Golden Oldies

A number of years ago I was browsing through a bookstore looking for something to read when I saw a sign advertising a new Robert Ludlum novel. “Wait a minute,” I thought. “Isn’t he dead?”

He was, and he still is, but he continues to write books. Or at least he appears to. If you look very closely at the covers, you will find that the books are actually written by people you’ve never heard of, writing “as Robert Ludlum.”

I’m not sure how you would go about writing as someone else (I have enough trouble writing as myself), but it turns out that the practice is not uncommon. The champion “ghost writer” is probably the Gothic novelist V.C. Andrews, who died in 1986 at the age of 63. Since that time around 50 very popular books have been written in her name by a man named Andrew Neiderman. His name does not appear on the books.

You might even argue that this type of deception has been going on since the dawn of Western civilization. Our first two great works of literature, The Iliad and The Odyssey, are both attributed to the blind poet, Homer, but that provenance is questionable, to say the least.

We don’t know whether or not there was such a person, but if so he probably didn’t compose both pieces. Most scholars think that The Iliad is considerably older, and both sagas may have been the work of multiple poets who developed them through the years in the oral tradition.

At any rate, the authorship of literary works has always been a contentious matter. We don’t even know for sure who wrote Shakespeare’s plays.

The publishing business relies heavily upon reputation, and the right name on the cover can make all the difference between a blockbuster and a bust. You need look no further than J.K. Rowling to see the impact that an author can have on a company, an industry, and an entire culture.

I can tell you firsthand that the pressure on publishers to produce a winner is greater than it has ever been, and the temptation to blur the ethical lines may be almost irresistible. That’s why a lot of people were skeptical when HarperCollins announced a few months ago that it was going to release a “new” novel by Harper Lee, author of To Kill a Mockingbird.

The reclusive Ms. Lee, 89, suffered a severe stroke several years ago, is nearly deaf and blind, and lives in a nursing home in Monroeville, Alabama. Until now Mockingbird, published in 1960, was her only novel, and she had been quoted a number of times as saying that it would remain so.

The July release of the new book, called Go Set a Watchman, was a huge event in the publishing world. The initial print run of two million copies was more than twice that of major franchises like The Hunger Games or Game of Thrones, and more than half the books were sold in the first week.

The question here is not about authorship. Harper Lee surely wrote the book, but I’m not sure she meant to publish it, especially in its current state. It is actually her first attempt at a novel, which she originally submitted to J.B. Lippincott in 1957. An editor there by the name of Tay Hohoff thought that it showed promise.

Hohoff suggested that Lee take some elements from Go Set a Watchman and expand them into a new book, and then worked closely with Lee over a three-year period of writing, rewriting, and editing. The result was To Kill a Mockingbird, one of the best-loved books of all time.

Of course Lippincott (which would later become part of HarperCollins) wanted another book from Harper Lee, but apparently no one ever thought it should be Watchman, which Lee could have published at any time if she had wanted to. Then last fall Alice Lee, Harper’s attorney and older sister, passed away.

The lawyer who took over Harper’s affairs, Tonja Carter, “discovered” the manuscript for Watchman in a safety deposit box, and from there the story becomes very murky. Not only do accounts differ regarding the sequence of events leading to publication, but Ms. Carter’s accounts differ from each other.

I don’t know who is telling the truth, but as Deep Throat said during the Watergate investigation, “Follow the money.” Harper Lee, who receives millions every year in royalties on Mockingbird, doesn’t need money. Other people do.

It’s a sad situation. Fortunately, however, there was a similar but much happier tale unfolding at about the same time.

Theodor Seuss Geisel died in 1991, after which his wife donated most of his papers to the University of California. There was one box of notes and sketches that she kept, possibly because they didn’t pertain to any of his published works, and the box remained undisturbed for 22 years.

At that point Audrey Geisel, now 93, decided to have the contents of the box appraised. Among the discarded projects, the appraisers found that there was a virtually complete manuscript entitled The Pet Shop. Mrs. Geisel contacted her late husband’s
publisher, Random House, which released its last Dr. Seuss book, Oh, the Places You’ll Go! 25 years ago.

As it happens, the designer and art director who had worked with Geisel on his last six books, Cathy Goldsmith, was still at the company. She immediately flew to California and began the process of working the manuscript into a finished book. That process involved a great many decisions, from the color palette to the title. There were some illustrations for which Geisel had written more than one text, and at least one spot where an additional rhyme was needed. These are decisions that would ordinarily have been made by Geisel himself, and in that sense the new book is not quite 100-percent Dr. Seuss.

It also would have been Geisel’s decision whether or not to publish the book at all, and we don’t know what his intentions were. Nonetheless, What Pet Should I Get? was released in July.

At least we know that the rightful owner of the manuscript wanted it made into a book, and that the publisher devoted the same care to producing the finished product as it had with the author’s previous work.

If I were a bookseller, I would probably sell Go Set a Watchman because I couldn’t afford not to, but I wouldn’t feel entirely good about it. What Pet Should I Get? is a different story.

by Kevin Fahy

E-mail Kevin at

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