Publishing novels, ready or not
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Let's assume -- for the sake of argument and the doubters out there -- that William Shakespeare wrote those 39 plays himself and saw them published in his lifetime.
Certainly he edited, altered and made changes to the originals to make them better and polish them before letting them go before public.
A few centuries later, the dying Ulysses S. Grant wrote through the pain of cancer to finish his autobiography as Mark Twain hovered in the background to rush the pages to the printer. No unfinished business for the general.
The recent news that unfinished or perhaps "unready" manuscripts from the late novelists David Foster Wallace and Roberto Bolano will be published in the next few years.
Much is known about the Wallace project, titled "The Pale King," excerpts of which have appeared in print. The New Yorker last week published a chunk called "Wiggle Room," pages of dense type describing the work of IRS income-tax form checkers.
The writer labored over the project for many years before committing suicide last fall at 46. Left behind were pages of narrative -- "a substantial portion," claims publisher Little, Brown, of a novel ostensibly about "soul-crushing tedium and bureaucratic malevolence."
Wallace's widow, his agent and his editor at Little, Brown will edit the manuscript into publishable shape by next year.
Bolano, the Chilean-born journalist turned novelist, spent the last years of his life in Spain, where he died in 2003.
American readers learned of his talents when "The Savage Detectives," published in Spanish in 1998, appeared in this country two years ago.
Until his death from liver disease at 50, Bolano worked steadily on a sprawling manuscript reported to be a five-book series about the crime wave of drug cartels in Northern Mexico.
It was believed that Bolano intended the books to be released singly after his death in order to provide a steady income for his family, but he died before finishing the project.
The result was the five-part "2666," published last year.
News came last week that more of his unfinished work has surfaced in Spain, nearly six years after his death. In October, another Bolano work, titled "The Third Reich," surfaced, appropriately, at the Frankfurt Book Fair.
American super-agent Andrew Wylie has grabbed the writings in a deal with Bolano's widow. The trove contains what appears to be a sixth section of "2666" along with two separate books -- titled "The Troubles of the Real Police Officer" and "Diorama."
No publishing dates have been released.
Back to Twain. The Strand magazine of Birmingham, Mich., announced last week that it will feature "The Undertaker's Tale," his short story unpublished for a century, in this month's issue.
All of these reports should give one pause, it seems. Are they signs of grave-robbing, crass exploitation or honest attempts to continue the work of highly regarded writers?
Unfinished books come with liabilities, though. In 1999, Random House released "Juneteenth," an edited version of Ralph Ellison's unfinished second novel.
Ellison biographer John Callahan boiled down more than 2,000 pages to a 368-page work. Lacking the power of his 1952 masterpiece, "Invisible Man," the book got a lukewarm reception.
It's highly possible that if Ellison finished the book himself, it would have been a better novel. I believe the same can be said about Wallace and Bolano, and maybe even Twain.
Appearing through the filter of editors, the works can only offer glimpses, tastes, snatches of what the authors intended. Is that what they and we readers deserve?
At the very least, these writings are research material for scholars and literary critics and at their worst, a bid to milk the last drop from the dead.
First Published March 15, 2009 12:00 am