An actor achieves immortality through his face, a singer through his voice. An author is able to live eternally through his writing, but for some, the finished words are not enough.
The critical notions surrounding authorship have been contentious since the 1960s, when developments in literary theory upset accepted notions about art. Critics such as Roland Barthes and Michel Foucault (two names sure to make any humanities graduate student cringe) dismantled the axiom that the author was the architect of a literary work’s interpretive possibilities. Barthes went so far as to declare “the death of the author,” urging scholars to seek out a text’s meaning in its language, rather than in the intentions of its author.
Despite Barthes’ obituary for the author, the cult of authorship persists. Publishers around the world are breathing fresh life into deceased famous authors by posthumously releasing their “lost” works. In 2009, new books by Vladimir Nabokov, Mark Twain, Kurt Vonnegut, Lucy Maud Montgomery, and in a delicious twist of irony, Roland Barthes, hit the shelves. On the slate for the next couple of years are posthumous works by Ralph Ellison, Jack Kerouac, David Foster Wallace, and Roberto Bolaño. (Bolaño’s corpse is proving to be staggeringly prolific, with as many as four releases on the horizon.)
Meanwhile, J.D. Salinger’s recent death has sparked an enormous level of speculation over the wealth of writings he might have been hoarding. At the time of his death, the notoriously cagey author hadn’t published in over forty-five years. It’s long been reported that he wrote upwards of fifteen manuscripts during his self-imposed exile. Despite Salinger’s militant protection of his privacy and apparent desire not to see these writings in the public sphere, it seems all but inevitable that at least some of them will be snatched up and published in the years to come.
While the frenzy surrounding authorial necromancy is infectious, few of these publications live up to the hype. Take last November’s publication of Vladimir Nabokov’s The Original of Laura, which was heralded in some quarters as the literary event of the year. Before his death in 1977, Nabokov instructed that the unfinished novel was to be burned if he should die before it was completed. Going against his father’s instructions, Dmitri Nabokov chose instead to have it published. In his introduction to the book, the son explains that “despite its incompleteness…[the writing] was unprecedented in structure and style,” and as a result, he “could no longer even think of burning Laura.” He justifies his decision by reasoning, “[I do not think] that my father or my father’s shade would have opposed the release of Laura once Laura had survived the hum of time this long… Should I be damned or thanked?”
Dmitri soon got his answer. Despite the flashy packaging — the 138 index cards on which Vladimir composed the fragments are replicated and perforated for the reader’s punch-out pleasure — the book was a flop. Although critics recognized faint glimmers of the brilliance that defined such masterpieces as Lolita and Pale Fire, Laura was ultimately dismissed as uneven, disjointed, and muddled. Tellingly, the final card reads, “efface, expunge, delete, cut out, wipe out, obliterate.”
While readers and critics alike have condemned Dmitri Nabokov’s decision to disobey his father, this same community has been very forgiving of similar betrayals when the final product has been more to its liking. It has long been said that Virgil insisted that the unrevised manuscript of The Aeneid be burned upon his death; his trusted friend Varius chose to release it anyhow. Similarly, if Max Brod, Franz Kafka’s literary executor, had obeyed the writer’s instructions, The Trial, The Castle, and Amerika never would have seen the light of day.
It’s difficult to dispute the opportunistic nature of posthumous publishing. Dave Rosenthal of The Baltimore Sun suggests that the practice is, at its worst, “grave-robbing, crass exploitation to make a few bucks,” with publishers, executors, and academics seizing the chance to capitalize on unseen works by established names. Readers, too, have an almost mystical fascination with the novelty of posthumous literature. It is a means to engage with the dead, or partake in a kind of literary time travel — it is the chance to experience new work by writers who might have died before you were born, and whose voices now appear to be echoing from the mystic beyond.
Unfortunately, it’s rare that a posthumous publication dazzles its audience. Sure, you might argue John Kennedy Toole and Roberto Bolaño are primarily known for their excellent posthumous novels (A Confederacy of Dunces and 2666, respectively), but neither of them were established authors until after their deaths. Generally, it seems that when famous authors make deathbed warnings not to publish something they’ve written, there’s a good reason.
Unfinished novels are also problematic — they are inevitably compared to other works that their authors had the chance to revise and polish. The work-in-progress is frequently edited and modified after an author’s death in order to make it a cohesive product. This is a doubly troublesome, as it both dilutes the original text into a heavily edited shadow of a novel, and simultaneously deprives readers of the immersive experience that exploring an unfinished project can provide. Drafts, notes, and manuscripts are fascinating pieces of ephemera, like journals or correspondence. But like the personal papers of an author, unfinished writings are literary artifacts, not literary works; they lack the finality and the intent that define a finished product. Left untouched, they are valuable glimpses into the author’s writing process, but as artifacts, they should remain untouched and unedited: in no way should they be touted as examples of the author’s artistry.
One example of a published work-in-progress gone awry was Ralph Ellison’s Juneteenth, published in 1999, five years after the writer’s death. The only novel Ellison published during his lifetime was 1952’s sprawling masterpiece, Invisible Man, and he spent the next forty-odd years toiling at his next novel. At the time of his death, he left 2,000 pages of his manuscript; Ellison’s literary executor, John F. Callahan, determined to publish his friend’s work, whittled the stack into a 368-page novel. His effort was met with tepid reviews. Michiko Kakutani wrote in the New York Times that Juneteenth “feels disappointingly provisional and incomplete,” and that Ellison’s executor had “effectively changed the book’s entire structure and modus operandi. Instead of the symphonic work Ellison envisioned, Callahan has given us a flawed linear novel, focused around one man’s emotional and political evolution.”
Now, eleven years after Juneteenth’s publication, Callahan is trying again. Last week, the scraps and versions of Ellison’s unfinished opus were published as an annotated, 1136-page work-in-progress entitled Three Days Before the Shooting… This release presents Ellison’s manuscript more or less the way he left it, offering the reader a non-traditional foray into the author’s mind. By contextualizing and accepting the text instead of attempting to finish it, Callahan is finally letting it live.
In the end, the controversy surrounding posthumous publication will endure as long as the publications themselves. Despite the hit-and-miss — mostly miss — nature of the practice, for every Original of Laura, there is a Confederacy of Dunces, a treasure that might have never been unearthed, and for that reason, life after death will continue for many authors who leave unfinished business.
But instead of pouncing on a work that will sell copies for its author’s reputation alone, publishers need to use discretion in terms of the strength of the work, independent of its byline. Continuing on our current path of fetishizing departed authors, we’ll soon see fancy editions of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s grocery lists, or leather-bound copies of Virginia Woolf’s to-do reminders. Needless, opportunistic posthumous publications such as those serve no one, least of all the author. In his Slate review of Laura, Aleksandar Hemon quotes Vladimir Nabokov as once having said, “In art, purpose and plan are nothing; only the results count.” By their own shortcomings, the published results of the author’s last, embryonic manuscript proved him right.
(Images courtesy of Random House)