not to print? Or, what do you do with an author’s last wishes? Here’s a run down of what the booksellers at Warwick’s had to say:
Jim Stewart: If I really didn’t want my manuscripts printed I would have them torched way before I was bedridden and waiting for death. So if an author requests to have his unfinished or not yet published drafts destroyed, and hasn’t done it himself, he is reluctant to part with them. Subconsciously he does indeed want them published. To read an unfinished book the reader would have to be a big enough fan to enjoy the writing without finding out the ending. Hiring another writer to finish the book would require him or her to be named as coauthor. Robert Ludlum had written a series of Bourne books that have been popular, but I have no interest in reading Eric Van Lustbader’s books continuing the Bourne cash cow.
Barbara: My example would be Suite Francaise by Irene Nemirovsky - her manuscripts were found years after she died. This book seems very unfinished to me - I think she would have wanted to polish edit it. But the book has sold well & people seem intrigued by both her novel and the story behind how the book came to be published. So, I'm conflicted!
Adrian: It's called "bottom-drawer publishing". It always smacks to me a little bit of...how do I say it? As a rule, I think dead people should not continue to publish.
Jamie: It's like digging up a grave & putting it in a museum.
Scott: I think the best argument in going against an author's final wishes would be the case of Kafka. If Max Brod had done what his friend asked of him we would be without The Trial and The Castle, two of the great classics of the twentieth century. That we have to trod upon the wishes and reputations of countless dead writers to get that one lost classic, well, in my mind it's worth all the bad karma. On the other hand, there is a difference between a posthumous unfinished novel and an unfinished manuscript. Books like the Nabokov are nothing more than curiosities for literary rubberneckers and though Nabokov once tried to destroy a version of Lolita, he was of sound mind when he said destroy The Original of Laura. If I am found dead before this blog entry is posted, please have my comments removed.
Since we first had the 'Dead Author' discussion at Warwick's, two more egregious examples of dead authors being exploited for the publisher's benefit have caught our attention. First, we discovered that inside the latest book in Robert Jordan's The Wheel of Time series there is a reproduction of Robert Jordan's signature on the title page. Innocent enough, were it not for the fact that Robert Jordan is dead and his wife selected another author to ghost write this book based on Mr. Jordan's notes. In other words, Robert Jordan autographed a book from the grave that he did not write. The only possible rationale from the publisher's point of view is to deceive readers into thinking Mr. Jordan was somehow involved in the writing of the book. Second, we have the most bizarre use of a dead author that we've ever seen. On the back of the latest John Irving novel there is a blurb from the great Canadian writer Robertson Davies. Davies says: "In his novels the still, sad music of humanity rises to the orgasmic uproar of a rock band." Great blurb, right? Problem is, John Irving's novel the blurb appears on was published in 2009. Robertson Davies died in 1995.