Premium Drafts: On Publishing Discarded Or Otherwise Unfinished Works

on Wednesday, November 16, 2011
Legend has it that my favourite book of all time never got past the drafting stage. Truth is, there's no way to know how close to completion Franz Kafka's The Trial actually was but I suspect that it was much further down the track than Max Brod would have had us believe. Same goes for David Foster Wallace's The Pale King, irrespective of the hoo-ha that accompanied its release earlier this year. The only thing that monolith lacked was a good edit. Either way, at least both of those books can be read as entire works which is more than can be said for 2009's publishing sensation (read: fraud), The Original of Laura by Vladimir Nabokov; a few cue cards, beautifully presented but ultimately inconsequential. Nabokov would have choked on a butterfly had he known his jumbled thoughts would see the light of day.

The publication of unfinished works is hardly new, but for some reason we seem to currently be drowning in a sea of offcuts. Even as I write, Arthur Conan Doyle's The Narrative of John Smith, written before the appearance of Sherlock Holmes, is hitting bookstore shelves worldwide. So what's with this deluge of (for the most part) dross? Perhaps it is a crass money-grabbing exercise by publishers who are reluctant to invest in new talent at a time when the book market is in such an extreme state of flux. Maybe demand is dictating supply; readers are simply desperate for words from the grave by authors they know and love. Or maybe it is a toast to a disappearing process; we read abandoned drafts because, thanks to the scourge of technology (and yes I appreciate the irony of bitching about it on a blog), 'drafts' as such are likely to become a thing of the past. Most likely it's a combination of all these. And more.

Having read a fair number of these 'newly discovered' drafts I can safely say that very few do anything to further the names of their authors. There is, however, one wonderful exception and, not surprisingly, it comes from one of the most exciting small publishing houses in business today. Without fanfare, Other Press has just put out Two Friends by Alberto Moravia. Regular readers would know how much I love Italy's post-war litgod. Yep, I'd read pretty much anything with his name on it. Thankfully, Two Friends is more than the preliminary scribblings of a great mind. Indeed, what makes it particularly enticing is that it was written (and abandoned) between my two favourite Moravia novels, The Conformist (1951) and Contempt (1954) and not only shows the development of his political thinking but does so three times over. You see, Two Friends isn't just one draft. It is three. Each with significant differences - in perspective, outcome and emphasis. The central question, however, is the same: to what extent will an individual compromise their personal morality to the greater cause? Sergio desperately wants to convince his rich friend Maurizio to join the Communist Party. Maurizio isn't the slightest bit interested but seizes the opportunity to play with Sergio's heart and test his conviction by offering an indecent proposal. He will join the party if, and only if, Sergio can convince his beautiful, loyal girlfriend to sleep with his him.

All three versions have their strengths, but it is the second that really shines. Taken on its own, it would have made a creditable addition to the Moravia canon. It is therefore intriguing to think that Moravia went on to discard many of its strongest aspects in draft three before ultimately giving up altogether. Reading this book in its entirety provides a prescient warning for budding authors: keep your drafts because sometimes it takes failed progress to appreciate what you already have. I hope other publishers now learn from Other Press's example and only publish unfinished works for which there are multiple drafts. Cobbling together a "final product" does the writer a disservice. There is, after all, a reason the thing was abandoned. However, exposing the entire process gives the reader a remarkable insight into the literary mind. Plus it doesn't hurt to be reminded that our heroes don't just click their fingers and have a masterpiece appear.


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