From the Wire

It’s Time for Publishers to Tell the Truth About Posthumously Published Books

Welcome to Today in Books, where we report on literary headlines at the intersection of politics, culture, media, and more.

This week saw the publication of Until August by Gabriel García Márquez, a work that was incomplete at the time of his death in 2014 and which he expressly stated should not just be kept private but completely destroyed. The novella, which is being marketed as a “rediscovered” work, was published with the permission of García Márquez’s sons, the executors of his literary estate. 

The reasoning goes like this: their father worked doggedly on the book until memory loss due to dementia required him to stop writing in 2004. At the time, he had amassed nearly 800 pages of drafts, fragments, and notes and even once submitted a draft to his agent before ultimately declaring, “This book doesn’t work” and instructing his sons to destroy it upon his death. Now here’s where it gets tricky. 

It was only when he was suffering severe memory loss from dementia that he decided it wasn’t good enough.

When they revisited the last draft, García Márquez’s sons found it was better than they remembered. Had dementia clouded their father’s judgment of his own work? Fearing that they had made a mistake by honoring his wishes and holding back what could be a meaningful addition to his legacy and literary history, the brothers decided to reverse course. They told the New York Times’s Alexandra Alter that they know it might look like a cash grab.

His sons acknowledge that the book doesn’t rank among García Márquez’s masterpieces, and fear that some might dismiss the publication as a cynical effort to make more money off their father’s legacy.

I’m deciding to take García Márquez’s sons at their word and assume that they are trying to do the right thing in a very complicated situation. 

I’m not asking literary executors and publishers to do something different because I’m not sure they should, and I know better than to think they will. What I am asking is for them to do better

As scholar Álvaro Santana-Acuña notes, having to weigh your loved one’s last wishes against Global Literary History (especially when your loved one was a Nobel Prize-winning author) is an impossible position to be in. From my comfortable perch as an armchair ethicist in this debate, the answer to “Should you publish work your loved one expressly instructed you to destroy?” is “It depends.” 

What it depends on is largely how you do it. 

Like many readers, I am of two minds about posthumous publication that defies a writer’s wishes. The financial, reputational, and historical incentives are compelling. I get it, and I understand that for those reasons, posthumous publication of lost/incomplete/etc work will continue to be a thing. Fine. I’m not asking literary executors and publishers to do something different because I’m not sure they should, and I know better than to think they will. What I am asking is for them to do better

To paraphrase the great Saul Bloom in Ocean’s Eleven, treat me like a grownup and tell me what the scam is. Go Set a Watchman wasn’t a sequel to To Kill a Mockingbird; it was an early draft Harper Lee wanted to keep out of the public eye for good reason. Until August is not a rediscovered Gabriel García Márquez novel; it’s a 144-page construction Frankensteined together from the author’s working material. And there’s nothing wrong with that! What is wrong is the profit-driven decision to package and market these books as something that they aren’t. 

Readers are smart, and we can handle the truth. We deserve to be told the truth about what publishers are trying to sell us and for that truth to be front and center, not buried in a short afterword (as is the case in Until August) or absent from the conversation altogether (I will die mad about about how this was done for Go Set a Watchman). Publishers do readers and authors alike a disservice when they misrepresent the nature of posthumously published work to make it more commercially appealing, and literary executors fail their charges when they agree to this packaging. There are plenty real reasons for readers to be interested in a posthumously published work, publishers and estates don’t need to fudge the backstory. 

If the point of posthumous publishing is, as those who choose to do it against a writer’s wishes often say, to give readers and the literary community a more complete picture of an author’s work, then they should give us a full, honest context in which to situate the work. If they aren’t going to honor the letter of a deceased author’s wishes, they should at least honor the spirit of those wishes—and the author’s legacy—by being clear about what the work is, where it came from, how it was assembled for publication, and why. Readers’ trust is the most valuable asset publishers have. They’d be wise not to take it for granted. 

Find more posts like this via our subscription publication, Today in Books! Get access to our daily newsletter rounding up some of the biggest bookish headlines of the day for free, or you can sign up for a paid subscription to get additional content and access to community features.