Will I Care Once I’m Dead?

Thinking about future projects the other day – ideas that are well enough developed that I can see a book coming out of them – I figured that I have material for about 20 books locked away in my brain. Even at a pace of one a year that means a long haul going forward. Let’s face it – chances are that I’ll be in the middle of writing some book when I die. What should happen to it and any others that might be semi-started?

The issue is back in the news recently thanks to the amusingly public way that the late great Terry Pratchet’s unfinished works were handled. Per his request, his hard drive (which contained as many as 10 works in progress) was destroyed – by being crushed by a steamroller.

The comments I read when the news came out was mostly amusement and pleasure at Pratchet’s wishes being so scrupulously honored. After all, if he was so specific as to how his literary executor was to deal with his unfinished work he must have felt fairly passionately about it never seeing the light of day. Who could argue that the right thing to do is precisely what the author wants?

Destruction isn’t the only option, of course. Robert Jordan, author of the massive Wheel of Time series, realized he wouldn’t live to see the completion of the series, so he provided a trove of notes and left the final few books to be completed by Brandon Sanderson. I can’t speak to the quality of Sanderson’s work and whether he did a good job with Jordan’s baby, but, again, it’s hard to complain when the people involved do just what the author wanted them to.

The legal-rule side of my personality says this is precisely how it should work. An author (or her designee) is the master of her own work, after all. If she never wants the world to see it, or only wants the world to see it with certain conditions, that’s her right. If she wants to take any potential masterpieces to the grave, that’s no problems.

Except we have examples where ignoring the author’s wishes turns out pretty well. When Franz Kafka died he left his literary executor (and friend) Max Brod fairly specific instructions:

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

Brod did no such thing. As a result, we have all of Kafka’s novels, including The Trial, none of which were published before Kafka’s death.

franz-kafka-the-trial

A world without The Trial is barely fathomable (ironically), but had Brod did as instructed, we’d never know of it. Nabokov’s The Original of Laura was published against his wishes after he died. Even Mark Twain had a new collection of essays published almost a century after his death – against his wishes.

And so I find myself retreating from my bright-line rule of always doing what the author wants. After all, what’s the harm in ignoring those wishes? Yes, work might be released that the author wasn’t happy with, but the author isn’t going to be around to complain. A reputation could be diminished, I suppose, but authors have very little say in how the world perceives them when they’re alive and even less when they’re dead. Besides, does the posthumous release of a bad book by a great author devalue their prior work? It’s not a perfect analogy (since Harper Lee is still alive), but is To Kill a Mockingbird any less a masterpiece because Go Tell a Watchman was kind of ordinary? I don’t see how.

It’s a more complicated problem than I thought it was at first glance. Certainly, I don’t think it’s a legal issue. I’d oppose any law that required an author’s papers and unfinished works to become some kind of public good and exploited willy nilly. Nor would I support laws that would punish people like Brod for ignoring the wishes of their dead author friend. But, I have a hard time working up too much outrage when an author’s wishes are disregarded, so long as the person doing the second guessing is a close friend or family member. If they are all right with it, I’m in no place to complain. It’s kind of like jury nullification – I’m not a fan of promoting it, but I’m glad it exists for the rare occasions when it’s really necessary.

So I guess what I’m saying, to my literary heirs, if they ever get around to reading this – you’re on your own!

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