Before Franz Kafka died, he famously asked a friend to burn his unpublished writing, wishing for it never to see the light of day. That the man refused is the reason we still know Kafka’s name. A perfectionist, he never considered his work finished, but that hasn’t stopped it from earning him a place in the canon.
There are countless stories of authors who died and left incomplete books behind. Many are forever lost to history, but sometimes, someone—be it heirs, publishers, or fans—demands that they see the light of day. Below, find 6 works of fiction that were completed and published after their authors died.
The Islands of Chaldea, by Diana Wynne Jones and Ursula Jones
Beloved children’s author Wynne Jones did wizarding schools before they were cool with her Chrestomanci books, and inspired one of Hayao Miyazaki’s best films with Howl’s Moving Castle. Her death in 2011, after a long battle with cancer, was a blow to fantasy fans the world over, eliciting touching tributes from the likes of Neil Gaiman. This year, a bit of happy news: one more novel, which was partially finished when Jones died and was subsequently completed by her sister Ursula (an accomplished children’s author in her own right). Most fans agree it was impossible to tell where one sister’s writing ended and the other’s begins; Diana’s spirit inhabits the whole.
The Pale King, by David Foster Wallace
With the publication of the mammoth Infinite Jest, only his second novel, Wallace immediately earned a reputation as the defining author of his generation, yet he never published another one during his lifetime. He worked on what would become The Pale King for more than a decade, producing more than 1,000 manuscript pages, but the work was nowhere near complete when he committed suicide in 2008. His longtime editor spent several years piecing together disparate drafts and dangling story threads to create something approaching a novel, though critical opinion differed on the success of the result. Nevertheless, Wallace’s last work was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.
The Original of Laura, by Vladimir Nobokov
Before his death in 1977, Nabokov, ever the perfectionist, requested his family destroy the drafts of his final, incomplete novel. They declined (and can you blame them? It’s freaking Nobokov!) Nevertheless, the fragments that did exist weren’t published for another 30 years, though the result can barely be called a novel, consisting of a loose plot sketched on 138 index cards. Critics generally agreed that such preliminary material should never have been released.
Juneteenth, by Ralph Ellison
Much like David Foster Wallace, Ellison spent more than a decade trying to figure out how to follow his watershed debut Invisible Man. Even after 40 years, he never figured it out, and left behind some 2,000 manuscript pages upon his death in 1994. Five years later, a much-elided version was released as Juneteenth, including roughly a quarter of all available material. More than a decade later, the complete work-in-progress was published as the 1,100-page Three Days Before the Shooting, providing a fascinating study for lit fans with a lot of time on their hands.
Saint Leibowitz and the Wild Horse Woman, by Walter M. Miller, Jr.
I’m sensing a theme here: Walter M. Miller, Jr.’s, 1959 debut novel A Canticle for Leibowitz was a smash success, becoming one of the rare genre novels of the era to win respect from sci-fi fans (it took home a Hugo Award) and literary critics alike (at the time, it was virtually unheard of for “pulp” to be reviewed in venues like Time and the New Yorker). And yet Miller never published another novel. He worked on a follow-up to Canticle for more than two decades and had written nearly 600 manuscript pages when he just…got stuck (likely owing to his depression following his wife’s death in 1995). In 1996, Miller and his publisher hired sci-fi short-story writer Terry Bisson to complete the book from an existing outline, but Miller killed himself before Bisson could get started. Nevertheless, he completed the novel, which was finally published in 1997. Fans of the first book were generally not impressed.
A Memory of Light, by Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson
And then there’s an author with the opposite problem: Robert Jordan had no problem publishing many, many sequels to The Eye of the World, the first book in his epic fantasy series The Wheel of Time. Finishing the story, on the other hand… By the time of his death, he’d written 11 books (800-page books, mind you) in the series, and promised to cap things off with one final volume, but illness claimed him before he was able to do more than create a detailed outline. His publisher and editor (who also happened to be his widow) selected up-and-comer Brandon Sanderson to coauthor the series finale, but it quickly became apparent that doing justice to that outline would require three books—three of the longest in the series, in fact. Fan reaction was ecstatic, all three topped best-seller lists, and the entire 14-book, 4.4-million-word series was somehow just nominated for the Hugo Award for Best Novel.
If you could read one more book from a deceased author, who would you choose?