A small publishing house did not have to pay much effort to find a long-buried book Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Wallace Stegner wrote a half-century ago about oil exploration in the Middle East.
The owner of Selwa Press, Timothy Barger, is the son of the former president of a U.S. company that hired Stegner in 1956 to pen a promotional piece about its history. Stegner, who is known as the literary laureate of the American West, was treated to two weeks in Saudi Arabia and paid about $16,000 (10,900 EUR) for his effort.
For reasons that now are a subject of dispute between Barger and the late author's son, however, an edited version of Stegner's manuscript was not published in the Arabian American Oil Co.'s in-house magazine until 1967. It was not available to the public until Vista, California-based Selwa put out a trade edition of "Discovery!" in September without permission from Stegner's estate.
"His particular version of the manuscript was one that was cut up by one of their PR people. It was never put up for sale," said Carl Brandt, Stegner's longtime literary agent.
Barger has said that he secured the rights to the company-approved version from ARAMCO's Saudi-run successor and that he did not need consent from Stegner's heirs. Selwa's edition was serialized in the company's magazine in 1967 and later published in Beirut as a freebie paperback for employees.
Barger could not be immediately reached for comment.
Brandt disputes Barger's story. He said an amended contract prepared after Stegner submitted his 357-page book to ARAMCO states that Stegner's name could not be attached to any version he did not authorize for mass market distribution.
Stegner, who was a writing professor at Stanford University when he accepted the ARAMCO commission, won the Pulitzer Prize in 1972 for his novel "Angle of Repose." A longtime resident of Los Altos Hills, California, he died in 1993 from injuries suffered in a car accident in Santa Fe, New Mexico.
Stegner's son, nature writer Page Stegner, said that he has perused both his father's manuscript, which is in the collection of the University of Utah, and the ARAMCO-issued paperback. While the literary voice in the latter is unmistakably his father's, what is missing are passages that portrayed ARAMCO critically or would have caused problems between the company and Saudi Arabia's leaders, he said.
"I've looked at them both enough to see that they differ quite significantly," Page Stegner said.
The younger Stegner said Barger e-mailed him over the summer to let him know Selwa was reissuing the book in the United States, but that he never had any conversations with his father about the Saudi Arabian assignment and did not know at the time about the contract Brandt had in his possession.
"It wasn't asking my permission to do it," he said of Barger's e-mail. "It may be the case as far as I know that he had acquired the rights from ARAMCO. And I, thinking or remembering this was a book that had been an assignment, a book for hire, assumed he probably had the right to do that."
Brandt said he has asked Barger to pull "Discover!" from book stores but was turned down. If nothing else, he said he would like a sticker put on every copy of the book saying, "This is not the author's work. It was edited by the public relations department of a Saudi Arabian company." He also is exploring possible legal options for Page Stegner to pursue.
"My anger about it, and genuine anger, is they have done something to demean and diminish Wally, and he was a good man and he didn't deserve that," Brandt said.
Joining Page Stegner and Brandt in their criticism of the Selwa book is Philip Fradkin, the author of an upcoming biography of Wallace Stegner. He said legal arguments aside, he thinks passing off an unauthorized version of an author's work raises troubling ethical questions.
"It involves the sanctity of a writer's words as he or she originally intended them and would like to have them represented," Fradkin said. "As an author and as Stegner's biographer and someone who is fairly familiar with his life, I think he would want to be represented by the words he had written. ... Once you judge an author on his altered words, you take away his veracity, and you subject him to a judgment that is not true."
Page Stegner, noting the irony of two grown sons being at odds over their fathers' respective legacies, said he is sorry Barger chose to publish the "bowdlerized" version of "Discovery!"
"I do also feel my father's reputation is secure enough that this little, very minor piece of his oeuvre is not going to make the ship sink or swim," he said.