Science fiction and fantasy publishing is a tough game. Even the best novels get rejected by publishers who don't understand their brave new worlds. But some authors wind up rejecting their own books. Here are 10 great authors who disowned their own creations after they'd already seen the light of day.
Top image: The Spy Who Loved Me book art, via Illustrated007.
Some of these cases prove that authors are the best judges of their own work, while others prove that the author is the last one who should make the call. What would the world be like without Kafka, after all?
1) Ian Fleming, The Spy Who Loved Me
Fleming wrote this novel, in which James Bond is basically a secondary character, in an attempt to caution his readers against making Bond into too much of a hero. Fleming said he wanted to make Bond's misogyny apparent after being shocked to discover that his Bond novels were being taught in schools. This "experiment," Fleming wrote to his publisher after the book received overwhelmingly negative reviews, had "obviously gone very much awry," and Fleming attempted to keep the book out of print. After Fleming's death, however, the value of his backlist overwhelmed the author's wishes, and The Spy Who Loved Me came back into print.
2) Octavia Butler, Survivor
When I was young, a lot of people wrote about going to another world and finding either little green men or little brown men, and they were always less in some way. They were a little sly, or a little like "the natives" in a very bad, old movie. And I thought, "No way. Apart from all these human beings populating the galaxy, this is really offensive garbage." People ask me why I don't like Survivor, my third novel. And it's because it feels a little bit like that. Some humans go up to another world, and immediately begin mating with the aliens and having children with them. I think of it as my Star Trek novel.
While Butler never stopped using science fiction tropes as allegories, she stayed away from the stereotypes invoked in Survivor after that.
3) Kafka, almost everything
When, a few years before his death, Kafka asked his good friend Max Brod to destroy all his papers, besides the few short works with which Kafka was satisfied, Brod responded, "If you seriously think me capable of such a thing, let me tell you here and now that I shall not carry out your wishes." Nevertheless, when Kafka died he left Brod a letter asking him to destroy his fiction, diaries, and correspondence. Brod remained true to his word: he proceeded to publish everything he could get his hands on.
4) Jeanette Winterson, Boating for Beginners
Winterson is the author of The Stone Gods, plus some notable works of magical realism. But her weirdest book might be the one she's repudiated. Noah, the protagonist of Boating For Beginners is the owner of a small pleasure boating company. After he accidentally creates God, he realizes he's stumbled onto a winning formula. He starts writing sensational books like Genesis: How I Did It, before God gets jealous of the attention and sends a flood. Winterson is pretty blunt about why she wrote this book:
I needed money. I was 24, waiting for Oranges [Are Not The Only Fruit] to come out, didn't know what to expect or what I would do later, and I got an offer to do something funny. You have to remember that the status Oranges has now was not how it was then. On the strength of Oranges the publishers thought I could do some comedy for their humour list. So I knocked up B for B and of course just after it appeared Oranges won the Whitbread and then I just didn't make sense to people. Fortunately in those days, writers were left alone, so I didn't worry about not making sense, I mooched off and wrote a fitness book and the got down to The Passion.
She calls the claim that she tried to get Boating For Beginners out of print "absolute bloody bollocks," but it is hard to find these days.
5) Anthony Burgess, A Clockwork Orange
"A novel I am prepared to repudiate" is how Burgess described A Clockwork Orange in his biography of another misunderstood novelist, D.H. Lawrence. Like many artists whose reputations become totally connected to one work, Burgess was frustrated that he was known only for A Clockwork Orange, which he claimed to have written in just three weeks. Some accounts claim that it was the film version and its popularity that made Burgess hate his own work so much. The "misunderstanding" represented by the film's seeming to "glorify sex and violence" will "pursue me until I die," he wrote.
6) Stanislaw Lem, The Astronauts
As a writer in Poland under Stalinism, Lem was required to work according to Socialist-realist principles. His first science fiction novel, The Astronauts, was a piece of propaganda for Soviet industrialization. Although this novel launched Lem as a science fiction author, he rejected it in his maturity and did his best to keep it out of print:
Everything is so smooth and balanced; among the heroes we have a positive Russian character and a sweet Chinese; naiveté is present on all pages of this book. The hope that in the year 2000 the world would be wonderful is indeed very childish.... As a very young man to a certain extent I must have resembled a sponge that sucked in postulates proposed by socialism. I was concentrated on making the world more and more positive. In a certain sense I fooled myself, since my feelings and hopes were genuine. Today I am a bit disgusted by this book.
7) Martin Amis, Invasion of the Space Invaders
"Anything a writer disowns is of interest" wrote the book reviewer Sam Leith after Martin Amis's biographer neglected to mention this 1982 video-game guidebook, for which Steven Spielberg wrote the introduction. This book is part travelogue through the seedy underbelly of arcade-game addiction — the arcades he visits are populated by "Zonked glueys, swearing skinheads with childish faces full of ageless evil, mohican punks sporting scalplocks in violet verticals and a nappy-pin through the nose" — and part gaming guide, "Do I take risks in order to gobble up the fruit symbol in the middle of the screen? I do not, and neither should you. Like the fat and harmless saucer in Missile Command (q.v.), the fruit symbol is there simply to tempt you into hubristic sorties. Bag it." Amis, the author of Time's Arrow and the terrific "Janitor on Mars," has, sadly, never even spoken about this early effort in which many of his later stylistic hallmarks, not the least a preoccupation with games and game-playing, are evident.
8) Stephen King, Rage
Stephen King has repudiated his 1977 novel Rage, published under his pseudonym Richard Bachman, about a high school student who shoots his algebra teacher and holds his class hostage. After the 1997 Heath High School shooting, in which a student killed three classmates and injured five, King has tried to keep this book out of print:
I can't say for sure that Michael Carneal, the boy from Kentucky who shot three of his classmates dead as they prayed before school, had read my novel, Rage, but news stories following the incident reported that a copy of it had been found in his locker. It seems likely to me that he did. Rage had been mentioned in at least one other school shooting, and in the wake of that one an FBI agent asked if he could interview me on the subject, with an eye to setting up a computer profile that would help identify potentially dangerous adolescents. The Carneal incident was enough for me. I asked my publisher to take the damned thing out of print. They concurred. Are there still copies of Rage available? Yes, of course, some in libraries where you ladies and gentlemen ply your trade. Because, like the guns and the explosives and the Ninja throwing-stars you can buy over the Internet, all that stuff is just lying around and waiting for someone to pick it up.
9) Alan Moore, everything for DC
Moore's rejection of his work for DC Comics, including Watchmen and V For Vendetta, doesn't have anything to do with the work itself, but rather with his contentious relationship with the publisher. DC, Moore argues, repeatedly acted in bad faith — for instance assuring him that the copyright on the stories would revert to him after the books went out of print, while planning to never let the books go out of print. That, in Moore's word, "swindle," as well as a comics rating system Moore saw as equivalent to censorship, led him to ask that his name be removed from all of his DC projects. DC has, of course, not complied with this request, and Moore's disowned publications still bear his name.
10) Virgil, The Aeneid
Although The Aeneid was almost finished at the time of Virgil's death in 19 BCE, he is said to have asked his friends and executors Varius and Tucca to destroy the manuscript. Immediately after Virgil's death, Augustus, for whom Virgil had read books 2, 4, and 6, overrode that deathbed request and The Aeneid was brought into circulation. It's possible that Virgil's rejection of the manuscript was just a final grand gesture, calculated to increase the value of this epic account of the Trojan roots of the Roman Empire.
Bonus: Kurt Vonnegut, "Happy Birthday Wanda June" and Slapstick
Vonnegut never disowned any of his own books — but he damned a couple of them. In Palm Sunday, Vonnegut assigned letter grades to his own works. While none of them received an F (and a couple of them earn a somewhat gratuitous A+) he did give two pretty low marks:
Happy Birthday, Wanda June: D