The books that were never written

Published 12 months ago • 2 min read

Hi Bookfoxers,

David Foster Wallace died of suicide at age 46.

Sometimes I imagine what he could have written if he'd gotten the right antidepressants.

I imagine him finishing The Pale King. I imagine him writing more of his funny and insightful essay collections, and more ambitious short stories and novels.

I imagine him as an old man of letters, writing to the Times, and how his style would have developed.

Flannery O'Connor died of lupus at age 39.

She left behind a body of short stories and two novels and wonderful letters, but could you imagine what she could have created if she had three more decades?

(there was no way to treat Lupus back in the 60s, but we have many drugs today).

  • John Kennedy Toole died at 31
  • Sylvia Plath died at 30
  • Emily Bronte died at 30

We've lost so many, so young.

And I mourn for their lives cut short and what they could have given us.

The world of books would be so much richer had we only found a way to treat their disease or depression.

These unwritten books are not the only ones lost. We've also had many finished books which have been lost to history:

  • Ernest Hemingway’s wife accidentally left his World War I novel on a train
  • William Shakespeare’s Cardenio has never been discovered
  • Herman Melville’s The Isle of the Cross was destroyed by his publisher

Yes, it hurts to read about these books that had so much time and effort poured into them by some of our greatest authors, and yet for them to vanish in the sands of time.

And yet the unwritten books hurt me just as much. Because I imagine what could have been, what characters could have been born and what plots could have been enjoyed -- all the wild possibilities of imagination.

You also have unwritten books inside you.

And you might be saying: I'm not Flannery O'Connor/Ernest Hemingway. Well, you're right on that point.

And also wrong.

You're saying that it's not as important for you to write your book because you're not famous and you're not adding to Literature spelled with a huffy and self-important capital L.

But you're writing your book for some readers. Some readers who will enjoy it. Who will identify with it. Who will learn from it.

Just because you might not be famous doesn't mean you don't still have an obligation to your future readers.

Your book will give people pleasure and perhaps help them process a tragedy. They will identify with your characters and celebrate their successes and just for a moment, escape this world and enter a playground where they can filter their lives.

We all have a responsibility to touch our small circles.

  • to help our sick neighbor
  • to care for our aging parents/young children
  • to aid a friend going through a bad divorce

And we don't ignore those people because we say: sorry, if I can't solve the problems of millions of people, then it's just not worth it.

No, we help the people we can.

And your book will touch the people it can.

A lack of fame is never a good excuse for a lack of action.

Your book will find an audience. Maybe a micro audience, a small audience, or a medium-sized audience. Or maybe, who knows, it will earn a GIANT audience -- it happens!

But for those who read it, they are meant to have read it. You have to feel secure in that.

Don't let your book be one of the unwritten ones.

John Matthew Fox

PS. If you're currently working on your book (or have finished it), I'm hosting a live one-day seminar on revision: Revision Genius: Self-Editing Your Novel


John Matthew Fox helps authors write better fiction. He is the founder of Bookfox, where he creates online courses for writers, provides editing and offers publishing assistance. He is the author of "The Linchpin Writer: Crafting Your Novel's Key Moments" and “I Will Shout Your Name,” a collection of short stories.

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