By Daniel Wallace, April 03, 20235:50 AM
When writers die, they sometimes leave a raft of unfinished work behind, in various stages of incompletion.
It’s not uncommon to find most of a book or a hefty number of poems, stories, or essays languishing in a desk drawer, where these things used to languish, or these days, on their laptops. When a writer of some note dies, there’s a brief burst of interest in him and his work, especially if he’s produced little for the last few years. You may even have assumed he was already dead, and discovering that he was alive is a double shock: forgotten but not gone.
Regardless, this is when previously unpublished work enters the terrain of the posthumous. It’s impossible to know how much work is left behind by the dead, and of that, how much is work that’s “worthy” of posthumous publication, work to which attention should be paid. No novel is ever judged purely on its own merits: Marketing follows us into the afterlife.
Few want to publish a dead author’s book if that book’s prospects will be lessened by the fact that he will not be around to go on tour. Think of midlist authors (like me, for instance) who really aren’t all that terrifically popular when they’re alive, spending their careers clamoring (as only the living can clamor) for whatever attention they can get. Our books, posthumously, will be on their own.
To make matters worse, many writers leave some manuscripts “in progress” behind when they die, sometimes work of great potential. This doesn’t mean that it ever would have been finished or live up to that potential. All we can know is what didn’t happen and never will, because if one thing in life is certain, it’s that the dead can be depended on to contribute very little indeed.