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Should David Foster Wallace's unfinished novel have been published?

The publishing of The Pale King has aroused discussion about the propriety of releasing unfinished works after an author's death. It's a question of ownership, the creative process and masterpieces never seen.

The Pale King is set in a tax office in Illinois: we follow a cast of employees as they go about their rote, tedious work and remember times in which they lived more fully.
The Pale King is set in a tax office in Illinois: we follow a cast of employees as they go about their rote, tedious work and remember times in which they lived more fully.

When the hard, sad fact of David Foster Wallace’s death surfaced in September 2008, it was 12 years since he had last published a novel. Only a few of those closest to him knew about the long, troublesome fiction project to which he had devoted the previous 10 years, working, we’re told, until his depression became so severe that he could no longer write. Wallace’s suicide – he hanged himself at his home in Claremont, California, aged 46 – left the book unfinished.

Now, two-and-a-half years on, this week sees the publication of The Pale King, a version of that unfinished novel patched together from thousands of draft pages – some typed, some handwritten into a variety of notebooks – that were assembled by Wallace’s long-time editor and friend, Michael Pietsch.

The Pale King seems to me,” says Pietsch, “as deep and as brave as anything he ever wrote” – praise of the highest kind, given that Wallace was undoubtedly one of the most important, most daring and most brilliant American novelists of his generation. No surprise, then, that The Pale King is being published to vast attention.

But behind the literary clamour is a fierce argument. That is, should Pietsch and Little, Brown and Company – Wallace’s US publishers – have published the book at all? Would Wallace have wanted this writing to become public? And given that Wallace – famous for his perfectionism – was not around to finish the novel or oversee its editing, can The Pale King really be called a “David Foster Wallace novel”?

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It’s a debate that strikes at the heart of our ideas of ownership, art and the creative process, and one that is currently being played out across the media.

So is it ever right to publish work without an author’s express permission? And, if not, how many literary masterpieces would we have had to do without?

In the case of The Pale King, we’re told that Wallace left no instructions. Those around him, though, have argued that his intentions were clear enough. At the heart of the book is a 250-page typed manuscript that Wallace left in a neatly stacked pile on the centre of his desk: the pages were discovered by his wife, Karen Green, along with Wallace’s literary agent Bonnie Nadell. Pietsch has said: “To me, the fact that he left those pages on his work table is proof that he wanted the book published.” Nadell, meanwhile, has said of discovering the manuscript: “If there had been a spotlight on those pages they couldn’t have been more obvious. I felt in my heart, and so did Karen, that he wanted people to see it, and ultimately the reasons to publish outweighed the reasons not to.”

To read The Pale King is to understand how even a writer of Wallace’s capacity could struggle with it for 10 years and still not finish. In scope and ambition, it is a sister to 1996’s Infinite Jest: the sprawling, polyphonic, 1,200-page masterpiece that captured the self-conscious angst of generation X, and that made Wallace famous.

The Pale King is set in a tax office in Illinois: we follow a cast of employees as they go about their rote, tedious work and remember times in which they lived more fully. Wallace, it seems, set out to write about boredom; no surprise, then, that some pages are themselves less than electrifying. Whole chapters, though, are exactly that: the kind of nuanced, thrillingly intelligent, soulful writing that prompted Zadie Smith to call Wallace “an actual genius”. Would we want to be without them?

Against those arguing that The Pale King should not have been published are some who say that great art belongs not to its author, but to everyone. Wallace, they say, may have intended that the The Pale King be published, or he may not: it doesn’t really matter.

Archie Bland, a journalist and book critic who has reviewed the novel for a UK broadsheet, is among them. “First, I think that if those closest to Wallace – including his wife – saw fit to publish, then I don’t see what position you or I or some blogger is in to know better,” says Bland. “But it’s one thing to argue about whether Wallace wanted this work published. Bluntly, I think that in the case of a significant writer, the value of the work is more important than any knowledge we have about the intentions of its author. Wallace is one of the most significant writers of the last 20 years. If you take that seriously, how can you not publish? “Imagine that we were talking about a valuable piece of scientific work: no one would say that we should extinguish that work after the death of its author. Why should we treat a valuable piece of literature any differently?”

The argument certainly has pedigree. In 1924, the writer and editor Max Brod ignored the last will and testament of his friend Franz Kafka, which instructed him to burn all of Kafka’s unpublished writings. Had he followed the instructions, we would not have the The Trial or The Castle. True, most cases of posthumous publication are not as aesthetically important: when Vladimir Nabokov’s unfinished novel, The Original of Laura, was finally published in 2009 it was widely considered a disappointment. But even in instances such as that there is a clear literary value to the text.

In that light, the case against publication seems hard to sustain. But alongside the debate over whether The Pale King should ever have made its way outside Wallace’s office has come another, more subtle argument. All right, it runs, The Pale King is published: but can it really be called a Wallace novel, when it is likely that, had Wallace been around, the final book would have differed in significant ways?

Or, as American journalist Tom Scocca put in on the Slate website: “David Foster Wallace wrote two novels, and The Pale King is not one of them.”

Pietsch says that he took thousands of draft pages from Wallace’s office in duffel bags, before later assembling them into the form they take in the published book. In his introduction he tells how these pages suggested no definite structure, and how the final chapter order is his. What’s more, we have no idea how close to “finished” Wallace considered the book. Bland offers a way out of the problem:

“It has to be considered an addendum,” he says. “It’s unfair to judge it by usual critical standards because Wallace didn’t have the chance to finish it.”

There’s no doubt The Pale King bears the stamp both of Wallace and Pietsch. Remember, though, that many conventional works of fiction combine to a surprising extent the joint efforts of writer and editor: in 2009 the literary world discovered how radically the best-known short stories of Raymond Carver had been altered by his editor, Gordon Lish, before publication. The difference there, of course, is that Carver agreed – however reluctantly – to publication, whereas Wallace did not.

Ultimately, the answers to these two questions – the legitimacy of publication, and our attitude as readers to the published text – throw light on one another. Publication of a work of fiction as important as The Pale King is surely legitimate; but if that work is unfinished, we must construct that legitimacy ourselves – we must purchase our communal ownership – by making sure we honour the experience of the work’s first owner, who was its author.

Read The Pale King. And remember that had Wallace not succumbed to a terrible existential crisis, it would have been even better.

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