July 2nd, 2010

When Authors Speak from the Grave

There’s a certain intimacy and gravity that accompanies a read of an author’s last work. The finality lends itself to fascinating questions like, Did he know this would be his last written thought? Or if the manuscript was not yet completed, Would she have wanted people to read this?

For some, books have been written with the purpose of outliving their authors. Think of Randy Pausch’s The Last Lecture, a book written by a man dying of pancreatic cancer who wanted to leave a legacy of a life lived abundantly. Or consider Anne Frank’s poignant diary about her struggle to live secretly during WWII. These books leave lasting impressions because we understand the weight of their words.

Other authors did not intend to have their works published, the most famous example being our favorite American recluse, Emily Dickinson. Her sister burned most of her works, per her request, but the notebooks that remained have become overwhelmingly influential and popular since their discovery.

It’s fascinating to read a book that was left unfinished. F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Last Tycoon drops off mid-story, and Robert Ludlum’s The Tristan Betrayal was simply an outline before he passed, the actual content written by a ghostwriter. Pulitzer Prize-winning A Death in the Family by James Agee was almost complete.

Recently we’ve seen several books rise to enormous popularity after their respective authors have died. Stieg Larsson died in 2004 but became the second best-selling author in the world in 2008. His Millennium Trilogy (starting with The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) remains a sensation. Just last year, E. Lynn Harris died before his book Mama Dearest was published. And Michael Crichton died of cancer in 2008, but his book Pirate Latitudes was released late 2009. Interestingly, Crichton was included on Forbes’ “Top Earning Dead Celebrities” list that year (others included Michael Jackson, Einstein, Hendrix, Tolkien, Lennon, Warhol, and Elvis).

Without the persistence of family members, friends, and agents, we may have never learned about some literary gems. John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces won a Pulitzer.

Take a peek at this list of other books published posthumously. You might be surprised by what you see!

Weigh in on this issue: Do you think it’s acceptable to publish books after an author has died, particularly if the manuscript was unfinished?




3 Responses

  • AJP Posted July 2nd, 2010

    Hey Leah, great post! I don’t mind books being published if the work is finished, or nearly completed. I dislike it when the author’s estate uses ghost writers to milk the person’s name for all its worth. I hope they don’t try to do that with the unfinished manuscript for a 4th book that Stieg Larsson left behind.

    A good one to add to the list is The Mystery of Edwin Drood by Charles Dickens. It’s the novel that Dickens was working on before his sudden death of a stroke. It went unfinished, which is especially bad given that it’s a murder mystery.

    Several attempts were made by other authors to finish the story (including one who claimed to have channeled Dickens’ spirit). Most recently the unfinished novel was mixed with a fictional account Dickens’ last years by the writer Dan Simmons in a novel called Drood.

  • MVW Posted July 3rd, 2010

    I don’t mind works finished by others so much as when they ransack the author’s drawers and come up with works they had finished, but chose not to publish. If the author did not want to put the work out into the world, then I feel that sentiment should be respected. Pirate Latitudes, while fun to read, was not a well-crafted or original book. My guess is it wasn’t published by Crichton for that reason. Would the author be happy knowing that something he might have written just for fun, just for himself, was published? Would he want a work that he knew to be below his own standards on the shelf? For me, the crime is not a matter of money being made off the dead, but that his name, his reputation is affected, and that is something very personal. That being said, I’m glad to have read Emily Dickenson and I did enjoy Michael Crichton’s pirate adventure. I suppose you could say I am a greedy reader. But writers beware! Don’t leave your literary self-indulgences around in the bottom of your desk drawer.

  • Pam W Posted July 13th, 2010

    Leah,
    I just read that Stieg Larsson was writing the fourth book in his millennium series. They are trying to decide what to do. He wrote the beginning and the ending and was working on the middle section when he died. It will be interesting to see what happens with this.