Tuesday, September 18, 2007

When Writers Die

Perhaps one of the ironic things in life is that a creator's construct is able to outlive its progenitor. In terms of writing, an author's novel or short story might be remembered far longer and in more detail than the writer himself. Aristotle, Jesus Christ, or even Shakespeare could have been a mere footnote in history if written records did not exist. Instead, they are thrust into the limelight and their fictional adventures intertwines with actual events. But for the most part, these are individuals whose life's work can be measured with a beginning and an end. The biggest tragedy are those people who leave this world with unfinished business, more so the death of a writer. Entire worlds are left hanging, open, and without closure. Writers and historians of future generations might exploit this potential but in the meantime, fans and readers will never experience the writer's vision of the world they created.

The first writer that comes to mind is Franz Kafka. He wasn't a starving artist but he was plagued by sickness and worse--literary rejection. He had few works published in his lifetime but they were met with dismal failure to the point that on his deathbed, he requested that all his work be disposed of, never to see the light of day. Fortunately for us, his friend Max Brod went against his wishes and published the recovered writings of Kafka. While Kafka would be best-known for his story The Metamorphosis, he has attempted to write a few novels and many of them were published even if they remain unfinished (The Castle and The Trial). One wonders what could have happened if Kafka had attained literary acceptance during his lifetime instead of his post-mortem acclaim (and perhaps one of the signs of Kafka's impact in literature is the fact that we have an adjective attributed to him: Kafkaesque).

Genre fiction, on the other hand, has attempted to continue the legacies of deceased authors. Isaac Asimov had his Foundation series and Robert Ludlum had his Jason Bourne series. While the novels in both were self-contained and had a definite end, the publishers deemed it profitable to continue the line and so we have the likes of Gregory Benford, Greg Bear, and David Brin writing one Foundation novel each while Eric Van Lustbader contributed two sequels to the Jason Bourne saga. But for the most part, these sequels are non-essential and purist fans of the original authors could easily ignore the books written by these modern writers and lose out on nothing.

As unlikely as it seems, writers are not immune to tragedy and it seems to strike at the most inappropriate of times. There are cases when writers are struck down before their life's work can be finished. One of the more defiant but ultimately futile gestures I read was of manga creator Shotaro Ishinomori who is responsible for creating the likes of Cyborg 009 and Kamen Rider. While the latter lives on to this very day and is part of Japan's cultural identity (along the same lines as Godzilla, Ultraman, and Pokemon), Cyborg 009 is a special series because Ishinomori faced the same circumstances which led to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle resurrecting his popular fictional character Sherlock Holmes. After devising a brilliant but tragic ending for the series, Ishinomori was forced to resurrect his Cyborg 009 protagonist due to fan clamor. The series ended in 1981 but it is rumored that before he was sent to the ER, Ishinomori defiantly told his doctors that he could not die yet because he still had to write a "true ending" for Cyborg 009. That would have been a great story in itself but Ishinomori did not survive and passed away in 1998.

One of the great science fiction epics is Dune by Frank Herbert. For some SF&F fans however, the original novel was the only book in the series worth reading (and it worked quite well because it stood well on its own). Herbert wrote five of the sequels himself and he was going about the 7th novel when he died of pulmonary embolism in 1986. He left an outline however and this served as the basis for the prequels and sequels his son Brian Herbert and SF author Kevin J. Anderson wrote. If some purist fans disliked the sequels the original Herbert wrote, how much more was their reaction to these estranged novels that were a pale shadow of the deceased author? (I assume they actually sold well considering there's at least 8 Dune books in which Herbert Jr. teams up with Anderson.) I followed Herbert's Dune series faithfully though and I can't help but wonder what would have happened if Frank himself wrote the ever-elusive book seven.

Lately it's fantasy who has taken a big blow with the demise of Robert Jordan. His greatest body of work is neither his Fallon series nor his Conan: The Barbarian novels but rather the 12-novel epic Wheel of Time. Of course when he started writing the series, no one really knew (not even the author himself) that the books would stretch to a dozen titles. Some would argue that the Wheel of Time made it possible for series's like Malazan Book of the Fallen, The Sword of Truth, and A Song of Ice and Fire to be published. While the serial novel is by no means unique to fantasy, Jordan and his ilk ushered in a new sub-genre of adult fantasy that involved interlinked novels that were nearly a thousand pages long (some even surpassing that number) and broke the trilogy formula (although there are a lot of previous writers who did not write in trilogies). (As an aside, it's also interesting to note that while not as popular as Wheel of Time, Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman saw the publication of their own seven-book epic The Death Gate Cycle at nearly the same time.) Sadly, one book shy of finishing the epic, Jordan died on September 16, 2007. Some fans can't help but compare his fate to Frank Herbert. What's disconcerting is that lightning has indeed struck twice and I imagine this won't be the only time such an event will occur. (Maybe that's the new catchphrase--he/she pulled a "Frank Hebert/Robert Jordan".) Will Jordan's work live on? Certainly. But one will always wonder what it would have been like had Jordan had a few more months to complete his epic. What makes me admire Jordan is that like Ishinomori, he fought 'til the end, struggling and dreaming of stories to write even as the shadow of death loomed over him. The greatest stories ever told aren't necessarily the ones in fiction. The likes of Jordan show us that a writer's life can be as exciting and courageous as the stories the author writes.

1 comment:

noel said...

I couldn't get rid of the feeling that the new Dune books are more non-canon than anything else, even if they say that Frank Herbert left a lot of notes in his safe indicating where he wanted the 7th book to go.

With the 12th TWOT book, I just hope RJ wrote somewhere or told someone how the good guys win and whether or not Rand dies.