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Dead authors still publishing

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The first of two posthumous Crichton novels arrives in stores this week, part of a wave of books that reawaken the debate over how best to handle unfinished work that writers leave behind.

Michael Crichton
It wasn’t just Pirate Latitudes that was lurking on Crichton’s laptop: A partial techno-thriller manuscript was found there as well. That second novel — expected in 2012 — will be finished by a yet-to-be-announced writer, says publisher Jonathan Burnham. The title or subject matter? ”That’s under wraps,” says Burnham, ”which is the way Michael always played it.”

Ralph Ellison
A Jan. 26, 2010, edition of Ellison’s unfinished second novel, Three Days Before the Shooting…, has received only minimal editing. ”You often hear people talk, when editing posthumous volumes, about getting into the mind of the writer,” says Adam Bradley, Ellison’s editor. ”I think you also have to try to get out of his mind — to deny the impulse to complete and correct.”

Robert Jordan
Jordan died in 2007, but left reams of notes on how to conclude his Wheel of Time series. ”I feel like an archaeologist who has found a beautiful vase,” says Brandon Sanderson, who completed the 12th installment of the saga, which was recently published. ”My job is to put the pieces back together in such a way that people can’t tell where the holes were.”

Vladimir Nabokov
When Nabokov died in 1977, he left behind 138 note cards constituting his final novel, The Original of Laura. Like Virgil and Kafka before him, he ordered his work to be burned after his death, and his survivors mulled over the matter as the cards sat in a Swiss vault for 30 years. Facsimiles of the cards have just been published, without any additions or subtractions.

David Foster Wallace (Book coming 2011)
Wallace had completed a substantial chunk of his third novel, The Pale King, before committing suicide in 2008. The book, about tedium and IRS agents, is scheduled for a January 2011 release and, while unfinished, comes in at over 500 manuscript pages. That’s not quite the near-infinite page length of Infinite Jest, but it’s hardly a footnote.

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