Friday, June 24, 2011

Discussion post: Published after death

I'm a little obsessive about people reading (or watching or listening) something I've created before I've deemed it finished. In some cases, I never feel like it's finished and I sit squirming while I watch T read whatever it is and wait for the inevitable 'holy crap that's awful,' which never actually arrives either because T is too nice, or it actually isn't awful. From conversations I've had with people in the past I know that alot of people are like that, whether because of self confidence issues or because they're not finished writing/editing/pouring their heart and soul into it. With this considered, is it OK to publish something after the death of an author? I suppose it's one thing if they died as it sat at the printing press awaiting final instruction, but suppose it was found when a relative was cleaning out their piles and piles of papers? What if it is unfinished, should it be published regardless? What about if he author specifically stated that they did not want people to read it, should we treat their wishes with respect or publish it anyway?

I ask because the other day at the bookstore I came across Vladimir Nabokov's The Original of Laura, a book that has been published posthumously. It is unfinished which leads me to suspect that it is perhaps completely different to what the end result would have been had he had the opportunity to finish it. I know everyone's method is different, but my final copy (be it assignment, article, or blog post) is often completely unrecognisable from the original dot points or words I set on the page. As a New York Magazine article states, Nabokov, though eager and delighted by what he was writing, intended for the manuscript to be burnt when he realised he was too ill to ever complete it. His wife couldn't bring herself to do it and placed it in a bank vault for 30 years. Now published it seems the publishers want to emphasise the unfinished quality of the book and have reproduced the 138 index cards that Nabokov had written the story out on. The NY Mag article states that;
"The cards are even perforated, so you can punch them out and shuffle them, as Nabokov would have done as he revised. Every page contains the author’s surprising handwriting: biggish and slanted and loopy, with generous white space around his words. (I was expecting, for some reason, tiny cramped writing that colonized every available millimeter of space.) Some of the cards are heavily revised, which allows us to see, for the first time, the work of Nabokov’s famous eraser: fuzzy little storm clouds of smudged graphite loom behind neatly rewritten words. "
I'll admit the description of Nabolkov's creative process and handwritten cards makes my heart flip a little in excitement, but does this justify publishing a book the author intended no one ever to read? Sam Anderson, author of the NY Magazine review questioned that himself, and though he seemed to come down in favour of the book being published, there is a thread of justification to the article, an almost silent pleading to Nabokov himself not to judge them too harshly for betraying his wishes. Or perhaps I'm simply reading too much into it.

Nabokov isn't the only author to be published after death, or against his wishes. William S. Burroughs' collaboration with Jack Kerouac (And the hippos were boiled in their tanks) was published in 2008, decades after it was written by the pair in 1945. Telling the story of the death of David Kammerer at the hands of Lucian Carr and Burroughs and Kerouac's involvement in the sad and turbulent affair, the book is something of a mystery story and blends fiction with non-fiction. Kerouac (and others) had desperately wanted the book to be published but Burroughs was against it, deeming it to be well below the standard he wished to link his name to. When Burroughs died his position hadn't changed, but James Grauerholz, his partner and executor of his estate, decided otherwise. As Burroughs' long-time partner had he known something about Burroughs' wishes that he'd never made public? Was Burroughs' just being pedantic over the quality or content or did he truly wish it never to be published?

These are only two of an almost endless list of examples of books, letters, and journals published either against the wishes of the writer or without their knowledge that such an act would ever be considered. Of course there are those that belong on the other side of the coin, books published posthumously by authors who died in the final editing stages (Chris Fuhrman- The dangerous lives of alterboys) but what I'm questioning is the books published either against the author's expressed wishes or in an incomplete format.

What do you think? Should they be published, or should we let sleeping dogs lie?


  1. Argh, it's such a tough one, because on the one hand we should really be respecting whatever the writers wanted, but on the other, they're dead, and at that point sort of belong to the readers, and so we deserve to see what they've written? I really love reading letters of writers etc, but I always feel a little uncomfortable, because would they really want other people reading their private correspondence? But then, the letters also belong to the people to whom they were sent, and if they're still alive and willing for them to be published, then you almost have to say why not? So basically, yeah, I don't know! But I wouldn't turn down an undiscovered, half-finished Steinbeck book, is all I'm saying...

  2. haha, I know it's difficult! Considering I dedicated an entire post too it, I don't actually have a firm stand-point on it! I always feel weird about the letters, because I know that if someone published some of my emails, texts or letters I'd be really embarrassed because they are intended to be private. That said they can be fascinating to read, especially correspondence during wars and such

  3. That was an interesting post. I have to say that I am on the fence with that one. If you look at it from a personal standpoint how would you feel in the shoes of the writer? I am thinking of all those diaries as a child that I wouldn't want anyone to see. Not that I am comparing my writing as a child to that of a well loved writer. But I think the feeling of mortification would be the same.

    On the other hand as a reader I am greedy for my favourite authors to continue to publish. Like Laura has said if a half finished Steinbeck was discovered I would be first in the queue to buy a copy. The feeling of joy at realising your favourite author has a book hidden away and you will get to read something new by them after all.

    Most writers are readers themselves and take inspiration from their favourites. I wonder if they would show the same reluctance if it was discovered that one of their favourites had an unfinished novel.

    What do you think of family members then finishing the books for them I know a few have done that in the past. Robert Jordan's wife got someone to finish his last book. There is talk that Steig Larsson's girlfriend is going to use his notes to finish the millenium books.

  4. I completely agree Karen. If some of my highschool diaries were ever published, I'd probably die a second time of a deep, deep shame. That said, an insight into my favourite author's work and process is hard to pass up!

    I guess an important thing to consider is intent. Why are the family member/estate executor publishing the book (especially if it's several decades since the authors death)? Is it purely a money thing, or do they genuinely think the public deserve to see the last works or inner thoughts of their father/husband/wife/mother etc

    As for family members finishing the book after the death of the author, I guess it can go both ways. If it stays true to their vision and at their level of writing then I don't have a problem with it, but if it's far worse than anything the author would ever write then I think it's a shame to sully their name, even if by association.

  5. Definitely agree that it all comes down to intent. I am sure the publishers are cashing in a little but I would like to think that most family members are doing it for the right reasons. It would be too sad to think otherwise. Although I know life isn't always like that.

    I agree about the family members finishing an authors books. I think the partner of Larsson could be doing it for the wrong reasons. I know she didn't get a penny from the original millenium books (and I do sympathise with her there). She apparently has his lap top with all his notes though and I wonder if she is doing it in memory of the man she loved or to get back at his family. Mind you this is all just rumour at this point and I would probably read it just to see if it can compare.

    Thanks for the post.

  6. No problem, thanks for putting in your two cents!

    I hadn't heard of the millenium books girlfriend/family scandal before, it'll be interesting to see how that plays out.



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