‘A novel I am prepared to repudiate’: 10 books disowned by famous authors
From what John Banville called his ‘absurdly pretentious’ debut novel to Martin Amis’s non-fiction guide to Space Invaders, a fascinating look at writers’ rejection slips to self
“Anything a writer disowns is of interest,” Sam Leith wrote in his review of a biography of Martin Amis that ignored his opus, Invasion of the Space Invaders, “particularly if it’s a frivolous thing and particularly if, like Amis, you take seriousness seriously”
1601 by Mark Twain (1880)
Forget Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer. Have you read the one about Queen Elizabeth, several noblewomen, Shakespeare and Sir Walter Raleigh? Mark Twain’s 1601: Conversation, as it was by the Social Fireside in the Time of the Tudors (catchy title) comprises fictional fireside chats between the rich and famous of yore. Attempting a pastiche of archaic writing, here’s one of the many lines still quoted by school children today: “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.” First published anonymously in 1880, the title was finally acknowledged by Twain in 1906.
The Spy Who Loved Me by Ian Fleming (1962)
Fleming’s ninth novel is a major departure from the others in his Bond series, narrated in the first person by a young Canadian woman, Vivienne Michel. With Bond not appearing until two-thirds of the way through the book, Fleming wanted to take the focus off his erstwhile hero to highlight themes of misogyny following his discovery that his series was being taught in schools. After very negative reviews, Fleming attempted to keep the book from further issue. Following his death, The Spy Who Loved Me came back into print. In 1977 the title was used for the tenth film in the Eon Productions series. It was the third to star Roger Moore as Bond and used no plot elements from the novel.
A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess (1962)
Fed up of being known for his most famous work, Burgess described it as “a novel I am prepared to repudiate” in his biography of another misunderstood writer, DH Lawrence. Burgess felt the core of his book had been distorted by Stanley Kubrick’s 1971 film adaptation (see also: Stephen King’s The Shining). The popular film seemed to Burgess to transform A Clockwork Orange into something that glorified sex and violence, a “misunderstanding” he said would pursue him until he died.
The Revolution Script by Brian Moore (1971)
The Belfast writer, who counted Graham Greene amount his fans, wrote 20 novels under his own name but also a number of thriller or pulp books under the pseudonyms Bernard Mara and Michael Bryan. His 1971 novel The Revolution Script was subsequently disowned by its author as that worst kind of writing, “journalism”. Moore’s novel is a fictionalised account of the kidnappings of a British commissioner and a government minister in Quebec, Canada by members of a separatist movement. It culminated with the murder of the minister for labour Pierre Laporte and the eventual release of the British commissioner James Cross. Moore uses a documentary style in his novel to retell events, giving a voice to the rebels in the process.
Nightspawn by John Banville (1971)
John Banville published his first collection Long Lankin in 1970, with the debut novel Nightspawn following a year later. The latter no longer appears on his backlist and has been described as “crotchety, posturing, absurdly pretentious” by its author. Set on the island of Mykonos, the novel is concerned with the question of freedom, with its title pun – on knight’s pawn – heralding the book’s ludic nature. In a self-deprecating piece in the Independent some years back, Banville notes that “at the age of 25 I had no doubt that I was about to transform the novel as we knew it.” Perhaps he’s his own harshest critic, however, as Nicholas Royle, writing in the Guardian, says of the book:” I bought it on a recommendation from novelist Joe Stretch, who told me it was the book that made him want to become a writer. I loved it.”
The Haunted Storm by Philip Pullman (1972)
Pullman was also 25 when his first novel was “published by a publisher who didn’t realise it wasn’t a very good book”. Violence and death in a small village form the backdrop of the book, narrated by Matthew Cortez, an investigator with spiritual problems. Despite it being joint winner of the New English Library’s Young Writer’s Award the year it was published, Pullman has refused to discuss the novel and had erased it from his entry in Who’s Who.
Survivor by Octavia Butler (1978)
“I think of it as my Star Trek novel,” said the writer Octavia Butler of her third novel, referring to the fact that Survivor was steeped in science fiction cliches. The only book by the American author never to be reprinted, the novel charts the relationships between the Missionaries, a group of human colonists fleeing a plague on Earth, and the Kohn, intelligent natives of an alien planet. Butler compared her portrayal of the Kohns to “‘the natives’ in a very bad, old movie”.
Invasion of the Space Invaders by Martin Amis (1982)
With the title itself enough to make any self-respecting writer go into hiding, Invasion of the Space Invaders: An Addict’s Guide to Battle Tactics, Big Scores and the Best Machines is a non-fiction guide to early 80s arcade games that Amis drafted while he was writing his award-winning novel Money. Reluctant to discuss it in interviews since, the video game opus has long since been out of print, with a copy costing $150 on Amazon. Richard Bradford’s 400-page biography of Amis was criticised by the journalist Sam Leith for omitting Invaders. “Anything a writer disowns is of interest,” Leith wrote in his review, “particularly if it’s a frivolous thing and particularly if, like Amis, you take seriousness seriously.”
Boating for Beginners by Jeanette Winterson (1985)
“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.” The something funny turned out to be a novel written in six weeks that tells the story of what happens after a hand reaches out of the sky to give a leaflet to boating magnate Noah, declaring “I am that I am, Yaweh the unpronounceable”. Published three months after Winterson’s award-winning debut, it did not go down well with critics but the author has said it was never meant as a second novel: “Writers don’t publish their serious work three months apart in the same year and even if they wanted to, their publishers wouldn’t let them.” Disowned as a serious work, it is nonetheless promoted by Winterson on her website as “full of silly things and great fun”.
Nearly everything by Franz Kafka
Why disown one book when you can disown all your masterpieces? Kafka asked his editor Max Brod to burn almost everything he had written bar a few short works he was satisfied with. Fortunately for readers the world over, Brod defied his friend’s wishes and published everything after the author died. It’s not like he hadn’t warned Kafka: “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.”