Better Late Than Never for Novels Published Long After They’re Written

For a variety of reasons, some novels are published years or decades or even more than a century after they’re written.

Take (Ms.) Lionel Shriver’s The New Republic, which wasn’t so new by the time it was released. That vividly satirical novel, about an American journalist in a fictional European region populated by supposed terrorists, was completed in 1998.

“At that time, my sales record was poisonous,” Shriver wrote in an author’s note. “Perhaps more importantly, my American compatriots largely dismissed terrorism as Foreigners’ Boring Problem. I was unable to interest an American publisher in the manuscript.”

Then 9/11 happened, and Shriver also became a best-selling author with other books. Still, she said treating terrorism “with a light touch would have been perceived as in poor taste” in the years immediately after 2001, so The New Republic wasn’t published until 2012. I read and enjoyed it last week.

A novel I haven’t read yet, Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman, is a much more prominent example of a book released long after it was written — in its case, nearly 60 years. What may have been an early draft of To Kill a Mockingbird was penned during the second half of the 1950s, and finally came out in 2015 after decades of supposedly being lost. Why was Go Set a Watchman released, not necessarily with the informed consent of an aged Ms. Lee, who died several months later? Well, one major reason was that any novel by that author — and especially a novel with a number of To Kill a Mockingbird characters — was sure to make tons of money.

There’s also Maurice by E.M. Forster, who wrote that novel in 1913-14 but didn’t want it published because of its then-controversial depiction of same-sex love. It finally came out in 1971, a year after Forster died.

Going further back in time, we have Billy Budd — a novella not quite finished by Herman Melville when he died in 1891. The 1888-started manuscript was discovered in 1919, and published five years later to wide acclaim. The quality of Billy Budd was especially amazing given that Melville’s previous “final” novel was published way back in 1857, after which the Moby-Dick author fell into obscurity for the rest of his life.

Then there’s The Last Cavalier by Alexandre Dumas, whose lengthy novel was serialized in a periodical in 1869 without ever appearing in book form — until 2005, after the serialization was rediscovered. Dumas died in 1870.

Jules Verne wrote the futuristic novel Paris in the Twentieth Century in 1863, but it wasn’t published until the 20th century — and very late in that century at that, in 1994, after the book was found by Verne’s great-grandson. The dystopian novel, set in the early 1960s, was not originally released because Verne’s publisher thought it was too pessimistic and not believable, yet Verne (as usual) made some pretty accurate predictions — such as weapons of mass destruction, electric lights, skyscrapers, primitive computers, elevated and underground trains, internal-combustion cars, synthetic foods, and technology being much more societally dominant than literature and other forms of culture.

And, in the 1790s, we have Jane Austen penning early versions of what would become Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice. Those two novels would not be published until 1811 and 1813, respectively. A timeline that was a two-centuries-earlier version of what happened with Lionel Shriver and The New Republic.

What are your favorite delayed-publication novels — including those I mentioned or ones I didn’t?

My 2017 literary-trivia book is described and can be purchased here: Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time.

In addition to this weekly blog, I write the award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for The latest weekly piece — which stars “Mr. Variance” — is here.

The Wait Show

I did a lot of waiting this past week.

Why? I was called for jury duty on July 17, when I waited six hours in a Newark, New Jersey, courthouse before my name was called to be a possible juror for a trial. A few minutes later, myself and about 50 others crowded into a courtroom, where people were picked in random order to be questioned by the judge as well as by lawyers for the plaintiff and defendant in a car-accident case. Five of the eight needed jurors were chosen before the process was suspended until the following morning. Then came an overnight wait for everyone at their respective homes.

The next day, more jurors were chosen, some were dismissed, and I became perhaps the 13th or 14th person questioned. I ended up being picked for the trial, which took place on July 18 and 19 — with many waiting moments amid the proceedings, such as when the judge periodically called the lawyers to the front for sidebar discussions when an objection was made. Our congenial, diverse jury ended up voting 7-1 in favor of the defendant.

Anyway, with all that waiting, I had plenty of time to try to think of a new blog post for today. My first thought of course was to discuss lawyers and court cases in literature, but I had done that already, in 2015.

Then it occurred to me to write about WAITING in literature, and I don’t mean what fictional servers do at restaurant tables.

Depicting characters waiting for something is not necessarily boring in the right authorial hands. It can mean slow-building, compelling drama — drama that has the reader asking questions such as: How long will the wait be? Will the wait result in something positive or negative? How will the characters react to/handle the wait? That can show a lot about them.

I first thought of The White Dawn, because I had finished that novel the night before my jury duty started. James Houston’s absorbing book is set in Eskimo territory in the 1890s, when three lost white men end up joining the native camp. There’s subsequently a LOT of waiting: for a ship looking for the white men to possibly arrive, for Eskimo hunters to hopefully return with food when everyone is almost starving, for warmer weather to come, for colder weather to come back, etc. (One thing I liked about The White Dawn was that it was told completely from the Eskimos’ perspective; Houston had lived among them for nine years — many decades after the time in which the novel is set.)

Obviously, any novel starring a castaway — such as Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe — is going to have the stranded character do a lot of waiting.

Another novel with intense waiting is Nevil Shute’s On the Beach, in which the Australian characters wait for deadly radiation from a nuclear blast to eventually reach their country.

And there’s Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment, in which Raskolnikov agonizingly waits to see if he’ll get caught for the two murders he committed. (Of course, the second part of the novel’s title offers a clue about that. 🙂 )

Or how about the innocent Edmond Dantes of Alexandre Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo waiting years in an island prison for either death or a chance to escape?

In Geraldine Brooks’ novel March, the wife and daughters from Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women wait for their husband/father to return from the Civil War.

Lily Bart of Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth does a different kind of waiting — for the right guy to marry. She is financially desperate, but wants to wed for love, not just for money.

In Octavia Butler’s Kindred, African-American writer Dana Franklin waits to return to the 20th century after being yanked to the 19th century’s horrific slave-owning South. Then Ms. Franklin waits to be yanked to the 19th century again, to the 20th century again, and for her 20th-century husband to return from the 19th century.

Twentieth-century guy Sam Fowler of Darryl Brock’s If I Never Get Back sequel Two in the Field WANTS to return to the 19th century to reunite with the woman he fell in love with in the first novel. But it’s a long wait.

Oh, and there’s Samuel Beckett’s play Waiting for Godot

Those are just a few examples of waiting in literature; do you have some others? (I’m sure you do. 🙂 )

My 2017 literary-trivia book is described and can be purchased here: Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time.

In addition to this weekly blog, I write the award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for The latest weekly piece — which mentions the World Cup, among other things — is here.

Some Stories Behind the Writing of Storied Novels

Novels containing great stories sometimes have great stories behind the writing of the novels.

I learned a new example of that after reading Rosamunde Pilcher’s moving/masterful/multigenerational The Shell Seekers earlier this month. In the introduction to the 10th-anniversary edition of that 1987 novel, Pilcher recalled her publisher visiting her in Scotland in 1984, and her children rebuking him for not making their mother more famous (she had written 11 modest-selling books at that point). The publisher replied that Pilcher “hadn’t produced a novel that would justify huge advance publicity and global promotion,” and challenged her to do so.

“No novel had ever taken me more than three months to produce,” Pilcher wrote. “Thinking about the mammoth task ahead, I quailed slightly. I was sixty…”

But she wrote The Shell Seekers — taking more than two years to do so — and it deservedly went on to sell more than five million copies.

(The novel’s protagonist is Penelope Keeling — a sixty-something woman who lives a difficult, at times tragic life with charm and little complaint. She was played by Vanessa Redgrave, shown in the photo atop this blog post, in a screen adaptation.)

Other authors’ memorable writing experiences? Well, there’s Gabriel Garcia Marquez, who was mostly known as a journalist when he had a brainstorm about a novel and began writing One Hundred Years of Solitude in 1965. He single-mindedly worked on the magic-realism-infused book for eighteen months while he and his wife ran up a huge amount of debt. The end result was a novel considered one of the best of the 20th century — and it made enough money to eradicate that debt many times over.

In the late 1890s, Colette was handling correspondence for her prominent publisher husband Henry Gauthier-Villars, who put his “Willy” alias on the cover of books actually authored by a stable of ghostwriters. A bored Colette wrote a novel herself — Claudine at School, initially released in 1900 under the “Willy” name — that became wildly popular.

Going further back in the 19th century, we have memorable writing experiences from authors such as Charles Dickens, Mark Twain, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Herman Melville, and Sir Walter Scott.

After a run of best-selling novels that first came out in serialized form, Dickens was not doing as well with Martin Chuzzlewit. So, in the middle of writing it, he changed the planned plot by sending Martin to America — and readership took off.

Twain began Adventures of Huckleberry Finn in 1876, and later put it aside for several years as he wrestled with the plot (including whether to bring Huck into adulthood) and the prose (which he ended up famously filling with pitch-perfect dialect). The novel finally came out in late 1884, and is considered one of the best of the 19th century.

Hawthorne initially envisioned The House of the Seven Gables as having a relatively sad ending. But he was convinced by his wife Sophia to make the conclusion more hopeful, even though it didn’t fit the gloomy novel quite as well.

Melville was writing Pierre while his previous novel, the masterpiece Moby-Dick, was tanking in sales and getting scathing reviews from many critics. Stung by that reaction, Melville shifted gears to have his Pierre title character obsessively write a book that no one seemed to like or understand.

Scott was ill when writing The Bride of Lammermoor, and consequently dictated the novel rather than hand-write it himself — all of which might have contributed to the plot’s downbeat nature. When Scott read the completed novel, he had been so out of it during the writing process that he “did not recollect one single incident, character, or conversation it contained.” That may or may not have been apocryphal.

What are some interesting stories you’ve heard about the writing of particular novels?

My 2017 literary-trivia book is described and can be purchased here: Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time.

In addition to this weekly blog, I write the award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for The latest weekly piece — which takes a rare all-positive approach 🙂 — is here.

Novelists Who Go All Epic All the Time, Or Not

Some authors write almost nothing but epic fiction — long, intricate, challenging, ambitious books that take years to complete. Think Marcel Proust (In Search of Lost Time); Murasaki Shikibu (The Tale of Genji); Donna Tartt (just three novels — including The Goldfinch — since 1992); Jonathan Franzen (Freedom, etc.); James Clavell (Shogun, etc.); Samuel Richardson (Clarissa, etc.); and a few others.

But most authors — including those known for doorstop books — occasionally change things up with shorter novels. Even Charles “The Tome King” Dickens wrote the occasional modest-length work such as A Christmas Carol and Hard Times.

As did Leo Tolstoy, whose canon includes not only the lengthy Anna Karenina and the very lengthy War and Peace, but novellas such as The Death of Ivan Ilyich, The Kreutzer Sonata, and Hadji Murat.

The same can be said for George Eliot, whose Silas Marner is quite brief compared to her hefty novels such as Middlemarch and Daniel Deronda; Wilkie Collins, whose A Rogue’s Life is many fewer pages than The Woman in White and Armadale; John Steinbeck, who mixed sweeping novels such as The Grapes of Wrath and East of Eden with shorter fare such as Cannery Row; and James Michener, who wrote many huge fictional works (think Hawaii) but also relatively quick-to-read novels such as Caravans.

And though those books are barely remembered now, Miguel de Cervantes penned a number of shorter novels in addition to his lengthy masterpiece Don Quixote.

Heck, most authors need a change of pace (writing one epic after another can lead to burnout). And sometimes writers just require 200 pages or so to say what they want to say in a particular book.

The idea for this post occurred to me last month when I was reading Neil Gaiman’s interesting fantasy novel The Ocean at the End of the Lane — a shorter and simpler (but not simple) novel than his deep, complex American Gods.

Your favorite authors who go the mostly epic route or the change-of-pace route?

My 2017 literary-trivia book is described and can be purchased here: Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time.

In addition to this weekly blog, I write the award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for The latest weekly piece — which covers everything from a July 4th parade to commemorating a lost African-American landmark — is here.

These Novelists Are Not Just Their Most Famous Novels

Many a novelist is known mostly for a particular series. But those authors often have other books in their canons — whether they’re a different series or stand-alone novels. And those other novels can be somewhat similar or quite different from the works that the writers are most famous for.

This thought popped into my brain last week when reading the Rose novel by Martin Cruz Smith. That author is most known for Gorky Park and its seven sequels, but the stand-alone Rose is just as good. It’s set in a 19th-century British coal-mining town rather than the Soviet Union and post-Soviet Union, but Rose stars an investigative character (Jonathan Blair) who reminded me more than a bit of investigator Arkady Renko of the eight books that started with Gorky Park. Blair and Renko are both smart, brave, world-weary, more ethical than most, and liable to get into interesting romantic entanglements. They also smoke or drink too much, are not in great health, and get beat up a lot by the bad guys.

Then there’s of course J.K. Rowling, who wrote the iconic Harry Potter series but also The Casual Vacancy — an adult, non-magical novel that’s almost totally unlike the HP books, even as there are some similarities in terms of complex social interactions, dysfunctional families, tragedy, etc. Plus Rowling has written a detective-fiction series under the alias Robert Galbraith.

Walter Mosley is most famous for his mysteries starring Ezekiel “Easy” Rawlins (Devil in a Blue Dress and thirteen others). But he has also written three Fearless Jones mysteries, five Leonid McGill mysteries, science fiction, etc.

L.M. Montgomery is best known for Anne of Green Gables and its many sequels, but she also wrote the semi-autobiographical Emily trilogy, the stand-alone novel The Blue Castle, and more. Very different books, but they tend to star brainy, feisty girls or young women who overcome significant obstacles.

Arthur Conan Doyle is almost synonymous with his Sherlock Holmes novels and stories, but he also penned The Lost World and plenty of other books — partly in an effort to not be typecast as “only” a writer of Sherlockian tales.

Changing things up can keep novelists fresh and interested as they exercise different writing muscles. The same can be said about those authors’ audiences, who have the opportunity to exercise different reading muscles. Of course, some people prefer that their favorite novelists remain predictable and stick with one series.

Then there are authors who write other novels before creating a popular series that they stick with. One example is Sue Grafton; she had two published novels before penning her “Alphabet Mysteries” (A Is for Alibi and 24 others) starring investigator Kinsey Millhone.

Which authors who fit this topic would you like to mention?

My 2017 literary-trivia book is described and can be purchased here: Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time.

In addition to this weekly blog, I write the award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for The latest weekly piece — which covers everything from summer camps to girls’ softball — is here.