It used to be the case that when a writer passed away you could sometimes find unpublished works tucked into drawers or safes, hidden under beds, stuffed behind sofas. The debris of ideas that could have been. These were often accompanied by notebooks filled with writing notes, some detailed enough that they were, at times, thought to warrant publication in their own right. Thinkers seem to fill this category with both Ludwig Wittgenstein and Martin Heidegger having their notebooks published basically as the notebooks they were (Blue and Brown for the former, Black for the latter), and alternatively with Friedrich Nietzsche’s being worked into the posthumous book The Will to Power. Then too in the world of fiction we have unpublished stories, ideas, chapters, plans, being worked into books and series by the sons of well-known authors. Christopher Tolkien’s editorial work on his famous father’s manuscripts has won the thanks of many a Middle-earth fan, while the same could perhaps not be said about Brian Herbert’s work (with Kevin J. Anderson) on the elder Herbert’s Dune series (I for one couldn’t even make it through the Prelude trilogy and I inhaled Frank Herbert’s Dune books like a drowning person who has just managed to surface gasps for air).
Nowadays things are different of course but I’d wager that a look through any writer’s cloud files or USB memory sticks will reveal many a typed word that is destined for nowhere. I have a full finished novel, a third of a novel, scattered chapters for two other works, and a complete storyline for a book-length comic that are bound to be wearily deleted by my daughter after I’m dead and that’s just what comes to mind without looking. I’m sure my fellow soda jerks would concur with this and maybe also mention the related topic of the work they’ve lost into the ether or had eaten by the back seats of taxis while cruising around Seoul. What are we to do with all these leftovers?
It’s a good question. Heidegger never intended for his notebook to be published, Nietzsche clearly had plans to publish his but in a reworked way, and given Wittgenstein’s attitude towards publishing I’m not sure if we can say one way or the other how he might have felt. On the other hand, Frank Herbert had wanted to do four more books in his original Dune line but they were set to take place after the end of his sixth – which turned out to be his last – while the posthumous work based on Dune that we have takes place before, during, and after the original saga. As with Wittgenstein I’m not sure how J.R.R. Tolkien would have felt about The Silmarillion but that work does, I believe, stand on its own (and credit where it’s due for the editing work). What is interesting is that, unlike what Plato did with the tragedies he wrote in his pre-philosophy days, none of these people actually destroyed the work they chose not to do anything further with. It is possible that each saw value in the writing but that they considered such value to either not be of a high enough level such that they wished to release it or that the value contained was of a more personal and emotional sort. In my case I suppose I haven’t deleted my old files for the latter reason, although there is probably the idea lurking somewhere in me that some part or parts of those abandoned projects might possibly be salvageable in some yet to be determined way at some (far off?) future date. All of that writing and thinking was of course good practice, and any writer worth their salt will have at least some dead piles of pages (or bytes) pushing up daisies, and more perhaps need not be said. Well, just this: a lot of those early works of mine are better left locked away; I will admit to that.