Is Posthumously Publishing Unfinished Work Fair to the Author?

In Discussion by Edward Nawotka

By Edward Nawotka


David Foster Wallace

In April 2011, Little, Brown will publish David Foster Wallace’s unfinished manuscript called The Pale King. An excerpt was published in The New Yorker earlier this year and another appears this week. In answering questions about his March article describing David Foster Wallace’s struggles to finish the novel, journalist D.T. Max was asked what Wallace’s wishes were for the work. Max replied:

“I don’t think Wallace made any stipulations about the publication of The Pale King. All we really know is that about a year before he died, he almost sent a section of the partial novel to Little, Brown in order to get an advance and that he appeared to organize some pages—many the same that he prepared for Little, Brown—for his wife, Karen Green, to find on his death. So there are at least some sections of the novel that, edited, he wanted to have see the light of day. It also seems clear from an e-mail he sent his agent that he thought he had gotten further with the characters than he had with a plot that would satisfy readers. In Michael Pietsch, at Little, Brown, Wallace had a talented and disciplined editor, one who knew his work well. My suspicion is that, if Pietsch can’t find a full book in the manuscript, he will say so and publish it with notes explaining what’s missing. What we may be getting is a lot of characters introduced without knowing what they wind up doing with each other. On the other hand, maybe not.”

Sometimes, these things almost never turn out well—think of Ralph Ellison’s Juneteenth—or else merely feel unfinished, like Knopf’s recent publication of Nabokov’s The Original of Laura, which—with its detachable index cards—is either a publishing feat or or a gimmick. Either way, it is in no way a complete work. (It is, it could be argued, something altogether different—a literary artifact.)

Does Little, Brown’s decision to go ahead with publication of The Pale King strike you as a good idea? Is it in any way dubious or cynical? Is it, ultimately, fair to the author?

And perhaps of most importance, will you risk your $35 for a taste of what might have been?

Tell us what you think in the comments below or via Twitter using hashtag #ppbonus.

VIEW: Manuscript pages from The Pale King (via The New Yorker book blog).

READ: Our lead article about David Foster Wallace’s German publisher, Kiepenheuer & Witsch

About the Author

Edward Nawotka

A widely published critic and essayist, Edward Nawotka serves as a speaker, educator and consultant for institutions and businesses involved in the global publishing and content industries. He was also editor-in-chief of Publishing Perspectives since the launch of the publication in 2009 until January 2016.