November 30, 2015

On never having to quit publishing


Henry James regularly burned manuscripts and correspondence he didn't want turning up after he was dead

Henry James regularly burned manuscripts and correspondence he didn’t want turning up after he was dead

It has been a great year to be a dead author. Deceased thriller writers Steig Larsson, Robert B. Parker, Tom Clancy, and Ian Fleming all have new books out. The late Dr. Seuss and the even later J.R.R. Tolkien both published anew this year, too. So did Oscar Hijuelos, dead since 2013. All this in a year that, as MobyLives recently noted, has seen Ernest Hemingway‘s posthumously published A Moveable Feast become a bestseller in France when it was held up—in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks–as an icon of some true Parisian spirit … whether Hemingway wanted it published in the first place or not.

And the publication of Harper Lee‘s Go Set a Watchman, says  Emma Burren in a thoughtful column on posthumous publications for The Daily—the student newspaper at the University of Washington—“casts a similar dubious shadow.”

Whatever you think of it, it’s been “a banner year” whereby posthumous publishing, while not a new phenomenon, has “taken on a new urgency,” says Joseph P. Kahn in a report for The Boston Globe. According to Kahn …

… the industry, facing weak sales and looking for sure-fire winners, is catering to the appetites of consumers accustomed to being offered a steady diet of tried-and-true favorites in this age of playlists and seemingly neverending series.

Add to this the growth of websites that let publishers directly track book lovers’ sentiments, making them feel less at the mercy of critics and other cultural gatekeepers who may raise their eyebrows at the circumstances of a posthumous publication.

Kahn even interviews Knopf vice president Paul Bogaards about its continuing books in the whoppingly successful Steig Larsson series, and observes that Bogaards “may not be entirely joking when he quips that publishers now have search teams ‘assigned to certain backlist authors, looking for lost manuscripts.'”

But is it really just the dastardly doings of the big, bottom line houses giving the idiot masses what they want?

In The Quarterly Conversation, one of the better if tony lit-crit websites, where they champion some really obscured avant garde writers that not only deserve but need champions, a recent piece by the editors says, essentially: Bring it on.

… we would be remiss if we did not admit that an unfinished work’s very nature promises certain pleasures that no completed work can. There is something humbling, if not a little satisfying, to know that the force that could produce Invisible Man could also struggle for the rest of his life to again satisfy his muse. Well, let’s see why! Crack that ms open!

The intrigue is inarguable. In the unfinished novel we can see the writer in all her wretched humanity, prone to distractions and failures just like us. At the same time, all those lacunae and disjunctions, the scribbles and blots and jagged lines, afford us unprecedented access to the creative mind at work. So now we have finally secured an invitation to our favorite writer’s study; we can hover like an unwanted in-law, make little snorts and suggestions at the writer’s trembling pen, project our own petty psychological theories.

And what of the fact that so many of those posthumous publications were issued despite the fact that the writers—from Franz Kafka to Vladimir Nabokov and on—left firm and explicit instructions to destroy those works? From the Quarterly Conversation again:

… in the end we must admit that if the manuscript is there for us then the author has given tacit approval to publish. Let’s not be naïve: any writer working today knows that whatever is left behind is fair game for editors and publishers, no matter what instructions they leave.

In the end, not such a difference between the snooty literary community and their opposite at the big houses, it would seem.


Dennis Johnson is the founder of MobyLives, and the co-founder and co-publisher of Melville House.