Marketplace Scratch Pad

Publishing from the grave

Scott Jagow Jul 13, 2009

Like every industry, the publishing business is having a tough time. But lately, coming to its rescue, are some of the biggest names in literature. I guess they’re bored with being dead.

This week, Strand Magazine will put out the first chapter of a never-published novella by Graham Greene. Four more chapters of “The Empty Chair” will follow.

Playboy just bought the rights to serialize a novella by “Lolita” author Vladimir Nabokov. Nabokov wrote “The Original of Laura” on 138 index cards. Wait, should he be credited with inventing Twitter? Anyway, on his deathbed, Nabokov told his wife he didn’t want the novella published and that she should burn the index cards.

She didn’t listen. She gave them to her son, who recently decided to publish the work. Amazon already has a listing for “The Original of Laura,” even though it won’t be available until November 17th, a week after Playboy’s December issue comes out.

The Guardian cites several other recent examples of newly discovered or unpublished works giving a jolt to the publishing biz, including works by Mark Twain, JRR Tolkien, Mary Shelley and Ernest Hemingway. But there are problems:

Greene’s novella, for example, is unfinished, which is unfortunate because it is a murder mystery and the culprit is unknown. Andrew Gulli, Strand’s editor, said it was considering asking readers to write a final chapter to complete the tale. But he insisted it was still a quality piece.

“If these stories did not stand up as quality fiction we would not be able to publish them,” said Gulli. Not everyone agrees. The first chapter of Greene’s work has been published elsewhere and some reviewers were less than kind. “We had a taste of the new Greene and it was just not very good,” said Carolyn Kellogg of Jacket Copy, the Los Angeles Times book blog.

And Nabokov apparently didn’t think too much of “The Original of Laura”, since he wanted it tossed into a fire. I guess Playboy readers will decide in November. Here’s the text of Nabokov’s 1964 interview with Playboy. It’s quite amusing:

Citing in Lolita the same kind of acid-etched scene you’ve just described, many critics have called the book a masterful satiric social commentary on America. Are they right?

Well, I can only repeat that I have neither the intent nor the temperament of a moral or social satirist. Whether or not critics think that in Lolita I am ridiculing human folly leaves me supremely indifferent. But I am annoyed when the glad news is spread that I am ridiculing America…

Many readers have concluded that the Philistinism you seem to find the most exhilarating is that of America’s sexual mores.

Sex as an institution, sex as a general notion, sex as a problem, sex as a platitude– all this is something I find too tedious for words. Let us skip sex.

Have you ever been psychoanalyzed?

Have I been what?

Subjected to psychoanalytical examination.

Why, good God?

Finally, I love this quote from the Guardian story: “As long as writers keep dying, they will keep leaving new stuff to be discovered.”

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