How Do We Bury the Writing of the Dead?

For over a hundred thousand years, we’ve buried our dead. Broadly speaking, the act has no functional purpose; according to the World Health Organization, only bodies carrying infectious diseases demand burial. Instead, it offers us, the living, a resolute end: a body in the ground.

We cannot always, or even often, give literature that same assurance. If a writer leaves behind unpublished, unfinished works after their death, only the fortunate find that work disposed of according to their wishes. Carrion fowl descend upon the still-warm body, picking at even the smallest scraps of flesh. And maybe that’s not a bad thing. Vultures, though not the most welcome sight, fill an important ecological role. Who are we to let them starve, even if a body wished it otherwise?

Many conversations about posthumous publishing center around this question: Which is more important when considering whether to release a work, particularly an incomplete one, posthumously—authorial intent or obligation to the reader? More often than not, the latter wins the day.

If we the readers had our druthers, we would have everything and more: a steady stream of singular works that possess all the qualities that first brought us to the author’s door, and, once an author is gone, whatever is left of their body, mangled and lifeless though it may be. This corpse sometimes defines the author. Kafka’s posthumously published works, including all three novels and countless short stories, are just as significant and refined, if not more so, than what he gave us in life; Jane Austen’s catalogue feels incomplete without Northanger Abbey and Persuasion, published six months after her death; and we simply would not know of John Kennedy Toole were it not for his mother sending his textual body to Walker Percy at Loyola University.

One thing is clear from these examples: words are difficult to bury. In the literal sense, anything less than the total physical destruction of a manuscript will only delay the eventual release of the work at someone else’s hands. It also signals at  something within us, or at least those of us who are readers or writers. We’re uneasy with this destruction of words. Fulfilling the wishes of someone now gone is both one of the most natural requests we can accept and sometimes the most difficult one to provide. The eradication of Terry Pratchett’s unfinished works, the zeros and ones of his hard drive ground into the earth at the Great Dorset Steam Fair, is an imaginative exception to the rule.

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Even well-preserved forms—complete works whose publishing just happens to occur after a writer’s death—leave us wanting. They are the opening lines of a dialogue between reader and writer cut short. Sometimes, simply knowing that a writer will no longer grace us with more words or respond to our questions and criticism is enough to shift our view of the posthumous text itself. Still, we think of this as better than nothing—better than if the work was lost forever. Through this belief, a second and more appropriate question arises: How should we view these posthumous texts, alone and in the broader context of writers’ works?

After all, even writers who intend their works to be posthumously published must resign themselves to end products that differ from their original conception. One can presume David Foster Wallace was at least ambivalent about The Pale King being published after his death. The work was, “not only preserved… but left… in the center of his desk.”  But the resulting process saw Michael Pietsch of Little Brown “diving into folders and spiral-bound notebooks,” piecing together a cohesive narrative from the muddled drafts with the use of a master spreadsheet. The New York Times critic Michiko Kakutani described the resulting novel as “lumpy” and occasionally “boring,” though also prone to fits of evocation (not the most unkind remark one could make about a novel detailing the life of an IRS employee).

Characterizing J. R. R. Tolkien’s posthumous works is a more difficult task. For one, the works he left us are numerous, in various states of completion, and many were intended to serve as scaffolding for the larger worlds he was creating. Likewise, their reception has run the gamut. His son and, until recently, estate executor, Christopher, served a prominent role in their publication. He had a larger claim than many to understanding the intent of J. R. R. himself. About The Silmarillion, Tolkien’s sweeping guidebook to the history of Middle-earth, Robert Adams mused, “had [The Silmarillion] been published earlier, it might well have laid a blight on the entire series [of the tales of Middle-earth]. For The Silmarillion, despite the cuts that have evidently been made in the original materials, the selection and arrangement that have been imposed on them, remains an empty and pompous bore.” Nearly all of Tolkien’s works since his death, excluding the little-known children’s book Mr. Bliss, has faced this uneasy critical tension.

Then there is The Original of Laura, Vladimir Nabokov’s focus at the time of his death in 1977. It’s less a cohesive text than it is scattered fragments. Nabokov left behind, for his family to find and destroy, 138 of the index cards on which he drafted his novels. His son, Dmitri, was directed by Vladimir to destroy any of these incomplete works, just like Franz, Virgil, and Emily before him. And, just like Max, Lucius and Plotius, and Lavinia, Dmitri didn’t.

What distinguishes Laura from other posthumous works is the honesty of the executor and the troubling response it engendered from critics. Rather than allow the notes for Laura to be transformed into a Frankenstein’s monster at the hands of an editor, Dmitri insisted Laura’s viewing should take place in an honest way—that is, almost exactly as his father left the work. The published form even allows the reader to rearrange the cards as they see fit. Some were not impressed. William Skidelsky concludes his review in the Guardian by stating, “It seems likely that this book will have a more significant impact on the size of Dmitri Nabokov’s bank balance than it ever will have on the world of letters.” In Slate, Aleksandar Hemon argues, “The Original of Laura can’t escape the musty air of an estate sale … Too sick to destroy the notecards that contain The Original of Laura, the master is now eternally exposed to a gloating, greedy world of academics, publishers, and other card-shuffling mediocrities titillated by the sight of a helpless genius.” Others supported the work being published in its incomplete form, but it’s not unreasonable to think that had Dmitri managed to conjure up a completed facsimile of Laura, or at least a halfway decent one, the supporters would have outweighed the critics.

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Here lies our willful ignorance. Underneath it is the belief that we can—must—have the best of both worlds when giving our favorite writers a second life: the authentic, unaltered voice of the writer and a clean resulting work, no matter its state at the time of their death. In other words, an impossible paradox. In judging posthumous work, readers rarely consider the state of the work at the time of the author’s death, its objective quality to begin with, or the intentions of the writer. The only thing we recognize is whether the end result is a text that fits the writer’s existing body of work.

An alternative exists that isn’t terribly radical. We could simply not publish these works. Leave the drafts in a set of filing cabinets at a liberal arts university where, most likely, even the most modestly successful writer will find academic patrons to carry on their memory. Or, we could allow the creation of statuesque remembrances, without attributing them as the authentic voice of the deceased author. Bring in one of the most prominent writers of the time, or a group of them, to finish and edit the text by committee. As long as we separate the result from the body of work created by the writer in their lifetime. After all, we don’t mistake the statues in public squares for an exact replica of the person who once lived. We could even allow both to exist, but rest apart. Perhaps in concert, the two will breed an honesty in expectations and criticism of the work. But don’t soak the unfinished manuscripts in paraffin, dress them in their Sunday best, and parade them around town as if the synapses were still firing. The well-worn Faulkner line “the past isn’t dead. It isn’t even past” is as true for literature as it is for history. But sometimes, it’s still worth acknowledging the smell of death.

Adin Dobkin is a writer and journalist in Washington, D.C.

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