A few weeks back reader Neil Vogler pointed me to an article in the Guardian that addresses an interesting question about authorship, intent, and propriety.
Recently, several different posthumous book projects have been announced, some even that are against the deceased author’s wishes.
How do we feel about this? Should an author be able to dictate what works are and aren’t published, even after death? Should we abide by their decisions? Or does the public deserve to have a full airing of an author’s work?
Death profiteering? Even debate on the issue is barely dignified.
If someone can do something like this against specific wishes and look themselves in the eye after, there are names for them and special places in hell. Even if not one penny is made, it’s slimy to the extreme. And the hound of “but what if we didn’t have so-and-so’s work?” just doesn’t hunt. I’m sure there are plenty of works we’ve not seen yet somehow managed to survive without, so any other position on the matter strikes me as incredibly selfish if not opportunistically ghoulish.
If it’s not stipulated, then the estate should handle any publication in the best interests of the deceased to the degree they are known and surmised. But if the author, painter, sculptor, candlestick maker doesn’t want you to see it, f*ck off. End of.
I cracked open a dusty old trunk when I was a kid and found a bundle of letters. My mom told me they were letters between grandma and hubby. Grandma had asked that they be destroyed when she was gone. They weren’t. I’m glad.
The author’s wishes matter, but if they really wanted to destroy their work they could. We don’t “deserve” to see these types of work, but it sure is nice when we do.
Anon:“”Dearest Max, my last request: Everything I leave behind me … in the way of diaries, manuscripts, letters (my own and others’), sketches, and so on, [is] to be burned unread.”
Who criticizes Max Brod for ignoring that?”
Using C. S. Lewis as an example, The Chronicles of Narnia are now currently in print in it’s 3rd or 4th changed order since the 70’s. Of the 7 books, the executor of the estate has scrambled the order of the books several times, now with a forward in the front saying that Mr. Lewis didn’t have the clout to tell the publisher he wanted it the way it is now! Of course, those of us who pay attention know better. I am not in favor of knowing the secrets of the magic that we found out in book 6 which is now book 1. Incredible. Of all the books of Mr. Lewis’ that I have read, once you have noted his INCREDIBLE ability to succintly describe surroundings and emotions, you also know he knew how to draw out the story and give you the answer when it was required.
Also, if you have read The Dark Tower, a brilliant unfinished novelette, the frustration makes your head explode when you get to the end and are left hanging from the cliff with not even a thread of a thought as to where he was taking the story. So why was it published? To induce anger?
In short, if you want everything published, then write it down and put it with your personal docs. If not, burn it. If you have a series, be sure to note that the order is not to be trifled with.
Sure you’re glad, but I also think it’s different from running out and publishing them. That was your grandma. Because her wishes were not followed, you know her better–but her relationship with her husband is really not anyone else’s business, and she didn’t want anyone peeking in on them. She didn’t destroy them. Why? Maybe she read them every day, and couldn’t bear to do it, hence the stipulation to her children to destroy them.
A lot of people are commenting that they won’t care when they’re dead, or that a writer has to expect a loss of privacy due to having chosen to pursue a writing career. You wanted to be published, so that negates your right to choose which facets of yourself to reveal, and how your legacy is arranged for public view? That in death, you lose the right to clothe yourself as you wish, draw the shades on your personal desires and fears? Simply because you did the natural thing and wrote it all down? Or didn’t think to burn it all when you were clearly still visiting it?
Adaora A. says
The author’s wishes should be obeyed because it’s their work. Yes, once an author releases a work into the public arena then it becomes something that is partly the public’s to interpret and get meaning from too. But if an author explicitly states that they don’t want something published and it’s done anyway, you have a problem.
Furious D says
If you don’t want it published after your death, burn it.
Or you could haunt your heirs and your publisher until they stop.
I’m not saying that it is right to publish something the author doesn’t want to see the light of day, but people are people, and that means that often the wishes of the deceased are not always honoured. Especially when it can bring in some cash.
karen wester newton says
Science fiction author Robert A Heinlein TRIED to destroy all copies of his first novel FOR US THE LIVING. Unfortunately for him, a friend had kept a copy. Decades after RAH died, the fried gave the copy to his estate; as his widow had died, too, there was no one left to stop them from publishing a book that did nothing to help his reputation but did earn them some money.
I considered it an act of greed, pure and simple.
If we abided by their wishes, we’d have no Emily Dickinson.
Michael Pickett says
I say, go with the author’s wishes. There has to be a reason he wants the work unpublished. Even if we don’t know what that reason is or don’t agree with it, doesn’t change the fact that he has a reason. And he wrote the dang thing. He should be able to determine what happens to it.
“Should Publishers Publish Works Posthumously Against the (Deceased) Author’s Wishes?”
I think not.
Writer from Hell says
No, shouldn’t publish against the author’s wishes posthumously. Absolutely not. It will hurt his soul.
On the other hand, we are here – alive and wishing to be published, so…
Everyone seems to think they’ll know the exact time of their death and so whisk out and burn everything the day before. Remember, while there’s life there’s hope and that’s why the papers are not burned, the love letters destroyed and the last of the savings spent. That’s why we have Wills with the expectation they will be honored.
Jen C says
Errr… I’m just imaginging someone printing a volume of all of my Twitter updates after my death. Nah, actually that would be kind of cool!
Then all of my legions of fans would know exactly what I think of every Biggest Loser contestant ever, how many boys I have had crushes on (fictional and otherwise), and how I am always hungry.
Publish away, I say! If you’re dead, I can’t see why you’d care. If my family could make a bit of money out of said volume, then they should go for it.
This point might already have been made in the pile of posts above, but there is an aspect of the intent of those publishing to take into account as well. It might be hard to tell the difference, but some things get published because they’ve been read and the reader wants them shared. Others because there is a quid to be turned.
Something that looks like a novel… I’d probably say yes (if I was interested in reading that novel). Something that looked like a personal diary… oh difficult. Then, I think, it comes down to the question of why was it being published. At least we all have the option of just not buyiing the work.
Chuck H. says
I’m in favor of honoring the wishes of the dead whenever possible. However, I think it behooves those who will someday die to take some precautions. I have heard of something called a “literary executor”. I assume that is someone trustworthy chosen by a writer to handle his/her body of work after said writer’s death. So if you don’t want it published and you don’t want to burn it yourself, better choose someone you can trust to do it for you.
The public deserve nothing. We have no rights and should have no say.
The author can make their wishes known and it is up to the beneficiaries and executors of their estate to ensure that those are carried out.
I would like all my work to be published posthumously, please.
How is this even a question?
No. Don’t do it. Especially against the author’s expressed wishes. What part of “I do not want these made public” do we not understand?
The notion that everything an author writes is “for” his or her public is, to my mind, nonsense. Every one of us writes things that are nothing more than explorations, larks, seeing if we can do a particular style, a particular word length, a particular genre. If someone got it in their heads that because I was an author with a following, that somehow every word I wrote should be in some way shared (read: exploited) for the sake of keeping my name (brand?) alive past my death, when I specifically said NOT to do that, then they’ve proven themselves to be no friend of mine. And that DOUBLY applies to family.
If an author makes no particular wishes known, one way or the other, of course, then the heirs can do what they want to with it. Again, however, respect for the departed should be uppermost in mind. Not the idea that these things “need to be shared” with eager readers out there; that’s just an excuse, and not a very good one, for the greedy desire to cash in on someone else’s work. Heirs who publish things specifically AGAINST an author’s wishes deserve to be disowned, and if possible, to have to pay back anything the deceased was generous enough to will them otherwise.
For those who say, “Hey, the author’s dead, what does it matter?”…it matters. Someone mentioned the word “trust” in the combox, which is the crux of the matter. If you cannot be trusted to treat even the wishes of the dead with respect, I wouldn’t want you dealing with me while I’m still alive. Period.
Yes, we wouldn’t have had several works of literature or poetry had the authors’ wishes been respected…but so what? Those works are not OURS to begin with. They’re the property of the one who created them, and he or she has the right to dictate what’s done with them in perpetuity. Deliberately defying those wishes is beneath contempt, and to my mind, NO end justifies that means.
Maya / מיה says
Speaking from a personal perspective, I would be incredibly honored if someone would dig out my, say, NaNoWriMo novel and publish it posthumously. (Or prehumously!) I would only have problems in two situations:
1. If the profits were going to the benefit of someone I had never wanted to enrich… not even a portion of them to my widespread descendants or vast charitable foundations
2. If the work was misrepresented as something I had personally polished for publication
(This two caveats remind me of sleazy situations, like when someone released Christina Aguilaira’s demo tape from when she was 14 and called it her “new CD”… THANK YOU True Hollywood Story!)
I’ve browsed through Jane Austen’s two unfinished novels, THE WATSONS and SANDITION, as well as the history of England she wrote as a teenager, and while they aren’t quite PRIDE AND PREJUDICE, it was cool to see how her style had developed. I see the desire to read even sub-par work as the ultimate compliment!
My kneejerk asnwer is no. If the author was alive, he’d be his own gatekeeper. He’s dead, sure, and doesn’t know if it’s out there now, and presumably it makes no difference to him–but still. It’s his baby, and his choice.
That said, if a new Jane Austen work showed up, I don’t care what Cassandra did (or what Jane told her to do, burning letters and all)–I wanna read it! Hypocrite that I am.
The First Carol says
Your dead, stop trying to control people from the grave. Wait. This might make an interesting read. Let’s fight it out in court, rival cousins and the quest for gramp’s manuscript…but did he really write it? There was that hospice nurse who…
Let me work on this.
If the author lets it be known that a portion of their work is not to be published, or is private, then the wishes of the writer should be honored. In my opinion, the work of the author is their heart and soul, in print. If that person was not willing to expose that much of themselves to the world in life, their wishes should be honored in death. Of course the family or estate has the final say so. Hopefully the writer’s wishes would be respected.
Eh. I don’t know about this. I’ve read through the comments and can see both sides. I’m leaning towards a no, though – if the author made it expressly clear that he or she didn’t want something published, then the respectful thing for the heir to do is destroy it or keep it private. If the author didn’t express anything particular regarding it, though, I say go for it.
I would think that over time, the unpublished written works of an author should be released to the public, despite the author’s wishes. Writers aren’t any smarter than anybody else, they just write better. I know this for a fact because I is one.
Vancouver Dame says
Publishers should only publish works that have the approval of the estate of the deceased author.
My concern is that information could be made public from a journal or personal entries which might cause harm to descendants of the author. The date between the writing and the publishing (decades or centuries) would determine if the privacy of the author should be ignored.
I agree that if you don’t want it read, destroying the material is the only sure way. I read some of Kafka’s Journals, and love to read anything about the beats, especially Kerouac. I also enjoyed the books which were written by the ‘Killer Bees’-Benford, Brin, and Bear – based on info regarding previous works of Asimov. They were written with the permission of the estate.
Another link regarding this:(specifically sci-fi)
As an author, we might be aghast at the idea of our private thoughts being made public, but as a reader, we are hungry to reaffirm that others are human too. (making mistakes, losing at love, etc)
Reading journals or author notes help us understand to a certain degree what drives the writer.
Whether we have a right or not to peek into their souls will be debated for a long time.
The dead have rights. Otherwise, why are the living bound by wills? If it is so willed, then so be it, as long as it is within the boundaries of law and morality.
The world will go on even if a masterpiece is lost here and there along the way.
It’s not like we’re talking about destroying the cure for cancer to satisfy a corpse.
A person who puts their wishes in writing should be respected for ever. Even by family and / or estate I feel.
Why do we write? Hopefully it is to say something to another person about the human condition on this earth. How do we know what that human condition will be after we are gone? Did Dickenson or Nabokov know that they would influence the way humans write and read literature? Surely not. Should private journals be published? From the literary criticism perspective, absolutely. Understanding the author helps us to understand the work. An author is a public figure, like it or not. Once we have forayed in to the public eye dear friends, our private lives are gone. If you fear something you have written may cast a poor light on your reputation, your family or your body of work, destroy it while you are alive. BUT, who knows how your writing will be perceived after you are gone? If you have written “The Catcher in the Rye” of the 21st Century, and no one realizes it until after you are dead and gone for 40 years, there is no one left to inform the scholars about your writing life, other than your body of work. E-mails, blogs, chat sessions, journals, working scripts, note cards, college essays, whatever the form may be, HUMANITY deserves everything you have left behind. Would you leave everything behind and allow access to it if you knew that your journal that includes your sexual orientation or personal proclivities would help readers, critics, and scholars appreciate your work for the next 200 years? I bet you would…
I think it depends how good the work is, if it’s really good I want to read it!
Kate H says
An author’s wishes should be respected after death.
I’m thinking you need to add a poll. It almost seems like a dead center split. This is the grey-ist topic entertained in a while I think. Usually it seems there is a consensus but WOW.
Reading back, I think some are missing the point. It’s not the idea of publishing something after someone’s death that’s the issue. It’s publishing it against their wishes.
Not yours. Don’t touch.
Scott – I agree.
Wow, Nathan, you bring up a tough question. I can see both sides so clearly, and both agree and disagree with both! If an author states his or her works shall be burnt/destroyed/not published, that’s what they want, because it’s what they stated clearly. But the estate can override that statement legally. Is it morally right? I’d argue that a personal diary of someone’s pain and grief is not the same thing as an unpublished novel. So, for me, it depends on context, on teh work involved, and on the writer’s stated wishes.
The value lent to our society by the posthumous review of an author’s unpublished works is immeasurable.
It will be reviewed and referenced and published eventually anyway. Would you rather a family member did so, or an historian at some far distant point? And does that span of time somehow make one “right” and the other “wrong”? I don’t think it does.
Anyway, my full thoughts on the topic won’t fit in a comment thread…
If you’re curious.
As usual, too many comments to wend through.
HOWEVER, there have been instances when the author did not express a wish one way or the other, and his/her heirs decided to not publish their works. I believe this was a problem with Mark Twain (Samuel Clemons). Should the family get to suppress works that the author would have been okay with publishing?
Again, this is against the author’s wishes (if not stated to not publish), yet these so-called heirs get to make an arbitrary decision.
Wrong, wrong, wrong.
For me: Publish anything I wrote posthumously. Why would I give a flying f** anyway if I’m dead?
Perhaps I see the world of ethics in too black & white terms for some but to me this is no debate. The author as creator retains the right to their creation and if they expressly wish not to be published then that needs to be respected. Death does not change anything in this regard, especially, if the desire is motivated by a desire for material gain, as it probably often is.
I would go far as to say that doing anything that goes against someone's express wish is wrong, in life or death, and frankly, I find even the idea of it offensive.
Soul Trekking says
I would hope that many authors have a will that has this covered (by giving permission to a loved one or saying no). But, if something is in process, I don’t see why it shouldn’t be published, so long as royalties, etc. go to the family of the deceased.
Okay, okay, You can publish my journals after I’m dead. And my notes, sketches, letters, and grocery lists.
I thought you’d never ask.
Nathan, you have super-double-secret knowledge of an unpublished Larry Durrell ms, don’t you? Please-say-yes, please-say-yes, please-say-yes.
I refused to see the Chronicles of Narnia movies because CS Lewis once said that he preferred his books not be made into films. A person, while they are alive, has the authority to publish or prevent from publishing their own work, and as it is their creation, I think that an express wish not to publish a certain piece should be adhered to. However, if there are no wishes left, I think it is an ethical decision left to the heirs. Just because a work wasn’t finished and/or published in an author’s lifetime doesn’t mean they didn’t intend for it to eventually be made public.
Plus, if we keep publishing posthumously, there’s less room for new (live) authors on the publishing rolls 🙂
If the author has specifically stated that a work is not to be published, the publisher should not publish posthumously. I certainly wouldn’t want an incomplete or partial work published if I’d stated against that.
However, if nothing’s been said one way or the other, then I think publishing is proper. After all, presumably the author wanted the work to come out and was writing it to be read. I think the sticky point for me would be that if I got hit by a bus and my unfinished MS were printed, even with a clean-up and edit by someone else, it might not be what I wanted. But unless I’d specifically stated that I didn’t want it printed, I’d rather it saw the light of day than it didn’t.
If shit wasnt published posthumously we wouldnt have A Moveable Feast, now would we? I like that book, don’t you? Ha. Thought so. I can always count you guys.
Central Content Publisher says
I’m not inclined to be bound by wishes issued strategically beyond the reach of all reasonable appeal.
If I promised that I wouldn’t publish someone’s work, I would keep that promise whether they lived or not. The rest is archeology.
It seems rather disrespectful to publish a dead person’s work when they asked for it not to be.