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.