Monday, April 20, 2009

Robbing Graves

It seems there is a real blossoming lately in dead author books, no? And with this trend comes the inevitable debate about whether we should be publishing books deemed unworthy by authors after their deaths.

The project getting the most airtime, if you will, is The Original of Laura, the collection of notecards that make up an unfinished novel by Vladamir Nabakov, a novel the author expressly did not want published. His son Dimitri has decided to publish anyhow.

I was really creeped out by this decision at first. I'm a huge Nabakov fan and love just reading over anything he has written, but what I love is that the author clearly took the time to write and sometimes to translate his own work with such precision, such careful creation and then editing. He chooses each word and phrase and sentence so well. With that in mind, it seems particularly profane to publish a manuscript that he did not feel met his own standards. His high standards are what make his novels and short stories so incredible.

My outrage is dampened with news that Penguin is going to publish the book in a more transparent way.
The Original of Laura was written, like all Nabokov's novels, on index cards. Penguin will reproduce all 138 cards, with a transcript of the text on the opposite page. [Penguin Classics editor] Kirschbaum said the cards add up to "a good chunk” of text taking "several hours” to read. "I'm an avid, obsessed fan of Nabokov and for other fans it's incredibly interesting to see his handwriting and read his prose—not necessarily extremely polished, but you can still see kernels of genius in everything he wrote,” she said.
As someone who enjoys reading collections of letters and diaries sometimes, this seems intriguing. I'm a huge fan of The Way It Wasn't: From the Files of James Laughlin, the odd snippet-filled A-Z book about New Direction's founder Laughlin's opinions on everything and everyone. I appreciate that Penguin is at least doing this as a nod to the fact that Nabakov didn't want it published as a novel, and once I scan a copy at my favorite local independent bookstore, perhaps I'll even consider buying it.

There, I said it!

It is still very clear that Penguin is chasing the money here. Let's not pretend that this corporation is being an honest broker in trying to get this important work into circulation for the good of the author's reputation. I also find this troubling in the case of Kurt Vonnegut: it was announced last week that Delacorte Press will publish 14 new short stories by the author in a collection titled Look at the Birdie. Maybe my line will be arbitrary here, but something smells rotten to me, when a publisher rushes into print a book by a recently deceased author. I also think there is something unfortunate about this collection coming out from an imprint deeply, deeply buried in the Random House stable, when his last collection of non-fiction writing, the bestselling A Man Without a Country, came out from independent press Seven Stories (though admittedly the paperback was Ballantine). In fact, it's interesting to note on the Press' website that they are actually getting ready to publish Nelson Algren's unfinished novel. This is a writer who died over 25 years ago.

I would be more comfortable if there was a period after an author's death where any unpublished work is put on hold. If the writer's reputation holds up, it can be published, say, 25 years later and still be well-received. Nabakov died in 1977, so his book would work, just like Algren's. With Vonnegut, perhaps the stories are terrific, but if he had not submitted them for publication, out of respect for his recent death, they should be held back. Novels that are not edited by the author, or in the case of Vonnegut, stories not assembled by the author (PW reports, "Bantam Dell publisher and editor-in-chief Nita Taublib and editor Kerri Buckley put the collection together"), should just not be published quickly. It's clearly capitalizing on the news of an author's demise.

As noted at the beginning, this has been an ongoing discussion since books began. Recently, the UK Guardian's blog asked these very same questions, using the publication of Roland Barthes' Journal de deuil (Bereavement Diary) as a starting point. The comments are worth scanning as opinions are strong. They mention a number of such publications, including David Foster Wallace's novel, an excerpt of which accompanies a lengthy story in the New Yorker. Suicide brings up another whole level of questions, I'm certain, but also makes an author's death that much more newsworthy, providing an even bigger media hook for publishers. And that is seriously slimey publishing, isn't it?

Going back to the point about Seven Stories and Vonnegut, it seems to me that an unpublished work by a great author, published transparently with notes and context provided, offers terrific material for an independent press to have on its backlist, but most independents could not afford an unpublished work by a major author just after the author's death. 25 years later? Possibly (see, again, Algren and Seven Stories). This puts the onus on the estate to be respectful, and I appreciate the difficulty of publishing decisions so soon after a death - in short, I get that it's complicated. But I hope there are publishing advisors out there who will recommend exercising restraint in this instances, so an author's legacy isn't tainted by a quickie collection tied to front page obituaries.

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