Juneteenth / Three Days Before the Shooting
The case of Ralph Ellison’s second and final novel is a particularly intriguing one. First and foremost, it’s the followup to one of the greatest works of American literature, Invisible Man. The amount of time that Ellison spent on this work lasted for decades, up until his death in 1994. Since then, two versions of the project on which he was working—which dealt with race, religion, and politics—have been released: the more concise Juneteenth, and the sprawling Three Days Before the Shooting… Both offer readers a window into the talent of one of the most singular voices of American letters.
Wizard of the Crow
Ngugi wa Thiong'o
Wizard of the Crow, the 2004 novel by perennial Nobel Prize favorite Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, is a whole lot of things: a stylized, magical-realist take on a totalitarian state; a harrowing look at the abuses of power; and an examination of the nature of freedom. It was also a book that readers of wa Thiong’o’s work had been waiting on for a very long time. When it published in 2006, it had been nearly 20 years since the writer’s previous novel.
The Power Broker
Robert A. Caro
Robert Caro’s meticulous biographies have earned him an abundance of praise for his ability to comprehensively explore the lives of complex subjects. This process is not a quick one, however: a 2012 New York Times profile of Caro noted that he had anticipated his mammoth biography of controversial urban planner Robert Moses would take him nine months to write. Instead, Caro spent seven years working on it. After finishing the book, he recalled years later, “I was sure I never wanted to see it again.”
Some writers are famous for their ability to complete high-quality works within a short span of time. Famously, the French crime novelist Georges Simenon “was capable of writing one novel—or two or three—every month,” as one review of a Simenon biography put it. Others take far longer, as anyone presently waiting for the latest installment in beloved series by George R.R. Martin or Patrick Rothfuss knows very well.
Certain books that took several years to write have attained an almost mythic stature. Michael Chabon’s never-finished novel Fountain City involved five years of work before Chabon abandoned the project; he had around 1,500 pages completed at the time. Katherine Dunn’s The Cut Man, her followup to the cult classic Geek Love, remained a work-in-progress at the time of her death. (Scott Esposito’s ongoing directory, The Missing Books, chronicles an abundance of unfinished works in this category.)
Here’s a look at seven books that took an especially long time to write, and offer readers a sense of the craftsmanship and deft use of literary techniques employed to bring these narratives to life.
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