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Dr Seuss, Dr King and the Scourge of Posthumous Works

Whenever corpse desecration comes up in conversation - not a totally infrequent occurrence - my Dad’s position is that he doesn’t really care what happens to his body after he dies. That perverse experiments, salacious sex acts, that mockery of the highest order wouldn’t really worry him. That he’d be too dead to care.

I agree as far as organ donations go. I agree as related to an indifference to mode of flesh disposal. I’m not sure however, that one can ever be too dead to disregard everything.

I’ve recently finished a stint editing a new book. Three months of it. Not to mention the days spent editing the individual chapters as they were written. My process involves just as much slashing as writing, maybe a little more. It’s laborious but I’ve yet to come up with anything that works better.

This disclosure isn’t some kind of request for pity or admiration; I just see writing as being as much about scrapped sentences as it is about the wholly new ones. And it’s that tinkering and fine-tuning time that forms the basis for my opposition - strong and vocal - to the publication of “lost” manuscripts, the release of “newly discovered” materials, to the ghost completion of drafts. And don’t get me started on the abomination of releasing diaries and letters.

I don’t think I believe in an afterlife. I would however, damn well work out a way to perfect a petrifying haunting of anyone who published anything of mine after my death. Anything that I hadn’t had the chance to go over a couple few times - maybe a few dozen times depending on length - with a red pen, a good dose of self-loathing and a dash of optimism that with each scratching something better is produced.

There is no circumstance where I would construe posthumous publication as flattering. To me it is exclusively about greedy betrayal.

For the swag I’ve published, I’ve easily deleted just as much. Not to mention all the jottings and half-baked ramblings in computer files, on scraps of paper squirrelled around my apartment, my office, typed into defunct mobile telephones. Material that is absolutely not for public consummation.

The stuff that I’ve had published is writing that I’ve okayed. Sure, it quite probably would have been better if I’d had more time to write, to revise. If I’d written it it on more sleep, in less of a state of angst/agony/apathy. But it’s stuff I decided was finished. Done. Publishable by my standards in the time I had available.

Dr Seuss.

I’ve no fond memories of being read Dr Seuss books at a kid. My Dad’s unwavering opposition to rhyme - “I walk into an empty rooooom / And suddenly my heart goes booooom” a catalyst for many a lecture - meant that I was shielded completely from the green eggs, from the ham, until well into my adulthood.

But Seuss is on my mind.

Just this week a new Seuss book is out. The guy died in 1991. The “new” volume, What Pet Should I Get?, was - [excuse me while I gulp down the bile] - found in a box of papers by his widow.

So unacceptable.

I don’t care that Seuss might have made notes about preferred colour schemes or if - [cough] - provided from-the-grave “answers” to his editor about completing the volume. No. If he didn’t get to sign off on it then it shouldn’t go out with his name on it. There is absolutely no way to unequivocally determine that he wouldn’t have wanted to change a few things, delete a few rhymes or scrap the entire project all together.

His fans have absolutely no entitlement to his drafts. His estate certainly has no entitlement to proceeds reaped.

If I put something in the bin/a box/a creaky drawer, it’s because that’s where I damn well wanted it to go. It didn’t get “lost”. As a committed solo operator, it most certainly wasn’t put there in the hope of one day finding a collaborator. My desire was that it was never published.

I was recently invited to contribute an essay to a special edition of a journal. I wrote it, I submitted it, I got back edits that looked like it’d been attacked by the illiterate work experience kid. Had I died in some kind of fiery plane crash/alien abduction-gone-awry before I’d had a chance to email the over-my-dead-body-will-this-have-my-name-attached note, it likely would have been published. Shonky edits and all. And it would have been completely unrepresentative of the type of work - for good, for bad - that I produce.

I just finished reading Stephen King’s Finders Keepers.

At the heart of the novel is a stack of unpublished material stolen from a writer of Philip Roth/John Updike esteem.

So what should get done with this literary treasure trove? King tables this question, presenting us with fans so desperate for anything from the murdered master that they’d sacrifice their lives to read the unpublished scribblings. Versus the clear will of an artist who was in sane mind and body at the time of his death but, of the two paths available to writers - alcoholism or reclusive silence - chose the latter.

The unpublished manuscript, of course, is a common trope in literature. I’m halfway through reading Paul Auster’s Invisible: it makes an appearance there too. It’s there because it’s an excellent device to subtly pose questions about artistic integrity, about writing for oneself versus writing for an audience, about the role of dollars in literature.

Had I not already been poisoned against Dr Seuss I’d like to think I’d give a wide berth to the new book. My answer is “panda”, for the record. I don’t need the dark market of grave robbing to present me with other pet options.

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