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Umberto Eco, E. T. A. Hoffmann and others have pretended (in the introduction to the story) to have found and edited obscure old manuscripts. In my view this added to the charm of their writings.

If I attempt such a thing and do it well, do I risk the publisher denying my authorship and rights?

16

Pretending to "have found and edited an obscure manuscript" is quite a common literary device. A few other examples include Neil Gaiman's The Dream Hunters (Illustrated by Yoshitako Amano, part of the Sandman series) and William Goldman's The Princess Bride.

You will note that in all examples, while the pretence is maintained within the body of the text, the book is credited to the real author. It's right there, on the cover. Which is to say, it is a game played inside the story, but never crossing over into the world of publishing. You approach a publisher, you present your work as what it really is - your work, using a fun literary device.

  • You approach a publisher What if its through something like Amazon Kindle, where everything is automated and you don't actually approach anybody? – Michael Oct 25 '18 at 16:28
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    @Michael You're still the author, and the "obscure manuscript" is still no more than a literary device. – Galastel Oct 25 '18 at 16:30
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    @Michael It's exactly the same process. You're still approaching a publisher, but your publisher is software and your approach is done through a form, rather than conversation. You still present it as a work by you, because that's what it is. – Nic Hartley Oct 25 '18 at 21:21
  • And, you include the little blurb about being a work of fiction etc – Thomo Oct 25 '18 at 23:17
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I don't think so.

It's purely a literary device

And an old one, at that. Some classical, widely recognized authors have used it in the past (Manzoni's Promessi Sposi - or The Betrothed comes to my mind. Another one is Cervantes' Don Quixote). Authors used to do this for a variety of reasons - for example, Manzoni did it so he could place his work in the past and avoid censorship for being critical of the government of northern Italy.

You may find other - more recent - examples in this researchgate question or searching "found manuscript" device on Google.

Aside from being a well-established literary device, you won't risk your publisher denying you anything. They would need a copy of the "found" manuscript to claim ownership, and such copies don't exist, and you can (I suppose) easily prove authorship of anything you've written.

If your work is good - so good that they want to claim it - they will have better chances working with you rather than trying to put up such a scam.

Update and Edit: My previous statement about classical Greek and Latin authors using this device remains unproved, so I have ruled it out from the answer. At the present time, I could only find information about Dictys Cretensis, Ephemeris belli Troja as a possible example, even if it could be a bordeline example between literary forgery and pseudoepigrapha.

I have found other notable examples:

  • The Castle of Otranto by Walpole, a 1764 precursor to the gothic novel,
  • Parzival by Wolfram von Eschenbach, from the 13th century,
  • Nabokov's Pale Fire in modern times (it's interesting since it references two fictional authors instead of just one) -
  • I'm not aware of it being used as a literary device in antiquity. Rather, false attestations of authorship were done in complete seriousness: since copying a book was such a labor-intensive process, an author would claim that their work was actually a work by someone such as Aristotle to get a boost to its reputation and increase the odds of it being copied and distributed. See Pseudepigrapha for more details. – Mark Oct 25 '18 at 20:27
  • I wasn't aware of that. I'm struggling to find sources for latin or greek authors, a sign that maybe I was wrong after all. At the moment I could cite only Plato (who builds most of his books, allegedly, on what Socrates tought) but that is borderline off topic. Editing the answer – Liquid Oct 25 '18 at 21:18
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This is an accepted literary device, as others have said.

However, it would be wise to avoid claiming your "old manuscript" was by a historical figure, especially if they wrote books that are still read. That's really asking for confusion to break out. Claiming that the old manuscript was by a living person risks all sorts of complications, and should definitely be avoided.

  • Good point. The supposed author will be entirely fictional. I will just situate him in a time and city about which I have some knowledge to avoid at least the obvious mistakes... – Ludi Oct 25 '18 at 21:12

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