Ethics Quiz: The Image-Shattering Werewolf Novel

werewolf transformation

I was going to include this in the Morning Warm-Up, which was already weird, but then realized that I wasn’t sure what the ethics verdict should be. Thus it became an ethics quiz.

Which American novelist would seem like the most unlikely to author a werewolf story? I wouldn’t put him at the top of my list, but John Steinbeck, a Nobel laureate known for somber Depression-era literary classics, would certainly be in the top ten. Yet the lionized author of “Of Mice and Men,” “The Grapes of Wrath,” “Cannery Row” and “Travels With Charley” did write a werewolf novel, in 1930, when he was a struggling writer. Completed under the pseudonym of Peter Pym, “Murder at Full Moon” was never published. A single copy sits in an archive in Texas, including drawings by Steinbeck himself.

Gavin Jones, scholar of American literature at Stanford University, has read the book, and pronounced it fascinating, complete and publishable. The agents for Steinbeck’s estate, however, have so far rejected his entreaties. “It’s a potboiler, but it’s also the caldron of central themes we see throughout Steinbeck’s later work,” Jones insists, and argues that the public should be able to read it. The author’s literary agents, the guardians of Steinbeck’s legacy, demur, saying,

“Steinbeck wrote ‘Murder at Full Moon’ under a pseudonym, and once he became an established author, he did not choose to seek publication of this work. There are several other works written by Steinbeck that have been posthumously published, with his directions and the careful consideration of the Estate. As longtime agents for Steinbeck and the Estate, we do not exploit works that the author did not wish to be published.”

Jones retorts that the use of a pen name did not mean Steinbeck had not wanted the book to see the light of day. (Stephen King, who has written about werewolves and is proud of it, authored several books under the pseudonym “Richard Bachman.”) Jones also notes that Steinbeck did not get rid of the manuscript, something he had done with other unpublished works. “He didn’t destroy ‘Murder at Full Moon,’” he said. Why not, if he was determined to keep it from the public’s eyes?

The question of the author’s intent is always near the heart of these controversies. In the case of “Go Set A Watchman,” the sequel to “To Kill A Mockingbird,” a greedy estate seemingly overruled (or bullied) an old and declining Harper Lee to veto her earlier intention not to allow the inferior novel to mar her classic. Usually estates try to block posthumous publications of discovered works, in the interest of protecting the author’s reputation. But is that reasonable or necessary? Even if “Murder at Full Moon” is total junk, would anyone have a lower opinion of the John Steinbeck who wrote his classics? And if the horror novel turned out to be a hoot, wouldn’t that make Steinbeck more interesting, rather than less? A decent movie version might even send young readers who never heard of him to “Of Mice and Men.”

Your Ethics Alarms Ethics Quiz of the Day is…

Would it be ethical to publish Steinbeck’s werewolf novel?

14 thoughts on “Ethics Quiz: The Image-Shattering Werewolf Novel

  1. Several volumes of J.R.R. Tolkien’s “Unfinished Tales” have been published, all edited by his son Christopher Tolkien. And Jane Austen’s unfinished early works (including at least some of her juvenilia) have been published (the Amazon Original movie “Love and Friendship” is based upon her unpublished “Lady Susan”, and her juvenilia “History of England” makes an appearance in one film version of “Mansfield Park.”). So an early work of John Steibeck would certainly have distinguished company! Only if his literary estate can be persuaded to cooperate, though.

    • Yes, it sometimes seems as though Tolkien wrote more after his death than before.

      Which also brings to mind Robert Howard, creator of Conan, who died at an early age. A huge number of Conan books have been written, starting I believe after L. Sprague deCamp completed and published a number of his unfinished manuscripts.
      There are boxes one can check off as a fantasy author, like writing a Lost World novel. Writing a Conan novel is another such box.

  2. Assuming it is true that he had other unpublished works that he destroyed, I don’t see why it wouldn’t be.

    Even as a novice writer, I would bet that a werewolf novel by Steinbeck is likely to be better than a lot of the werewolf books that come out every year.

    The urban fantasy genre these days is chock full of books featuring vampires, werewolves and other shape-changers, other varieties of undead, fae, magic users and who knows what else. I am fixing to go to a convention featuring, among other authors, one of Bram Stoker’s descendants who has been writing books continuing the story of Dracula.

    An actual novel by John Steinbeck would stand out from the crowd. I would probably read it (and sell it).

    So why not?

  3. Yes, it would be ethical, but then I think that protecting the reputation of a dead classic author is not particularly worthy. I side with Cromwell “Warts and all!” and Tacitus “nihil humanum alieno me puto” although ‘humanum’ is maybe not the right word in this context.

    And besides, what would lit crit academia do without trivia to make careers from?

  4. I’d say yes, it’s ethical to publish… but also ethical to deny publication.
    I rather distrust the whole “maintaining the author’s reputation” thing, but I do understand it. I’m just reminded that the same guy who wrote King Lear and Hamlet also wrote Henry VIII and Pericles.

  5. Interesting dilemma. Here, the estate controls the author’s literary works and has a vested interest in maintaining that author’s reputation. On the other hands, the literary and book reading communities might enjoy reading something completely outside the author’s traditional storytelling. I, for one, would urge publication. If it is subpar, then explain in a forward to the story.

    Musicians face the same fate: what should be done with unreleased music? Robert Plant, he of Zeppelin fame, told his family to release all of it after he does, warts and all. Rush, though, has been clear that any unreleased music is to be banished to the ashheap of history. Ultimately, it is the creator’s intent that should control, even though I still think publication is better. Let me decide if Steinbeck wrote a good werewolf story.


    • The creator’s intent should control?

      How about Kafka? My understanding is that he wanted all of his works destroyed.


  6. Flip the question and you might have a different opinion–“Is it ethical to withhold publication?”

    Phrased that way, I lean towards publication. Fans of the author are worse off without it, those who seek it out are unlikely to have opinions changed, and those who read it only because of the genre possibly will desire exposure to the author’s more mainstream works.

    • I second this. Exactly. It would be beneficial for scholarship.

      And by the way, I’m not a Steinbeck fan. I tried to read “Grapes of Wrath” a few years ago and found it unreadable. Preposterous characters.

      • The NYT article suggested George loading a single silver bullet to end rabbit-obsessed werewolf Lenny.

        I suppose any month now Of Mice and Wolfmen will appear on shelves next to Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.

  7. Timely question for me, having just the other day heard on the radio a Johnny Cash cover of “The Gambler” overdubbed with accompaniment by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. This tooty-horned desecration was apparently released last year. In finding out about it, I came across a quote from Cash’s son trying to justify it by saying that the RPO was Cash’s favorite orchestra.

    That may be so, but if Johnny Cash’s favorite meal was spaghetti, it wouldn’t justify releasing a recording of “I Walk The Line” overdubbed with Julia Child reading a recipe for bolognese sauce.

    My ethics verdict is, if the work is by the original artist is complete, it should be released. If you have to bring in a mercenary to finish it, then it shouldn’t be released.

  8. I would tend to agree there is a positive duty to make the work publicly available.

    Within an author’s lifetime, close control of draft manuscripts can be justified. Only the author knows his intent, and needs absolute control to protect his right to free expression. Posthumously, this right becomes less tenable.

    It is publicly know that the werewolf manuscript exists. It has been the subject of public discussion. It is available to anyone who can physically travel to the archives to read. The work is of public and scholarly interest. The public needs the ability to review for itself matters of public interest. Preventing wider access is censorship, albeit by a private entity.

    If the estate wanted it to remain unpublished, it had a duty to maintain the work’s secrecy. The public cannot have an express interest in something it does not know exists. Once the manuscript became publicly known, the preservation of the secrecy of its contents is untenable. This would apply even in an author’s lifetime. A leaked draft cannot ethically be withheld. The author’s absolute control would be limited by circumstance – moral luck.

    This situation is equivalent to the Suess estate withdrawing 7 books from publication. Such an act is censorship. Several of my friends on Facebook really and truly claimed it was a private business decision to withdraw the books, and that conservatives were hypocrites for not upholding absolute free enterprise. Yes, they claimed it was a business decision to withdraw books selling for hundreds on Amazon, with every library copy in the state checked out. The Suess estate was deliberately limiting information available to the public by denying license to publish. Even out of print books can customarily be privately printed by paying a license to the copyright holder.

    I pointed out to these friends that I had no way of evaluating whether these books were truly racist due to the company’s direct censorship. They responded by sending me a pirated copy. I commented it was cute that that asked me to violate copyright law to bypass censorship.

    The Suess estate has a duty to the public to make works of public interest available. If it truly believed the works had no artistic value due to racism, then it should have surrendered the copyright so it would no longer profit from racism. This would allow unrestricted access to the offending work, and absolve them from their patron’s sins. That they censored the material while in commercial demand shows they still believe it has artistic value.

    The Steinbeck estate has a similar duty to make the werewolf manuscript available. Copies should be made available to interested parties for at least licensing fees that cover their legitimate expenses (maybe this is already the case, I don’t have that information). They have no duty actively publish it themselves, but should not artificially prevent others from risking their own money on commercial publication. The Steinbeck estate could also fulfill its duty to the public by surrendering the copyright, but this might be in direct conflict with their duty to the author to preserve the integrity of the work.

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