I just finished Micro, a novel “by” Michael Crichton. I use the word “by” a little loosely because Crichton died while writing it, and the book was completed by another writer. It was still okay, but it missed some sharpness. There were summarized passages that I felt sure would have been explored more vividly if Crichton had lived to revise. Reading that last book got me thinking about what happens to manuscripts when the writer has died.
Micro isn’t the first example of a book that was a work in progress (sometimes barely more than a few drafted chapters and some Word files full of notes) that was finished by another writer. I will admit it’s one of the few I’ve read, mostly because a few dips into posthumously completed novels, including some I really love (Douglas Adams comes to mind) has taught me that a lot of what I love in an author’s voice comes later in the revision process.
I’m a voice girl when it comes to reading. Plot and character matter, of course. The premise better be interesting to make it on my favorites list, and the ending should count. But I will forgive a lot of sins on the basis of a great narrative voice, and I’m quick to put down almost any story if I don’t care for the way it’s told. It’s hard to get voice right on a first draft–it’s the kind of plaster or molding (I don’t know enough about carpentry to keep this metaphor accurate–whoops!) that you can only worry about when the scaffolding of the story is in place.
These days, editors don’t have much time to do extensive developmental editing with writers before the book is published. This is in many ways an unfortunate thing–a good editor can help a book cross the last inch (or more!) from a workable manuscript to a masterpiece. But that’s another story for another day. The point is that I think the authors themselves, and their personal communities of hand-selected readers, are the ones shaping most books today. A publisher assigning someone else (hopefully also popular in the same genre, to attract sales and ease suspicious readers’ minds) just isn’t the same to me. The question, then, is should the work stop if the author is no longer alive?
I know there is a lot of important work that happens after the writer is done putting words on the page (I wouldn’t be working in publishing if I thought that wasn’t true!). I know there are agents and even some editors who still take a strong personal interest in a book. But although I can understand the fans’ desire for just one more book and the publishers’ for one last good sale from an author, the writer side of me feels an uncomfortable twinge imagining an unfinished book going out. There is no last chance to review the book, or change it. There’s more possibility for anyone to say “close enough” to a not-quite-polished page. We should be grateful we even have this much, right?
Not me. I want the last book I read by a beloved author to be a proper send-off, with all the qualities I love in the work that got me hooked in the first place. I’ll miss out on a glimpse at the new characters and ideas my favorite writers were creating at the end of their lives, but I want that wonderful voice in my head to stay the same.
Should death be the final deadline for an author’s work to get published, or is it better to find a way to publish what they’ve left behind? I’d love to hear your take.