dead have come back ...
Maugham's the Word?
When it comes to dead authors, no secret is safe, no unfinished work unpublished.
By Jessa Crispin
Readers are notorious grave robbers. When it comes to our favorite authors, many of us posses a compulsion to read and learn everything. We cheer when manuscript fragments are uncovered, private correspondence tracked down, diaries published for all to read. The authors, long dead, can no longer insist on privacy, and it is often their loved ones and descendants who betray them by leaving items unburned and handing over love letters to publishers.
If you look at the fall publishing list or read literary news you might think the dead have come back to walk the Earth. Vladimir Nabokov's The Original of Laura — not so much a book as a series of detailed note cards about a book — is being published after years of hemming and hawing by his son Dmitri. Vladimir had requested the note cards be destroyed, not published. Readers have been able to follow the heir's decision making process after Ron Rosenbaum started publicly pressuring Dmitri to choose publication via Rosenbaum's column at Slate. The Internet was allowed to chime in, as if the issue were the equivalent of a poll asking if Miley Cyrus was right to shut down her Twitter feed. We also have "new" "works" by William Styron, David Foster Wallace, Ralph Ellison, and Kurt Vonnegut all coming out this fall, as well as a controversial version of Carl Jung's The Red Book, which had remained completed, but hidden with no specific request to publish it, for years before his family finally decided to go ahead and make it public.
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If there's a lesson from this sudden dead author revival, it's that you should immediately start burning anything you don't want released instead of waiting for the ones who follow to start cashing in. As a longtime fan of Maugham's work, I was certainly curious about what inspired him to write such vicious accounts of marriage. Although now that I know how incredibly unhappy he was to be forced to marry Syrie, does that add to or detract from my favorite scene in The Painted Veil in which the husband tells his wife he knew she was a frivolous idiot when he married her, and now he's carting her off to a cholera epidemic in the hopes that one of them will die? In his review of The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham, the Guardian's Ian Samson referred to biographies as "reverse alchemy," taking the gold of the creative act and turning it back into the lead of mundane daily life. Remember this next time readers cry out and demand to read a famous author's unpublished short story, and then afterward look around embarrassed, realizing why it had been left unpublished, and wish they hadn't read it after all. • 21 October 2009
Jessa Crispin is editor and founder of Bookslut.com. She currently resides in Berlin, but spent many years in Chicago.
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