- The Washington Times - Friday, September 26, 2008

Stephenie Meyer and Vladimir Nabokov might not seem to have much in common.

The former is a 34-year-old Mormon housewife-turned-author who (at a rather rapid rate) writes best-selling vampire romances for young adults. The latter died in 1977 at the age of 78 as one of the century’s greatest novelists, a master stylist whose carefully written books are known for their elaborate wordplay.

Events that had the literary world buzzing the past few months have made strange bedfellows out of these two: In both cases, their wishes about their work have been disregarded, raising thorny questions about the ethics of publishing unfinished manuscripts.

Mrs. Meyer’s four-book series about a teenage girl torn between a vampire and a werewolf, which has many adult fans, is known as “The Twilight Saga.” The last installment, “Breaking Dawn,” was published last month and sold more than 1.3 million copies the first day. The writer will become even better known when the movie of the series’ first book, “Twilight,” reaches theaters in November.

She had been working on “Midnight Sun,” a companion novel to “Twilight” that told its events from the perspective of a different character. Late last month, an uncompleted draft appeared on dozens of Web sites. The author was not pleased.

“I think it is important for everybody to understand that what happened was a huge violation of my rights as an author, not to mention me as a human being,” she wrote in a hurt note on her Web site.

Such leaks have happened before in the Internet age, though it’s usually music tracks that are being stolen. What was unprecedented was Mrs. Meyer’s reaction to it. “I feel too sad about what has happened to continue working on ‘Midnight Sun,’ and so it is on hold indefinitely,” she wrote.

The radical decision, which probably cost the author millions, disappointed many fans who were looking forward to the book.

We’ll never know just what Mr. Nabokov would have said about his unfinished work being published. It’s unlikely his reaction would have been any less severe.

He was working on “The Original of Laura” during his final months; he said the novel was “completed in my mind,” but he didn’t live to get it all out on paper. He composed on small index cards and had handwritten 138 of them - about 30 manuscript pages. The perfectionist with exacting standards told his family to burn the cards on his death.

For 30 years, the author’s son Dmitri has wrestled with what to do with the manuscript, which is sitting in a Swiss bank vault. He finally announced earlier this year that he had decided, against his father’s wishes, to publish the incomplete work.

The novel, he has said, “would have been a brilliant, original, and potentially totally radical book.”

Mrs. Meyer’s fans flocked to the Web to read “Midnight Sun.” “The Original of Laura” likely will be read and reread by fans and scholars alike.

But should we get this literary pleasure guilt-free? Do the demands of the reading public trump the wishes of the authors who serve it?

It’s easy to understand why Mrs. Meyer was upset. “I’d rather my fans not read this,” she wrote. “It was only an incomplete draft; the writing is messy and flawed and full of mistakes.” That’s the same reason Mr. Nabokov told his family to burn “Laura” - he didn’t want readers seeing anything but the finished product.

The process of creation is a delicate thing. Most writing guides advise authors not to tell even their significant others what they’re working on. Once an idea is public, its energy can dissipate.

One stray comment can have writers, who tend to be a sensitive bunch, deciding the idea was just no good in the first place. Even the plot of a classic like “Madame Bovary” can seem simply melodramatic when summarized out loud. How a work of art gets its power is a mysterious thing.

That just might be why it’s not such a bad idea “Midnight Sun” and “Laura” are out there. Seeing how even the greatest artists create masterpieces from perhaps unpromising beginnings could do a lot to demystify the process of creation.

It might make it easier for those of us trying to do the same ourselves. It certainly makes an idolized genius like Mr. Nabokov seem more human.

That’s a rather selfish argument for publishing these works, but our civilization would be much the poorer if not for literary selfishness. The work of Franz Kafka, who died in 1924, continues to reverberate in our own day.

Like George Orwell, Kafka has illuminated the very political 20th century. If his friend Max Brod had obeyed his wishes, though, we wouldn’t be calling anything “Kafkaesque”: He never published a novel in his lifetime and told Mr. Brod his manuscripts were “to be burned unread.” Mr. Brod didn’t obey, and the world is much richer for that.

Vera Nabokov, too, saved her husband’s masterpiece from the flames while he was still alive: He tried to burn the manuscript of “Lolita” more than once.

Before Dmitri Nabokov made his decision, two writers gave him advice in the London Times. “Burn it,” playwright Tom Stoppard urged, writing that “it’s hardly modest to make one’s own desire more important than his.”

Nothing Mr. Stoppard wrote wasn’t true, but that didn’t make it any more convincing. More persuasive was novelist John Banville, who in his piece titled “Save it,” wrote, “A writer on his deathbed - or, indeed, off it - is perhaps not the best judge of how his work should be treated.”

We might want to wait until an author is dead before making him uncomfortable by reading over his shoulder. Yet, as Mr. Banville says, “A great writer is always worth reading, even at his worst.”

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