Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Does An Author Owe the World His Work?

Over at Slate (via Concurring Opinions) is an article dealing with a fascinating question - if an author says he doesn't want his work published, should people respect his wishes? In the case at issue, the author is Vladimir Nobokov (of Lolita fame), the "people" is his son and sole surviving heir Dimitri, and the work in question is an unfinished manuscript (written on index cards) called The Original of Laura. It currently resides in a safe deposit box in Switzerland.

Nobokov apparently was very clear about what he wanted to happen to The Original of Laura - that it be destroyed. But, for whatever reason, neither Dimitri nor Nobokov's wife could bring themselves to do the deed. Dimitri has vacillated semi-publicly about what he would do and may have finally come to a decision. It's not completely clear.

I'm not sure what the right thing to do is in such a situation. On the one hand, Nobokov's wish seems pretty clear. I don't read this to be a situation where someone alleges that he wouldn't want it published because it was unfinished and was such a perfectionist - there appears to be a specific request to destroy the would-be-book. It doesn't seem like a situation that allows for discretion on Dimitri's part. On the other hand, what if The Original of Laura - even in its unfinished state - is a revelation? Bruce at CO mentions to the case of Max Brod, who disregarded Franz Kafka's wishes to destroy his unfinished work upon his death. As a result, we have access to some of his most interesting work, including The Trial.

I think in most instances, the answer is clear and the wishes of the deceased should be respected. But it's hard to say that someone who is such a literary giant should be able to posthumously limit their output. On the other hand, there's surely no duty for authors to publish anything, so why should death change things? And what of things that were never meant for publication in the first place, like letters, notes, etc.?

Regardless, I'm glad I'm not in Dimitri's shoes.

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