Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Literary Embarrassments: 8 Books the Authors Wish They Had Never Written

It’s a tragedy that throughout history, some authors have deemed their work so horrible that they saw fit to obliterate it. Evelyn Waugh, George Gissing and Nikolai Gogol are just some of the notable writers who have torched their own works. Without the books around to judge, we’ll never know if Gogol’s second and third installments of Dead Souls were any good, or if they instead amounted to the literary equivalent of, say, Dead Souls II: The Legend of Curly’s Gold followed by Dead Souls 3-D. 

The bigger tragedy, though, at least for the authors, is writing something terrible and not burning it. The following works run the gamut in quality, but what they do have in common is the shame of their authors.

Check out these 8 cases of writer’s regret:

1. Neil Gaiman’s Duran Duran biography 

If you click the link, get ready for some sticker shock.

Gaiman may have won a Hugo, a Nebula, a Newbery Award, and a Carnegie medal, but alas, there’s no prestigious prize for 80s pop band fan bios. Duran Duran: The First Four Years of the Fab Five (1984) was the first book Gaiman ever wrote, and he refers to it as his “dark secret.” After the copyright lapsed and reverted back to the author, the publishers wanted to bring out a new printing. Gaiman was thrilled to be able to say “No, thank you.”

2. Martin Amis’ video game guide

With a surprise guest appearance by Christopher Hitchens.

Martin Amis, the Booker Prize short-lister, son of the more famous Kingsley, and world’s oldest enfant terrible, wrote a guide to video games in 1982. Perhaps unsurprisingly, he’s avoided talking about it ever since. What is most surprising about Invasion of the Space Invaders, besides its entire existence, is that it’s written in much the same style he uses in his fiction.

Writing on Pac-Man, Amis says, “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.”

Also: “PacMan player, be not proud, nor too macho, and you will prosper on the dotted screen.” The Millions writer Mark O’ Connell says, “I’m no expert, I’ll admit, but I’ll go out on a critical limb here and suggest that this might be the sole instance of the use of the mock-heroic tone in a video game player’s guide.”

Amis writes in the introduction about his first encounter with a video game machine, while hanging out with a “hard-drinking journalist” pal in Paris, circa 1980. The friend in question is believed to be Christopher Hitchens, in what is surely his one and only video game guide appearance.

3. Harlan Ellison’s Doomsman

You've got a better chance of getting this book signed by Lee Hoffman (and she died in 2007).

In a career spanning five decades and over seventy books, it stands to reason that some of Ellison’s work is going to be better than others, but Doomsman is pretty much unanimously thought of as terrible. (Typical GoodReads review: “dreadful, overwrought and sloppily written.”) In fact, a mere four pages after a character’s eyes are poked out in a torture session, Ellison writes that “he looked up.”

Ellison himself hates the book, especially as he says it was “radically altered” by editors. While it’s not impossible to find, it’s reportedly impossible to get signed. Several fans have claimed that, upon being presented with Doomsman, Ellison will tear it up on sight. Some say he’ll pay you for it first, and at least one reader says he tore the Doomsman half of the double novel away and signed just the half with Lee Hoffman’s Telepower. Ellison discarded his own half.

4. Ian Fleming’s The Spy Who Loved Me 

A departure for Fleming, it's some fans' favorite Bond novel.

If you’ve ever wondered why the movie version of this Bond novel is not just somewhat different from the book, but actually has nothing in common with it whatsoever, it’s because Ian Fleming wouldn’t allow it to be filmed. He sold the rights to the title only, after the book proved to be sort of a bomb. He refused a paperback reprint of the book in the UK, effectively trying to bury it completely.

What’s wrong with it? To start with, a lot of Bond fans don’t like that he doesn’t even show up until about ⅔ of the way through the novel, which is told from the point of view of a young Canadian woman. Critics fell over themselves to pan it. “His ability to invent a plot has deserted him almost entirely,” wrote the Glasgow Herald. The Observer went one better: “I hope this doesn't spell the total eclipse of Bond in a blaze of cornography.”

5. Dan Brown’s 187 Men to Avoid and The Bald Book

A whole penny on Amazon, if you dare.
Inane Dan Brown completists have actually driven up the price of The Bald Book.

Dan Brown may have sold 100 gazillion books, but the critics have never liked him (The Washington Post: “His novels are like high-stakes, 500-page Mad Libs”). As a result, Brown spends a lot of time defending his writing. He doesn’t do much defending of his earliest work, though: he pretends it doesn’t exist. You won’t find 187 Men to Avoid: A Survival Guide for the Romantically Frustrated Woman listed on Brown’s website. Written under a feminized version of his own name (Danielle Brown), the novelty book is a slapdash and not-very-funny list of types of men women should avoid, e.g. those who “think farting is cute.”

Soon after finishing Digital Fortress, Brown released another novelty book, this one a collection of bald jokes older than your grandfather (“you’ll never worry about going gray”). While his wife is credited as the author this time, Brown’s literary agent says that it was Brown who did the writing. Perhaps needless to say, The Bald Book is also absent from Dan Brown’s author website.

6. Louis L’Amour’s Hopalong Cassidy novels

L'Amour's denial of writing this series seems rather sad. Read his son's story for a better understanding.

Icon of the western genre Louis L’amour wrote some Hopalong Cassidy TV/movie tie-ins under the name Tex Burns in the early ‘50s. They were very much work-for-hire, over which he had little control, and the end result shamed him so much, he denied writing them for the rest of his life—and for decades, wouldn’t even admit it to his family:

“When asked, he told people that he had never written about Hopalong Cassidy, that he had never written as Tex Burns. At autograph sessions he would refuse to sign the Hopalong books that fans would occasionally bring. And for years he worried that these books which he tried so hard to ignore would be reprinted and brought back into circulation.”

L’Amour’s son has written about his father’s uncomfortable relationship with Hopalong in more detail here.

7. Neal Stephenson’s The Big U

Stephenson's reluctant re-release has cover art more befitting a serious author. This is not it.

Sci-fi writer Neal Stephenson’s first novel was a satire of college life that he himself admits was pretty terrible: “The Big U is what it is: a first novel written in a hurry by a young man a long time ago.” After the later success of Snow Crash, The Big U (which was scarce because no one had bought it in the first place) started commanding outrageous prices on eBay. Stephenson then begrudgingly allowed its reprinting, believing the only thing worse than the book itself was people paying $500 to read it.

8. Philip Pullman’s first novel


Pullman’s fantasy trilogy His Dark Materials is plenty acclaimed, earning him the Carnegie Medal and the Guardian Prize, among other accolades. His first book, though, written in 1972, is one he “adamantly” refuses to talk about, according to his fansite. In fact, he refuses to even name it, perhaps in the hopes that no one will ever find it. (The book in question is The Haunted Storm, but don’t tell Pullman you heard it here.)

Do any of your favorite authors have early titles that they ought to regret? Do you think the above writers are silly for trying to disown their works, or would you do the same?


  1. Ellison himself will tell you about how he offers to pay anyone who presents the double-novel for the privilege of destroying yet another copy. And how much he likes Lee Hoffman's novella on the flip side. See his introduction to "Soundless Evening" in AGAIN, DANGEROUS VISIONS, for example...

    1. Ellison has a similar lack of regard for the only theatrical dramatic film from one of his scripts, THE OSCAR, where the producers cut themselves in for writing (dis)credit as well (and it's based on Richard Sale's novel)...but Ellison holds himself responsible for a lot of what's worst about the script. He's written other screenplays for cinema, but none have been produced by commercial studios, at least...his teleplays are quite a different matter, and they have won him his Writer's Guild Awards.

    2. There's another book Ellison is loath to sign, but I can't recall what it is right now. A movie tie-in of some sort, maybe?

    3. I'm not sure which one you're thinking could be THE BOOK OF ELLISON, a collection of Ellison essays, mostly, with appreciations from other writers in the front. It generated some bad blood between Ellison and publisher Andrew Porter for reasons that I don't remember if I've ever known. Not sure what movie tie-in there might likely looking to see if there was some half-assed novelization of A BOY AND HIS DOG, I've come across this for the first time: Joanna Russ's review of the film.

    4. I found what I was looking for. Ellison in his own words: "I don't sign DOOMSMAN under any circumstances. But I do offer to buy the copy from anyone who presents it for personalization. I also don't sign Star Trek adaptations of my "City on the Edge of Forever." I usually sign SEX GANG with the name on the cover, "Paul Merchant.""

  2. Oh I don't know. Even a bad book that gets published is something that most people don't have. I wouldn't disown my bad books. Of course, I say that now having no books to my name. Maybe I'd change my tune later.

    An A to Z Co-Host
    Tossing It Out

    1. I have some web writing that I'm really glad is under a pseudonym.

  3. Mike Resnick wrote a lot of quick paperbacks in his early career that he doesn't wish to admit to. He's not so crazy about a few he put his real name on, such as REDBEARD.

  4. Really? Duran, Duran..$449...............

  5. I'll throw in Victor Canning's The Great Affair. It appeared in 1970, just after Canning's affair with Diana Bird that led to the break up of his marriage. The story is full of symbolism: the hero has just been let out of prison. He is a de-frocked priest who falls for a wayward girl. They travel partly to escape family ties. They do lots of things which are unconventional and illegal, though morally justified by their thinking. The whole book can be read as a covert love letter to Diana and gesture of defiance towards his wife. Significantly there were no translations, though most of Canning's other post war books were translated into all the main European languages.

    1. This sounds fascinating. I'm adding it to my to-read list.

  6. Great stuff Kelly - thanks for that, I had no idea about the Gaiman and Amis titles! Graham Greene refused to have his second and third published novels, RUMOUR AT NIGHTFALL and THE NAME OF ACTION, republished, calling them "of a badness beyond the power of criticism properly to evoke"!

    1. It's good that he had some control over his publishing rights. Others aren't so lucky.

  7. The one that always comes to mind is The Acrobats, Mordecai Richler's debut novel, published by André Deutsch and Putnam. The man succeeded in keeping it out of print for more than three decades. That it returned within a year of his death seems unseemly.

  8. Love the research on this, and I am actually happy my first couple books are NOT in print. There's a reason for rejection slips!

    I would say, though, that those authors should be proud of how far they've come. That Space Invaders book sounds hilarious.

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