On May 23, 2017, Michael Crichton’s book, Dragon’s Teeth, was posthumously released to less than gleaming reviews. Fans of the writer who had taken us to places like Jurassic Park and Westworld, as well as several other bizarre landscapes, were excited to uncover a new text from the author. But while it became an instant best-seller, the verdict was that this story should’ve stayed unpublished. After all, Crichton must have had a reason to leave the manuscript he wrote in the nineteen seventies hidden from his readership. Perhaps he knew the story wasn’t working, or maybe something in the text led him to write some of his other masterpieces.
Regardless of what actually went down, this situation proved once again why publishing works by an author who has already passed away is a bad idea. Now before anyone starts talking about why their favorite book or artwork came only after it’s creator’s death, let me explain why this is murky territory. As artists, the work we create is always in constant evolution. You can have an almost finished manuscript before you realize that changing the point of view or the place where the story starts could solve a plot hole or improve the entire product. Sometimes this unfinished creation leads us to a different one that connects with us more. I’m not saying that nobody should ever publish the work of an artist who has passed away. But the problem is how do we know the author’s true wishes?
As readers, we would love to have every piece of writing available from our favorite authors. But what happens when those in charge of their estate start releasing works they did not believe were up to par? Or, even worse, how do they distinguish what might have been a personal creation from something they considered shareable with the rest of the world? If we believe ourselves to be fans of someone, we should respect their choices, even after death. Otherwise we might not like what we find.
Crichton certainly isn’t the first writer to have his work published and sold after his death. Jane Austen’s Persuasion and Northhanger Abbey were released by her family after her passing. Many critics and scholars who are familiar with her work have noticed that the former was already ready to publish, while the latter might have needed a few edits from the author. As much as we like these stories, I can’t help but wonder whether those who conjured these characters and situations would be happy to know their unfinished works were sent out into the world.
But that’s not even the most troubling scenario. There are several authors whose creation did not see the light until after their deaths. This has left room for other people to question whether or not they actually wrote it. One of the examples I find is with The Diary of Anne Frank. Since it’s publication there were several fascist groups who claimed it was propaganda or a highly fictionalized version of the original journal. What I’ve always found problematic is that it must have been edited to follow a linear narrative structure. Most of our personal writings don’t have a novelistic sense. And, if we’re being completely honest, would any of us want to have their most private adolescent thoughts printed millions of times for the whole world to read? I know I wouldn’t.
Perhaps I’m being selfish. After all, without posthumous publications we might not have several books that have become classics or favorites. But, if we consider that someone’s art is a part of them, we can’t speak for them and believe that they wanted this piece out in the world, particularly if it was a rough draft. Maybe the best idea would be for creators to have a will of sorts, stating what to do with unfinished works in case they pass before they finish them. The most important thing should be to consult their wishes, rather than impose our desires.
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