While most authors show delight or at least some degree of pleasure in seeing their work in print, and even more so if they are lucky enough to be successful, we should spare a thought for those who wish they could get their books down off the shelves, cram the genie back in the bottle and the ink back in the pen – what about those poor souls who wish they’d never written the wretched thing in the first place? Looking into this list, I was surprised to find the widely varying reasons why a writer might wish their work unwrit, whether it be a dislike of fame, a sense of guilt, a feeling of embarrassment or even just plain boredom, but even so there was still a recognisable over-arching theme to the change of heart. I have looked back on my own childhood writing, or even my early posts on Girl with her Head in a Book and cringed – what must it be like when it is all you will ever be known for?
Who could fail to be affected by the tragic and beautiful tale of two cowboys prevented from truly expressing their love for each other due to the restrictions of the time they were living in? Annie Proulx, that’s who. She gave an interview in which she explained that she really regretted writing Brokeback Mountain because it has been the cause of ‘hassle and irritation’ ever since the film came out – while Proulx maintains that it is important to her to ‘leave spaces’ in a story for readers to fill in from their own experience, she is a little tired of receiving the constant letters from readers who have tried to rewrite her story with a happier ending. As if to say, why didn’t you write it this way instead? For Proulx, this is misunderstanding the original point of her work – homophobia – and writing a new version in which Ennis finds a fabulous new partner who he is very happy with ignores the social situation which prevented him from being with Jack in the first place. I am guilty of never having read Brokeback Mountain, although I do think the film is beautiful, but I can see Proulx’s point – in refusing to accept that the story is a tragedy and in attempting to graft on a misplaced happy-ever-after, the readers do distort the book’s intention. It does seem slightly extreme to want to disown it though – surely there are other people than the author herself who have appreciated the story on its own merits?
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
Few characters are more beloved than Sherlock Holmes. Beloved by nearly everyone except his own creator that is. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle only took up writing to help pay the bills while he was a medical student and then, liking the extra income, he decided to keep on doing it even after he qualified. He changed the style from full length novels such as A Study in Scarlet to short story format because these would sell better to magazines. Doyle never thought much of his detective fiction; he preferred history and thought Sherlock Holmes stories were rather low brow and infra dig. To make matters worse, plotting out all of the mysteries and avoiding plot holes was time-consuming so the whole thing was a bit of a chore. As he infamously remarked, Sherlock Holmes kept him from ‘better things’, so the detective had to die, at the hands of his arch-enemy Moriarty at the Reichenbach Falls. Too bad for Doyle that the fan reaction was such that he had to resurrect him – it’s fairly clear that Doyle would have rather left him dead.
Jill Paton Walsh
Ah Fireweed – that peculiar and incredibly atmospheric tale of hormones, bombing and teenagers unsupervised. This was very much my Outsiders and although I have met few people who have read it, of the few I do know, everyone has raved about it. Imagine my horror therefore when I read Lucy Mangan’s 2009 column where she described a meeting with the book’s author, Jill Paton Walsh where Mangan had attempted rather tipsily to explain her own love of Fireweed, only for Paton Walsh to explain that she herself looked back on it in contempt as juvenilia. Juvenilia! Bill and Julie, two teenagers playing at adulthood but not knowing how to go about it, the mysteries of who they really were, what became of them, the whole elliptical beauty of the novel dismissed by its own creator! For me, its beauty remains undimmed – even when I read Elizabeth Bowen’s The Heat of the Day, I thought of Bill and Julie running about the city in the background, I even feel a special protectiveness towards Fireweed now that I know it so uncherished by its parent.
As the photograph would tend to indicate, most articles discussing Alan Moore do tend to note that he is ‘eccentric’. He has been infamously disgusted by the Hollywood adaptations of his work, particularly V For Vendetta, so much so that he has asked in certain cases that his name be taken off the credits and has refused to claim royalties, something he reportedly described as being worth it just for the reaction (“If he doesn’t want money, what does he want?”) However, this is not what has led him to disown his own work. What really sent Moore over the edge was a contract dispute with his publisher DC, whereby DC promised that copyright would revert to him once the books were out of print, although they never planned to let them go out of print. Because of this, Moore demanded that his name be removed from all his publications, something which DC have also failed to do. Moore also feels irritated with how the core messages of his work have been dumbed down and regurgitated in recent years, so in many ways he is similar to Proulx in just hating how his work has been appropriated by others, particularly the Hollywood film industry.
The discovery that Louisa Alcott disliked her most famous creation astounded me as a child, but looking back the signs were all there. In the final pages of Jo’s Boys, she comes right out and admits that as the author, she longs to just have a massive earthquake swallow them all up and be done with it, she is so heartily sick of them. And then, when Jo, her counterpart within the novel, writes a novel about her own girlhood (clearly Little Women in very thin disguise), she is so appalled by all of the attention that she hides from visitors who try to call to show their admiration of her work. Alcott was already an established writer of sensationalist stories when her editor approached her about writing for girls, but she declined since she saw the genre as ‘moral pap for the young’. It was only when her editor offered a publishing contract to Alcott’s out of work father that she finally agreed, writing Little Women in ten weeks and then being overshadowed by it for the rest of her life. To make matters worse, readers would insist in writing to beg her to marry Jo off to Laurie, something which the militantly unmarried Alcott found deeply offensive. While the series remained a money-spinner, with Alcott returning to it with Little Men in a bid to drum up some cash when her elder sister was prematurely widowed, it is quite clear that she never cared for it. But I do.
Being honest, the film Jaws bored me rigid and I’ve never felt tempted to read the book. Even the ride at Universal Studios was under-whelming, although admittedly the excessively long queue may have contributed to the feeling of disappointment. What interests me here is that Benchley himself came to regret writing the book due to the shark-phobia which it prompted. It reminds me of how, more recently, Liam Neeson has expressed regret over the Taken film franchise since an American school wrote to him explaining that its students did not want to travel to France for a trip because they were afraid of being sexually trafficked. Not everyone can tell the difference between fiction and fact and some people apparently read or watched Jaws and believed that there truly were rogue sharks out there who sought out human flesh. So strong was Benchley’s guilt that he actually became a shark conservationist which is quite the career change. Another author horrified by the public reaction to his work.
A.A. Milne was a serious author for grown ups, having written over three dozen plays, multiple articles for Punch, seven adult novels and an array of non-fiction. But all that he was ever remembered for were those tales he wrote about his son’s stuffed animals, something he had originally only came up as bedtime stories and definitely not what he had ever planned on leaving as his legacy. Gone was credibility, respect, reputation – all that he had worked so hard for – and this was not something for which he ever forgave the Bear with Very Little Brain. Such a shame that a story so sunny should leave such a dark cloud, although I doubt it will make me love the books any less.
Anthony Burgess’ wife left the film-screening of A Clockwork Orange after ten minutes, finding it all a little much, but Burgess was initially inclined to be complimentary about the finished product, even piling in on the press tour. His enthusiasm became much more muted though when he realised that he would not see any of the profit, due to having signed away the film rights for a few hundred dollars. Then came all of the outcry about the sexualised violence. A group of boys who raped a nun were supposedly inspired by the film (it later transpired that they had been utterly unaware of it). Burgess was never quite able to separate himself from it, pronouncing in 1985 that ‘The book I am best known for, or only known for, is a novel I am prepared to repudiate’. He felt that the film exaggerated or glorified the violence and that it was too easy for people to mis-understand what his original book had been about, but that in any case, he should never have written the book due to the possibility of that misunderstanding which ‘will pursue me until I die’. Given that the novel was originally inspired by a beating which Burgess’ heavily pregnant first wife endured at the hands of a group of servicemen, an event which led her to miscarry, one cannot help but wonder if there is another trauma here. Burgess liked to claim that he wrote the book in only three weeks with the sole object of making money but the truth of the matter is uncertain.
More so than even Miss Marple, Hercule Poirot was Agatha Christie’s staple character. He was the golden goose and according to Christie’s grandson, she absolutely loathed him. In an article on detective fiction as a whole, she noted that he was ‘regarded perhaps with more affection by outsiders than by his own creator‘ and opined that unlike Miss Marple, the gossipy old lady in a busy village, she felt it rather unlikely that anyone would actually bother to consult the little Belgian, meaning that his stumblings across crime scenes had to be ‘fortuitous’. Christie’s grandson explained further that she had lots of ideas for stories, many of which did not fit Poirot but that since he was the money-spinner, Christie’s publishers who ‘were in charge of the pounds and pence’ would push her back towards Poirot and his little grey cells. Knowing that Poirot could offer her family financial security, Christie persisted with him through eighty-seven stories, but she still considered him a ‘detestable, bombastic, tiresome, ego-centric little creep’. Like Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Christie would quite happily have seen her most celebrated character in his grave.
I feel like this speaks more of a terrible misunderstanding. Stephen King wrote Rage while still in high school himself, eventually publishing it under the pseudonym Richard Bachman. It’s the story of a boy who holds up his school with a gun and kills two teachers before the other pupils come to sympathise with his rage. I haven’t read it – it’s off the shelves, pulled by Stephen King himself. Why? No fewer than four boys held up their respective schools after reading it, with one of them having a copy of Rage in his locker and another claiming in court to have lived their life inspired by the book’s protagonist. Sweeping past the fact that all of the boys were apparently bullied at school and that several of them had documented mental health issues, King clearly felt awful about being even dimly associated with these acts of terrible violence and so demanded that the book be removed from publication. King has expressed relief that the book is gone, that his early college writing would surely have raised red flags, with people assuming he had mental health issues if they had read it at the time. But yet, the crucial thing is that King is not himself a murderer – he wrote this story as an adolescent and seems to have been tapping into adolescent angst, with some comparisons being made between Rage and The Catcher in the Rye. This is an uncomfortable parallel of course since the latter novel was found in the possession of John Lennon’s killer, but yet J.D. Salinger was not held responsible there and The Catcher in the Rye remains on the shelves. I do not think that Stephen King should feel responsible for the actions of his readership.
For so many of these authors, the dislike of their own material seemed to set in the moment that it passed to the public, beyond their control. It does seem to be indeed true that no two people ever read the same book and this even applies to when you are the one who has written said book. Your words will be taken, turned upside down, evaluated, judged, re-interpreted, motivations allotted to you that you never even imagined and your whole identity challenged. There is no guarantee that your words will be understood and so it is best to choose them wisely.