Top 10 Writers Who Disowned Their Own Work

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For most writers, there’s a feeling of catharsis that accompanies having a book published. You had something to say, and now it’s out there for the world to view. It may become a bestseller or it might move five copies, all to your mom, but either way, you created something meaningful. Your high school classmates were wrong about you, just like you always knew!

But sometimes that euphoric feeling doesn’t last. Sometimes it turns to downright loathing. Here are 10 writers who hated, hid, or simply pretended books they wrote didn’t exist.

10) Ian Fleming, The Spy Who Loved Me

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1961-62 was a good time to be Ian Fleming. His James Bond novels were consistent bestsellers; production had begun on the first Bond film, Dr. No. Despite all this, Fleming wasn’t happy after learning his adult thrillers were increasingly being read by schoolchildren who idolized James Bond. So he resolved to write a book showing his famous spy from “the other end of the gun barrel,” sort of a cautionary tale about a civilian who gets caught up in Bond’s world. The result was The Spy Who Loved Me, told from the perspective of ordinary woman Vivienne Michel, who chronicles such espionage staples as losing her virginity in a movie theater, becoming a secretary, aborting her boss’s child, and managing a failing motel until mobsters try to torch it (and her) for the insurance money. Bond himself doesn’t appear until two-thirds of the way into the book to dispatch the thugs, seduce Vivienne, and leave before the final chapter.

Whatever Fleming was going for, it didn’t work — critics panned the new Bond novel, in spite of such ultra-progressive dialogue as “All women love semi-rape. They love to be taken. It was his sweet brutality against my bruised body that had made his act of love so piercingly beautiful.” Reviews were not so piercingly beautiful, and Fleming, stung, declared the experiment a failure and requested that no paperback version or hardcover reprints be issued. The next novel proceeds as if TSWLM never happened, and Fleming would only allow the title to be used for a movie if it had nothing to do with the book’s plot. For all that, it did give us one lasting contribution to the Bond canon: Horror, a gangster with steel-capped teeth who inspired the infamous film henchman Jaws.

9) Stephen King (as Richard Bachman), Rage

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It’s easy to make fun of Stephen King these days for the sheer volume of his body of work and some of the more, well, hokey concepts. (Killer trucks? Really, Stephen?) But it’s also easy to forget how many of his books, especially the early ones, were genuinely terrifying; and in one instance, tragically prescient. The first novel King ever wrote, Rage tells the story of a high schooler who brings a gun to school, kills two teachers, and holds his class hostage, only for them to begin empathizing with him in a creepy Tyler Durden-esque fashion.

The reason for the book’s censorship is unfortunately obvious — after the spate of school shootings in recent years, a novel told from the perspective of the killer is not something King wants serving as possible inspiration. At least one real-life shooter was reported to have had a copy of Rage in his locker, so King and his publishers jointly agreed not to publish any future editions. Considering he wrote the story when he was still in college, he’s probably just lucky he didn’t get flagged as a potential risk case himself by school administrators.

8) Martin Amis, Invasion of the Space Invaders

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If you’ve never heard of Martin Amis, don’t feel bad: it just means you’re an uncultured semi-illiterate, at least according to The Times, who rated him as #19 on their list of The 50 Greatest British Authors Since 1945. (His father Kingsley Amis was #9, meaning the old guy can literally claim to be twice the author his son is.) These days Martin writes serious books and gets into pissing matches with other authors about things like radical Islamism. Which is probably why he’s not eager to claim credit for 1982’s Invasion of the Space Invaders: An Addict’s Guide to Battle Tactics, Big Scores and the Best Machines.

It’s exactly what it sounds like, a guide to early video games that Amis is extremely reluctant to discuss or even acknowledge writing. Hard to imagine, since it boasts an introduction by Steven Spielberg and is filled with fantastic bon mots like: “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.” And: “PacMan player, be not proud, nor too macho, and you will prosper on the dotted screen.” A reporter once suggested to Amis, possibly in jest, that it was one of the best things he’d ever written, then noted “The expression on his face, with perhaps more pity in it than contempt, remains with me uncomfortably.”

7) Don DeLillo, Amazons

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Don DeLillo is a renowned author and playwright, part of the Postmodern literature movement in the U.S. In recent years, noted critic and pretentious guy Harold Bloom described him as one of only four living American novelists who are still writing and deserve our praise. Be that as it may, the one book of DeLillo’s that you would probably enjoy the most is the only one you won’t find on his official list of published works.

That would be Amazons, which DeLillo co-wrote in 1980 after a string of six well-reviewed but financially disappointing novels. A humorous faux autobiography, Amazons tells the story of Cleo Birdwell, the first woman to play hockey in the NHL, which apparently largely consists of sleeping with your coaches and teammates. By all accounts it’s actually pretty funny, but DeLillo has never publicly acknowledged writing the book and specifically asked to have it left off his official bibliography. Which is a shame, because if more award-winning geniuses took occasional breaks from their serious works to do something funny and low-brow, the other 99% of us would probably pay more attention to the rest of their stuff.

6) Dante Gabriel Rossetti, most of his poetry

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As the name implies, Dante Gabriel Rossetti was born into an artistic lifestyle — his uncle created the modern vampire story, his siblings all became writers, and his wife Elizabeth Siddal was a prominent artist’s model, posing for Ophelia and other works. Dante himself founded a prominent artistic movement, but between painting and writing poetry, also found time to sleep with plenty of women. Surprisingly Elizabeth was not down with this (chicks, right?), and her husband’s infidelities contributed to her depression and possibly intentional laudanum overdose. Rossetti was devastated, but his response was juuuust a bit extreme: he slipped a notebook full of poems he had been readying for publication into Siddal’s hair in her coffin, then had it buried with her.

Which is creepy but slightly romantic, if you squint hard enough. Except unlike some of the others on this list, Rossetti eventually changed his mind; and if you think you know where this is going, congratulations on being right! Yes, several years later he had Siddal exhumed to recover the notebook. While worms had eaten through parts of the pages (you only wish we were kidding), the poems were eventually published, albeit not to any great critical acclaim. Meanwhile, Rossetti reportedly felt wretchedly guilty over violating his wife’s grave for the rest of his life. As one does.

5) Herge, Tintin in the Land of the Soviets

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When it comes to a Tintin book kept under wraps, everyone thinks of the same thing: Tintin in the Congo, where everyone’s favorite Belgian reporter engages in casual racism and slaughters half the animals in Africa. But as uncomfortable as that volume is to modern eyes, writer/artist Herge had no problem with updating and reissuing it years later alongside his newer Tintin books. In fact, there’s only one of his early works that he refused to redraw to match his later style: the very first Tintin story of all… in the Land of the Soviets.

But why? Mainly because the first couple of Tintin stories were forced on Herge by his editor, an ultraconservative priest who wanted to educate kids about things like the evils of communism. And by “educate” we mean “make up a bunch of stuff” — Herge took everything he knew about Russia from one sensationalistic book aimed at criticizing the communist regime. Due to some of the extreme examples depicted — things like fake factories designed to trick people into thinking industry was strong, and elections held at gunpoint — Herge would later call the story “a transgression of my youth.” (Ironically, historians would later note that his depictions were pretty accurate to how terrible living conditions in Russia actually were at the time.) Regardless, Herge kept Tintin in the Land of the Soviets off shelves for years, only relenting when bootleg copies began flooding the market, because you might as well get paid, right? Even then, he would only allow the original, crude black and white strip to be reprinted, without any colorization or updating. Although we’ll be mighty disappointed if some fanboy isn’t working on that even as we speak.

4) Nikolai Gogol, Dead Souls II and III

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These days a guy named Nikolai Gogol could only be a Russian mobster or a video game boss (and really, “Dead Souls” sounds exactly like a first-person shooter), but 150 years ago it was also an acceptable writer’s name. In fact, Gogol was one of Russia’s most influential authors, going on to inspire the only two other Russian writers you’ve ever heard of, Nabokov and Dostoyevsky. He was already famous when he penned his masterpiece Dead Souls, a modern updating of Dante’s Divine Comedy. Despite being hailed as his greatest work, Gogol saw it as “a pale introduction to the great epic poem which is taking shape in my mind and will finally solve the riddle of my existence.” He intended to write a complete trilogy that would prompt social reform and actually save Russia from itself, because writers like melodrama.

So what happened? Zealotry, plain and simple. While working on the sequel, Gogol came under the sway of Matvey Konstantinovsky, a fanatical priest who convinced him that his creative work was an abomination to the Lord. Thus, on the evening of February 24, 1852, Gogol burned the nearly complete manuscript of Dead Souls II and any notes he’d made for the third volume; only a few scraps escaped the flames. He then immediately ceased eating and died nine days later, proving that you don’t have to be mentally unbalanced to destroy your life’s work, but it helps.

3) Mark Twain, 1601

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You may be wondering what Mark Twain, a man known for holding absolutely nothing sacred, could possibly have written that he would want to bury. A story about incest? A cookbook for human flesh? The reality is almost disappointing: a bunch of fart and sex jokes. 1601: Conversation, as it was by the Social Fireside, in the Time of the Tudors is a pastiche Twain wrote to try his hand at archaic writing and to skewer those who believed the Elizabethan era to have been a time of strict propriety. It chronicles a fictional fireside chat between Queen Elizabeth, several noblewomen, Shakespeare, Sir Walter Raleigh, and others. To give you an idea of what we’re dealing with, here’s a sample line: “In ye heat of ye talk it befel yt one did breake wind, yielding an exceding mightie and distresfull stink, whereat all did laugh full sore.”

Okay, so not his most mature story, but why publish it anonymously and wait 26 years before acknowledging authorship? At one point Twain was apparently proud of 1601, writing to a friend “…for between you and me the thing was dreadfully funny. I don’t often write anything that I laugh at myself, but I can hardly think of that thing without laughing.” (Of course, years later he would say “if there is a decent word findable in it, it is because I overlooked it,” so take your pick.) Written in between his two best-known works, Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, it’s likely Twain didn’t want potential bad press over a relatively minor story to cast a negative light on his recent and upcoming masterpieces. Probably smart, since 1601 was considered unprintable by mainstream publishers from 1880 all the way until the early 1960s, when Elizabethans making jokes about pubic hair became more socially acceptable.

2) William Powell, The Anarchist Cookbook

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If you fall anywhere on the spectrum between “a little wild in my youth” to “currently stockpiling munitions in my private bunker,” you’re familiar with the 1970 book The Anarchist Cookbook, a veritable how-to guide on everything from mixing explosives to concealing drugs. Though many of the explosives recipes were later found to be inaccurate (some dangerously so), it maintains a cult appeal and continues to sell well to this day… much to the chagrin of its author, William Powell.

You see, Powell wrote the book at age 19, angry at the prospect of being drafted to fight in Vietnam and looking to lash out at The Man. And just as no one has ever looked back at their teenage self and thought “I was a clear, rational person whose actions still make sense to me today,” Powell — now a father and a teacher — would like nothing more than for his infamous book to go away forever. As he writes in the Amazon.com review where he begs people not to buy it, “The central idea to the book was that violence is an acceptable means to bring about political change. I no longer agree with this.” Unfortunately for Powell, he doesn’t own the rights, so the most he can do is give interviews and raise awareness about that thing he wants everyone to forget. And you thought you felt bad about all those mailboxes you smashed.

1) Franz Kafka, everything he ever wrote

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If you ever lamented having to read The Metamorphosis in high school, bite your tongue — it could’ve been much, much worse. Kafka, considered one of the greatest writers of the 20th century, was ruthlessly self-critical and is estimated to have burned an unbelievable ninety percent of everything he ever wrote. Not content with making future scholars weep, on his deathbed Kafka asked his friend Max Brod to destroy all of his remaining writings. Thankfully, Brod interpreted this as “do the exact opposite of what I just asked,” publishing several of his friend’s books in the ensuing decade and even smuggling a briefcase full of Kafka’s papers on the last train out of Prague before the Nazis closed the border.

Amazingly, that’s not even the end of the story, as the remaining writings and sketches passed on to Brod’s secretary and in turn to her daughters, who are currently embroiled in a lawsuit with the Nation of Israel. You know, over ownership of 100-year-old papers that were supposed to be incinerated in the first place. Meanwhile, Kafka’s lover kept another 20 of his notebooks safe until they were seized by the Gestapo in 1933. There’s an ongoing volunteer project dedicated to searching WW2-era documents to try to find the notebooks if they still exist. Which just goes to show one thing: if you really want your work destroyed, toss it in the flames yourself.


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7 Comments

      • That’s the strength of this site– you always strive for perfection and are unafraid to admit the occasional error. BTW, I cannot believe Martin Amis wrote a strategy book on video games! He’s written some pretty sophisticated novels (London Fields springs to mind) and I can hardly reconcile one book with the other! Overall, I enjoyed this article.

  1. Anne Rice also disowned her writing when she became a nun. She said the devil made her write her vampire novels. Since Twilight came out though, she seems to have had a change of heart (again).

  2. I think “disown” is the wrong word to use. Disown means “to refuse to acknowledge as one’s own”. I can’t speak for the authors, but as a Stephen King fan, I believe he has said the book will never be reprinted but he has certainly never disowned it.

  3. noone important on

    The question of Gogol being Russian is actually debatable. He himself had hard time deciding if he considered himself Russian or Ukrainian and in fact today’s Russia and Ukraine both consider Gogol their own great writer, nagating each other’s right to consider him their own.
    There’s even the discussion as to wether the name should be written Nikolai Gogol (Russian) or Mykola Hohol (Ukrainian)

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