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I Am Dead, Therefore, Publish

There’s been a bit of discussion at Warwick’s this week concerning dead authors and their posthumous works – an intensive, full-staff round-table discussion piece is under way for the Warwick’s blog – stimulated by this week’s publication of Vladimir Nabokov’s unfinished novel, The Original of Laura. The debate is over whether it’s moral or not to publish a posthumous work if the author left explicit instructions for all unfinished work to be destroyed upon their death, as was the case with Mr. Nabokov.

When Nabokov died in 1977, he instructed his family to destroy what he had written and left unfinished – which, as it turns out, included a series of 138 notecards (as was his drafting style) of notations and passages for Laura. His widow, Vera, could not bear to destroy what he had written, so she had it placed in a Swiss bank vault, where it sat until his son, Dimitri, decided in 2008 to try and publish. The resultant work is rough, at best, put together in fancy-Chip Kidd style by…Chip Kidd with reproductions of the notecards on each page, accompanied by typed text “translations” of V.N.’s handwriting. Nabokov had some sort of personal numbering system to the cards, but the true order is unknown, so Kidd made each card perforated, so that the reader can pop them out & rearrange them into any order they see fit. (Who would do this, in actuality, I don’t know.) In their review back in July, PW noted that “It would be a mistake…for readers to come to this expecting anything resembling a novel.”  As a whole, I think it’s fairly unreadable, relatively incomprehensible, and, well, unfinished, which is the point, really. I can see why Nabokov never wanted this to see the light of day – he wasn’t done writing it.

The argument can certainly be made for the literary & social benefit of the posthumous work of other authors. We would never have the three full-length novels, The Trial, The Castle, or Amerika by Franz Kafka if his literary executor, Max Brod, had not ignored the author’s wishes:

“Dearest Max, my last request: Everything I leave behind me … in the way of diaries, manuscripts, letters (my own and others’), sketches, and so on, [is] to be burned unread.”

Is this moral, even in light of the work that was ultimately produced? I’m not so sure, even though the world may be a better place with those novels in it, who am I to go against the author’s wishes? Perhaps when an author reaches a certain elevation in literary society, their posthumous work is fair game, but this was definitely not the case with Kafka during his lifetime. Some other well-known posthumous pubs:

  • Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen was published posthumously, although the author did try to publish it during her life.
  • I know some people who would be incomplete as human beings had Papa Hemingway’s posthumous A Moveable Feast never been published – Ernest had completed a final draft upon his death, although his widow edited it extensively. A moral quandry, that.
  • I happen to disagree with the postumous publication of several “lost” Philip K. Dick novels in the last few years, which I was always under the impression that he did not want published. Although I’m a fan, I have not read these late additions and it’s my understanding that they should have remained “lost”.
  • There is an unfinished murder mystery by Graham Greene that has been serialized in Strand Magazine this year, although, I’m not sure how one publishes an unfinished murder mystery…. 
  • The unfinished second novel by Ralph Ellison, previously published in 1999 in shorter form as Juneteenth, is being released in its full, original, chaotic 1200 pages and hits the shelves with a thud in January.
  • A 40-year old, faded, yellowed, manuscript of a literary thriller by the late Donald Westlake is being published in April 2010.
  • And David Foster Wallace’s final novel, The Pale King, will be published late next year, although I’m not sure which of the many, many draft versions his executors decided to go with.

I guess an argument can be made either way, on a case-by-case basis, depending on each reader’s opinions. Sort of like anything else with a book, whether you loved or hated the protagonist, despised the jacket art, or loved the dialogue – it’s all a matter of personal opinion. But…

What really lit a fire under me, as Chief Catapult Operator, has nothing to do with anyone so esteemed as Nabokov, Kafka, or Ellison, but rather with the late Robert Jordan, author of the “Wheel of Time” fantasy series. Jordan died in 2007 before he was able to finish his double-digit volume series, but wrote enough of the 12th volume that his executors were able to cobble together a final novel – or spread it out over three, actually – with the help of a ghostwriter. While I think it’s a little ridiculous that his “final” novel is actually three books, what really irritated me was this title page:


Yeah, that’s right, it sure looks autographed, right? Psych! It’s a fake, digitized signature that they put in every copy of the book – I assume to simulate some sort of authentication. My first, mildly curious reaction was, “How is this signed? He’s been dead for two years.” Now that’s immoral.
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3 comments on “I Am Dead, Therefore, Publish

  1. Tracy
    November 20, 2009

    You over looked Austen's Sandition. At some point someone finished that novel, too. And don't get me started on people who decide to continue where a writer left off. Look at all the crap based on Jane Austen.

    Some authors are getting around that. Just look at Robert Ludlum. Dead and still writing. Clive Cussler will continue post-mortem thanks to all those authors who are currently writing his books for him with his direction.

    It is all for the sake of money be it the writers, family, estates, or publishers

  2. Seth Marko
    November 21, 2009

    I heard that James Patterson has actually been dead for 20 years.

  3. Chad Brummett
    December 11, 2009

    scary face

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This entry was posted on November 20, 2009 by in http://schemas.google.com/blogger/2008/kind#post, Kafka, Nabokov, Posthumous books.
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