Don't delve in the bottom drawer

A writer would be well advised to make a bonfire of what he wasn't satisfied with
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The Independent Culture
IS THERE no way of getting authors to stop publishing? Won't even death do the trick? Apparently not, since you can never trust your executors, family and loved ones to rely on your own judgement. The fact that you've put something firmly in a bottom drawer and decided not to publish it, won't stop your children bringing it out after your death.

Whatever their motives are - at best a misguided homage to the memory of a great writer, at worst just wanting to make money - it's pretty certain that these aren't the same as those of the poor sod who wrote the stuff in the first place.

An oddity arrived through the post the other day. What described itself as "Ernest Hemingway's final novel" turned out to be an editing and reduction of a huge and intractable manuscript. In the mid-Fifties, Hemingway beavered away at a long, autobiographical tale of hunting in Africa, mostly in the form of a semi-journal. After 200,000 words or so he abandoned it, and he made no attempt to publish it.

Hemingway, of course, is a highly profitable and popular author, and you can't altogether blame his son, Patrick Hemingway, for the step he has now taken. The manuscript, reduced to half its length by its editor, has appeared under the title of True at First Light. It looks much more like an orthodox novel, with characters and development, but it must be said that it really isn't much good, and is not going to enhance Hemingway's reputation.

No one really knows what the final version would have looked like, and you can only guess what made Hemingway abandon it. His son's explanations are unconvincing; he was interrupted by an invitation to go and fish for marlin in Peru, for instance. Alternatively, the closure of the Suez Canal made it impossible for him to get to East Africa, where the book is set.

I think there's another reason, a much simpler one: he looked at what he'd done, and decided that it wasn't up to his standards. When you look at some of the abject rubbish Hemingway didn't mind publishing in his last years, you will understand that True at First Light, even with half of it taken out, is not up to much.

I've often thought that one of the biggest dangers to a writer's reputation was the "Keeper of the Flame". Those widows, children and lovers who, bereft of the genius in the house, seek to perpetuate his memory by publishing more and more of his literary remains, but rarely seem to understand that what he had done, and chosen to do, in his lifetime, would have been more than enough.

To bring out substandard posthumous efforts, at best can have no significant effect either way on the writer's reputation, as in the case of, say, EM Forster's posthumous novels and fragments. But there are other cases where a flood of material well below the standard of the published work makes you wonder whether the writer is that good after all. The novelist Barbara Pym displayed a genuine, memorable talent in her early books. The tragic oddity of her publishing career, which led to her, in mid- life, writing for years without hope of publication, meant that when she died her executors were able to bring out a number of complete novels.

The sad fact is that none of her posthumous novels is up to the standard of the rest. It wasn't that they were lacking in potential, or in talent; simply that they were deprived of a crucial part of the creative process, the interaction between author and editor, and had to be published as they stood, as if they were Babylonian scrolls.

There is, certainly, a scholarly interest in literary remains. Readers who are serious about Tolkien will want to look at those terrifying volumes of drafts, unpublished stories and workings-through that show the intricacy of the invention behind The Lord of The Rings. A serious interest in Hemingway, too, would be served well by a reading of the full 200,000 words of True at First Light.

What really isn't of any use to man, woman or child is a sort of pseudo- editing of a second-rate manuscript; an editing that doesn't consist of a familiar friend saying, "This bit isn't up to much, Ernest", but a helpless guessing at what might go in or stay out.

All in all, in the present climate a writer would be well advised to make a bonfire of what he wasn't satisfied with. An easy thing to do - so easy, in fact, that a horrid suspicion starts to arise about this new "novel" of Hemingway's. Could it possibly be that, even though he knew perfectly well that it wasn't up to scratch, and didn't want to take the full blame for its inadequacies, he really did want to leave it, carefully boxed up, for his family to bring out after his death; to bring it out with the schoolboy excuse that it would have been OK, if only he'd had a bit more time to finish it?

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