Forgotten for a Reason?: On the Perils of Long-Lost Lit


These may be fightin’ words, but I’m going to say them anyway. People in any way related to publishing must be terrible at filing. Editors, agents, booksellers, authors and their families—all of them … just dreadful.

Why this seemingly unwarranted (and, it must be said, possibly specious) attack on my publishing brethren, you ask? It’s this spate of heretofore unreleased manuscripts recently “discovered” by said publishing professionals over the last few months.

It started out with Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman. Book lovers everywhere were over the moon to learn that a book—a prequel, if you will—to her famous To Kill a Mockingbird was floating around and (gasp!) about to be published. The lead up to the on-sale date was pure insanity, with the media (print, online AND social) reporting on every aspect of the discovery and practically salivating over the astronomical sales. Then there was the outcry not only the book itself, but also over the controversial behavior of beloved father figure, Atticus Finch, but that’s another story for another time.


Then, not long after, the brouhaha was rekindled over Dr. Seuss’s What Pet Should I Get? Featuring the two children from One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish, (one of Seuss’s most popular books) the manuscript sat in a box collecting dust until his widow and her assistant plucked the pages from obscurity. Marketed as a “warm-up” to One Fish, Two Fish, it was practically destined for bestseller-dom as soon as it was announced.

And that’s not all. An unpublished Hans Christian Andersen manuscript has cropped up, and an F. Scott Fitzgerald—and that’s just this year.

It’s not even just long-lost stories. Unfinished manuscripts by famous authors are being published, too. J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Story of Kullervo will be making an appearance soon.

You’re probably wondering why I’m making such a big deal about it. Well first, consider the idea that maybe they were not published years and years ago because they just weren’t good enough. Remember, Go Set a Watchman was something of a first draft. An editor advised Lee to rewrite the story from Scout’s perspective as a child, which resulted in the beloved To Kill a Mockingbird. And by all accounts, Watchmen lacks the lyricism and polish of Mockingbird. Why, then, release this early, rejected draft? Why bear the criticism and in some cases intense disillusionment felt by book buyers?


Money. The same reason publishers feel comfortable imposing their own artistic aesthetic to unfinished Seuss pages (as with What Pet Should I Get?) or charging book buyers for an incomplete story (as with The Story of Kullervo). The authors of these books are so well-known, so beloved, that even a whiff of a previously unpublished manuscript even the most earnest acquisitions editor see dollar signs floating in front of his or her eyes.

I worry, though, that these dollar signs are—at least in some cases—disproportionate to the worthiness of the book. And this leads to a lot of unhappy customers.

Are publishers so desperate for sales that they would rather appeal to the cachet of a classic name rather than discover a new talent?

How are we to find those future Harper Lees and F. Scott Fitzgeralds if all the might of the marketing machine gets thrown behind long-lost literature?

Call me crazy, but I’ll take a raw new talent over a dubious “classic” any day.

portraitWhat do you think about the long-long lit craze this summer? Drop me a line. I’d love to hear from you.


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The Porcupine's Quill would like to acknowledge the support of the Ontario Arts Council and the Canada Council for the Arts for our publishing program. The financial support of the Government of Canada through the Canada Book Fund (CBF) is also gratefully acknowledged.