‘Murder Your Darlings’
From Franz Kafka and Robert Louis Stevenson to Nabokov and Gogol, writers have always wanted to destroy their work. Often their instructions to burn everything after their deaths is ignored.
Franz Kafka was famously dismissive of his own writing and wrote a letter to his friend Max Brod saying that he was leaving all his work to him. He wanted Brod to destroy them after he was gone. As only a fraction of his work had been published in his lifetime, Brod did us a favour by not complying with Kafka’s wishes.
If authors didn’t destroy their own books, they often publicly disowned them. In ‘The Spy Who Loved Me’ Ian Fleming deliberately increased the misogyny of his hero in order to decrease his popularity. Fleming was feeling as typecast as Sean Connery. The reviews were awful.
Jeanette Winterson dumped ‘Boating For Beginners’ because it was fantastical juvenilia and ‘absolute bollocks.’ Martin Amis did something similar with ‘Invasion of the Space Invaders’, about video game addiction.
It will come as no surprise that Alan Moore has repudiated – well, everything really. Certainly he hates (oh that we had time to list all of the things Alan Moore hates) his work for DC. The comics company adopted a standard corporate approach, by completely ignoring him.
Virgil asked for ‘The Aeneid’ to be destroyed, possibly to increase its popularity, and Anthony Burgess felt that in the light of Stanley Kubrick’s film, the novel of ‘A Clockwork Orange’ had been misunderstood and needed binning. Terry Pratchett asked for all of his unfinished work to be burned.
Type the words ‘Lost Work’ into Wikipedia and see what comes up. You’ll be there for days. TE Lawrence lost a 250,000 word manuscript of ‘The Seven Pillars of Wisdom’ on Reading train station. Gilbert & Sullivan lost their first work, ‘Thespis: Or the Gods Grown Old’, Thomas Hardy destroyed his first rejected novel, Brahms destroyed 20 string quartets – the list is endless.
On a lighter note, I binned my first four completed novels because they seemed appalling when I reread them. I kept back the very earliest, ‘Letters From Home’, a bizarre epistolary comedy set in the first world war, out of sentimentality. It’s in the flat somewhere – God knows where.
The title of this piece is attributed (I think – I write most of this stuff from memory) to Dorothy Parker.