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Up in smoke: should an author’s dying wishes be obeyed?

From The Guardian:

When a writer is born into a family, the Polish poet Czesław Miłoszsaid, that family is finished. Yes, but when a writer dies that family’s troubles have only just begun. Wills may be contradictory and instructions to literary executors confused. Works left behind on computers or in desk drawers may be of uncertain status: were they intended for publication or not? And if the writer is famous enough, there’ll be biographers to deal with: can they be trusted to paint a kindly portrait? In their lifetime, authors have a measure of control. Once they’re gone, it’s left to others to guard their reputations.

The vigilance can be fierce, with the appointed custodians (whether spouses, children, lawyers, agents, editors or friends) not so much keepers of the flame as dragons guarding a cave. Posterity is rarely kind to them: however they act, they will be accused of acting badly. If they deny the author’s wishes, as those acting for the French philosopher Michel Foucault have recently done by consenting to the publication of a book he hadn’t finished and didn’t want to come out, they will be called treacherous. And if they are overly loyal, destroying work the author disowned but that deserves to be saved, they will be called philistine or just plain stupid. Either way, they can’t shirk the role allotted them. They have an estate to manage: an acreage of words.

Literary management is back in the news because the will left by Harper Lee has been made public. It was signed only eight days before her death in 2016 and, while naming as heirs her niece and three nephews, appointed the lawyer Tonja Carter as her literary executor. Lee’s sister, Alice, used to perform that role, but after Alice’s death in 2014 at the age of 103, Carter assumed control. It was she who discovered the “lost” manuscript of Go Set a Watchman in a safe deposit box and, two months after Alice’s death, arranged for it to come out, despite Lee having maintained for 55 years that To Kill a Mockingbird was the only novel she would ever publish. There has since been talk of a possible third book, though Carter – who opposed the unsealing of the will – hasn’t shed much light on that. There are some in Monroeville, Alabama, Lee’s hometown, who questioned how competent the writer was when she signed the will (“poor Nelle can’t see and can’t hear and will sign anything put before her by anyone in whom she has confidence,” Alice once said). A state of Alabama investigation found that she was not a victim of elder abuse. However, there are many outside Alabama who question how responsibly Lee’s legacy is being managed.

Link to the rest at The Guardian

Under the laws of many nations, an author’s copyright lasts for the life of the author plus an additional period of time (70 years in the US and the UK, 50 years in Canada), the legal and tax affairs of an author’s estate can last for a long time.

Attorneys practicing in rural areas of the US encounter a variety of issues relating to the land of farmers and ranchers. More than one Last Will and Testament reflects sentiments that can be summarized as “Whatever you do, don’t sell the land!”

If a farm or ranch has been in the family for a long time and become part of the family’s life and identity, one can understand the source of such sentiments. The seasons set an annual schedule for a farmer or rancher. For many farmers, the farm is not a job so much as it is a way of living with associated and immutable truths that shape a life – as ye sow, so shall ye reap.

This is not a 21st century development.

Cato the Elder wrote, “It is thus with farming: if you do one thing late, you will be late in all your work.”

Thomas Jefferson wrote, “Agriculture is our wisest pursuit, because it will in the end contribute most to real wealth, good morals, and happiness.”

For an attorney helping a farming couple plan for what happens to the farm after they die or become unable to handle the complex mental and physical process of managing a farm, there is an inevitable discussion that begins something like this, “If your daughter is an accountant in New York City and your son is a computer programmer in San Francisco, who’s going to run the farm if you prohibit the sale of the land?”

While managing a literary estate and managing a farm are much different undertakings, both share the characteristic of turning the control of what can be a complex ongoing enterprise over to people who don’t regard the estate’s principal assets with as much respect or manage them with the same sensitivity and care as those who created them did.

Additionally, the group of people unrelated to the decedent who have an emotional investment in To Kill a Mockingbird or the old Johnson Homestead with the original barn and huge trees that has been a local fixture for over a hundred years can extend beyond those related to the creators by blood or marriage.

Addendum: PG discovered the following after first making the post above. A lot of farmers will be amused that their traditional work jackets are fashion items in Japan:

From The Wall Street Journal:

Dearborn, Michigan, is pretty far from Tokyo—home base for designer Junya Watanabe. Over 6,400 miles in fact. Yet Mr. Watanabe has long cherished one of Dearborn’s most famous exports: a brown canvas Carhartt work jacket (aka chore or barn jacket). “Carhartt appeals to me because it makes real and authentic workwear,” he wrote in an email. For a while now Mr. Watanabe has been reconfiguring actual Carhartt jackets, reusing them to make original pieces for his 17-year-old brand. This season in particular, he went wild with Carhartt riffs, adding patches, extending the jackets’ length and breaking them in to achieve that well-worn feeling that makes vintage Carhartt coats such a popular thrifted item, particularly among Americana-loving collectors in Mr. Watanabe’s native Japan.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal

For visitors to The Passive Voice who have lived sheltered lives and are not familiar with a Carhartt jacket, here’s an example:

The only aspect of this photo which isn’t authentic is that the jacket is clean. While he is not aware that Carhartt offers a pre-grimed jacket, the real thing is dirty and worn and far more comfortable than when it was new. Manure stains are optional but will garner extra style points. Oil stains are an acceptable substitute.

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10 Comments to “Up in smoke: should an author’s dying wishes be obeyed?”

  1. I’m in the group who thinks GSAW should never have been published. And won’t read it.

    And believe a will signed by a person in Assisted Living was awfully conveniently (cui bono) set up for Ms. Carter. AFTER Ms. Lee’s sister Alice’s death.

    But then I’ve always been both a romantic and a cynic.

  2. Carhartt brown is the universal color of “outdoor work” in several of the places I’ve lived. And I can attest that although not truly indestructible, it is darn hard to put holes in a Carhartt jacket, or workpants, or overalls. And they all get more comfortable over time as they are broken in.

    But if you need “life-proof” trousers, Duluth’s Fire-Hose™ material is still the top-of-the line, IMHO.

    • My husband often jokes that he’s going to pass down his Carhartt coat to our (currently four year old) son. Imagining it lasting another twenty plus years is not a stretch.

  3. If I had that jacket, I could pack for a week’s vacation without using a suitcase.

  4. I strongly believe in a person’s last wish–unless it’s something freaky or nuts–be highly respected. I also think that authors who do not want their partial or “lesser” works published after death should destroy all copies and should seek clear legal advice on how to word a will to make sure that anyone who attempts to resurrect rejected works have the law on their butts.

    I guess the best advice to authors, especially any with some sort of success/celebrity: delete, burn, shred, etc, anything you do not want to see the light of day.

    • If you’re one of those using a keyboard to write, just not giving the ‘key’ to opening them to anyone else should help keep them from coming out after you’re in no shape to use the key yourself. 😉

  5. Older authors and traditionally-published ones have been used to 1) working with other people such as editors, and 2) working on several things at once: while something is at the agent’s, another is being edited or proofread, and a third is being worked on currently…

    It is hard, under those conditions, to corral all copies of everything, even just the unpublished, to destroy it.

    Plus those authors have gotten used to other people telling them if their work is good (when they feel crappy about it). So they hesitate to kill what they’ve written. And, complicating things, is sudden death – or merely getting old and a bit forgetful.

    If, in addition, they’re prolific – it can be a big task to kill anything you don’t want to see the light of day. ARCs are not returned, critique groups don’t vaporize people’s working drafts, you are saving things for your biographer. Hard to eliminate everything as you go through life.

    We’re moving. I’m going to have to think seriously about those boxes of drafts, especially the stuff that is handwritten. Might be nice to get a clean start – and to heck with my biographer.

    • Don’t do the ritual burn to old manuscripts. At some time, what I considered a turning point to my future best seller non-career, I did it and I regret that ever since. If there are books from the past that go in and out of fashion to re-read, how do you determine that those manuscripts were not ‘bad’ but just out of fashion among the traditional publishers. Don’t do the ritual burn.

      Loretta Ellingsworth

  6. An author should do some serious thinking and planning for what happens to his/her works after death. And the author needs to put those ideas into legal documents. I’ve collected links to a number of really good articles including Neil Gaiman’s author will template, here:


  7. A principle of law is that the dead shall not govern the living. Of course, this principle is void in North Korea where Kim Il-seong is still the President despite the fact that he died in 1994.

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