The BBC News magazine recently published an interesting article entitled, ‘Should unfinished works be left untouched?’ The article was inspired by a new adaptation of a novel that was left unfinished upon the death of Charles Dickens: The Mystery of Edwin Drood. To adapt the incomplete book for a television drama was no mean feat, given that the story is a murder mystery – the genre in which the ending matters most, surely! Whodunnit?
Unfinished works are par for the course in the world of writing. We writers will always write; and so it stands to reason that quite often when a writer becomes unable to write any longer, he or she must abandon a work midway through. Did you know, for example, that the most famous and loved romantic female writers in English literature, Jane Austen and the Bronte sisters, left unfinished works? Jane Austen’s was entitled Sanditon, and she was eleven chapters into the work. For Austen fans the world over, how frustrating!
The choice in these circumstances is simple:
1. Leave the work unfinished, and unpublished. Understandable and perhaps most respectful for the writer. I know I would be quite horrified to have readers read one of my novels before I had finished it to my own satisfaction. But then, if you do not publish the work, you bereft readers of just a little extra slice of their beloved writer’s story world.
2. Leave the work unfinished, and publish it. In doing so you probably satisfy some of the readership – but oh how you frustrate others who crave a conclusion!
3. Take over the work and publish it, completed. So-called continuators take up the mantle. As the BBC article points out:
Leonardo Da Vinci, who observed that “works of art are never finished, only abandoned”, only painted 15 canvases in his lifetime, four of which remain unfinished.
It was a tradition in Renaissance times to let apprentices complete paintings started by a master. In modern times, we have a different understanding of creative ownership.
The third option raises two key questions:
- Is it fair to base your creative endeavour on the groundwork of another, thereby perhaps partially taking the credit for their work? Widespread sales of recently written Sherlock Holmes and James Bond stories indicate that many people see nothing wrong with the notion.
- How far may the continuator interfere with the original content? Should we be ‘policing’ that the writer respect wholly the original work and tone of voice?
Personally, I do not think I would like my own novel to be taken over by another. But I see the merits of the continuators’ work. I will leave you with the poignant example of Patrick Ness’s multi-award-winning children’s book A Monster Calls. Another writer, Siobhan Dowd, entirely conceived the idea and was contracted to write the book by publisher Walker Books. But tragically Siobhan was dying of breast cancer (the illness is a key theme in the book) and she was unable to undertake the writing. After her death, Walker contracted Ness to write the book. He told the Guardian:
I wouldn’t have taken it on if I didn’t have complete freedom to go wherever I needed to go with it… I know that this is what Siobhan would have done. She would have set it free, let it grow and change, and so I wasn’t trying to guess what she might have written, I was merely following the same process she would have followed, which is a different thing… I always say it felt like a really private conversation between me and her…
The Monster Callsis a beautiful book, a powerful book, an important book for children – and for adults too. It would have been a travesty indeed had it died with Siobhan.