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5 Famous Authors & Their Controversies

If there’s one thing literary types like, it’s a good controversy.

Don’t let the literary world fool you—they may snub their nose at celebrity gossip, but replace “Paris Hilton” with “Jonathan Franzen,” and suddenly their ears perk up.

I find it interesting that, out of the first 43 books I’ve read and researched from the Time list, the large majority of the novels—or at least the authors—have been through some type of small controversy at some point.

Noticing that trend, I put together some of the more memorable “controversies” or rumors—some of which still linger today.

Did Truman Capote write To Kill A Mockingbird? Capote grew up as a close friend of the book’s author Harper Lee. The character, Dill, in TKAM is based on Capote. For years, a rumor has floated around the literary world that Capote wrote To Kill A Mockingbird for his friend, Lee.

The rumor works as an explanation as to why Lee never wrote another novel after having overwhelming success with her first. But in this interview on NPR in 2006, Dr. Wayne Flint–a retired college professor who has researched Capote and Lee’s writings–says the rumor is false.

Was Malcolm Lowry’s death a murder or suicide? Lowry, author of Under The Volcano, was one of the most notorious alcoholics in literature. His alcoholism was so bad at times that he relied on his wife, Marjorie, to take care of him. Small motor skills, like tying his shoe, caused him problems. The couple had a long history of verbal and emotional abuse.

Lowry died from an overdose of alcohol and pills, which was recorded as a suicide. But some people thought Marjorie might have purposefully given him the pills, as she always administered his medicine, and he would’ve been too drunk to know the difference. This excellent New Yorker article spells out some of the questions over Lowry’s death.

Did Thoreau plagariaze Walden? Scholars recently verified a manuscript written by Susanne Greeley, a woman who claimed to be Thoreau’s mistress and to have lived with him at Walden during the time he was writing the book. Many of her writings mirror passages in Walden, which calls into question whether Thoreau plagiarized the book.

Her manuscript would also indicate that Thoreau wasn’t isolated during his time at Walden Pond—another blow against the legitimacy of the book. Research continues on this one. And I, for one, find it tough to believe.

What happened to the final chapter of A Clockwork Orange? Oh, this is a good one—a topic we’ve discussed on the blog before. Anthony Burgess wrote 21 chapters in his original manuscript. His British publisher printed the book with all the chapters. His American publisher chose to cut the final chapter in which Alex finds some redemption and makes a clean break from his past life—a polar opposite to the ending in chapter 20.

Burgess called the American version flawed, but that didn’t stop Stanley Kubrick from adapting it into a screenplay—about which Burgess said: “The film made it easy for readers of the book to misunderstand what it was about, and the misunderstanding will pursue me till I die. I should not have written the book because of this danger of misinterpretation.”

What did Jonathan Franzen say about The Corrections being selected to the Oprah book club? Old Franzey. He’s a curmudgeonish and pretentious as they come. But you’ve got to love him. He’s like your grumpy 80-year-old granddad who thinks your music is too loud, except he’s 52…and not a granddad. Oh, but he does write good books.

So what did he say about the Oprah book club? “I had some hope of actually reaching a male audience and I’ve heard more than one reader in signing lines now at bookstores say ‘If I hadn’t heard you, I would have been put off by the fact that it is an Oprah pick. I figure those books are for women. I would never touch it.’ Those are male readers speaking.” Ouch. The two made up a couple of years ago when his latest novel, Freedom, was released, and he appeared on the Oprah show.

So, yeah, the literary world loves a good controversy.

Maybe bookish types should have our own TMZ-ish style gossip magazine. Don’t you want to know what J.K. Rowling had for breakfast? Or what Harper Lee bought on her mid-afternoon trip to Target? No?

Your thoughts on any of these controversies?

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10 Comments Post a comment
  1. I do find myself curious about the lives of writers and other creative people.

    Like

    June 1, 2012
  2. Matt #

    Never heard that Thoreau rumor.

    I’ve read the final chapter of Clockwork and Kubrick was wrong. Burgess’s ending was much better.

    Like

    June 1, 2012
    • I totally agree. I thought it was a slap in the face to Burgess that Kubrick didn’t even read the last chapter and was hardly even familiar with it.

      Like

      June 1, 2012
  3. I’ve not read A Clockwork Orange, but I am determined (now that I know) to find a copy published in Britain. For heaven’s sake, that is awfully presumptuous of the American publisher, and it makes me highly curious now.

    Like

    June 1, 2012
    • Oh, I should have clarified. Some of the modern editions in America now have chapter 21. The version I have does, and I think it even says so on the cover.

      Like

      June 1, 2012
  4. Thoreau does admit in “Walden” that he does have some social contact. He does not pretend to be a hermit, even though he has a preference for solitude. But he goes to the village, meets hunters, even has visitors from time to time.
    Admittedly, he didn’t mention the girl.

    Like

    June 1, 2012
  5. Josh Mahler #

    Reblogged this on The Josh Mahler Reader.

    Like

    June 2, 2012
  6. Yawn. I find myself wanting to move on, because I’m craving a new piece of literature like a nice hard sweet apple. I want something more difficult to read than a controversy to toss about inside my brain. I like a brain strain. So I’m reading Pinkerton who is tough and interesting.

    Like

    June 2, 2012
  7. I love a good bit of trivia! I recently bought The Literary Companion which is full of the stuff and great to drop in and out of. I’m also fascinated by the friendships and relationships between authors.

    Like

    July 22, 2012

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