Foucault. Harper Lee. Lord Byron. Orwell. Auden. Thomas Hardy. Henry James. Beckett. Dickinson. Robert Louis Stevenson. Plath. The executors or administrators of each of these writers' estates have wrestled with the question of how the author's work should be treated after the author's death. Some left specific instructions prohibiting publication or autobiographies, instructions that were ignored. For T&E and IP scholars, these situations raise many interesting questions.
If book burning stems from anger, however misguided or orchestrated, manuscript burning stems from fear. Better to destroy the evidence than to allow it to get into the “wrong” hands. Even now, in a supposedly confessional age, the potential for vicarious outrage is enormous; it’s only the list of offences that has changed. Where illegitimacy, alcoholism, humble social origins or a history of mental illness might once have been cause for shame, these days it’s racism, misogyny, political extremism and sexual abuse. * * *
Texts have an immense power to cause pain. As Stephen Fry likes to say: “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will always hurt me.” * * *
That authors can exert their influence from beyond the grave is no fiction; just because they are past doesn’t stop them tampering with their future. In his lifetime, Samuel Beckett was careful to police new productions of his plays: stage directions had to be followed to the letter. Since Beckett’s death, his nephew Edward Beckett has done the same. * * *
Slavish obedience is one route for an executor, defiance for the sake of literature another. When several parties are involved, each jealously possessive of the author, things get trickier.* * *
For most literary executors doing right by an author is humdrum work: keeping the books in print, looking after royalties, answering letters, selling manuscripts, charging permission fees, and generally ensuring that the authorial brand name goes on even though the author has been discontinued. But it’s not a job to take lightly. The duties are at best thankless (the person who appointed you isn’t around to show gratitude) and at worst it’s an ethical nightmare. Authors are difficult enough to deal with when alive. And things don’t get any easier when they are dead.
The full piece is available here. Food for thought.