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What Good are Authors’ Estates?


PUBLISHED: June 7, 2010

All writers strive towards immortality, but if you are among this aspirational group, it’s prudent to bet on falling short. That is: you will die, and if your works are any good, and thereby profitable to concerned parties, a melodramatic and legalistic morass may appear sooner than any volumes of collected works. Yet many writers fail to make adequate preparations regarding their literary estates, and the two most common mistakes seem to be: 1) no will (or a legally dubious one); and 2) leaving inept, rapacious family members in charge.

Let’s look at a few infamous cases. Stieg Larsson, author of the Millennium trilogy of crime novels, which have been spectacularly popular, posthumously, died at age 50. (One friend claims that his last words were, “I’m 50 for Christ’s sake!”) He had no will and never married his long-time domestic partner, Eva Gabrielsson, who’s now in an ongoing legal dispute with Larsson’s father and brother, the author’s heirs under Swedish law. Franz Kafka famously asked his friend Max Brod to burn all of his work. Fortunate for literary posterity, Brod didn’t burn a thing, but his own papers, which include some Kafka manuscripts of potentially immense value, were left in a moldering Tel Aviv apartment. The saga surrounding them is ongoing (some papers were possibly stolen quite recently), and Haaretz has done a fine job of covering this mess.

The James Joyce estate is prone to accusations of representing the latter of the above two errors. In 2006, D.T. Max wrote a piece for The New Yorker, which asked the principal question, “Is James Joyce’s grandson [the estate’s administrator] suppressing scholarship?” The answer seemed to be yes, and this estate isn’t alone. The guardians of the work of Joyce’s amanuensis, Samuel Beckett, sue “theatre companies that mount unorthodox productions of the plays”—a bewildering turn given the intrinsic unorthodoxy of Beckett’s own art.

Other familial heirs seem rather insouciant toward their estate responsibilities. Dmitri Nabokov’s public handwringing over his father’s notecard outline for The Original of Laura was an explicit rejection of his father’s wishes. Poor Inna Grade, wife of Yiddish writer Chaim Grade, was so overly protective of her husband and his work that her death was cheered in literary quarters, as it promised a flood of Chaim’s manuscripts; but it now seems that there are a will and heirs, complicating the issue further. Scholars will have to maintain their holding patterns.

There’s a separate argument to be made about what purpose estates should serve. Often their duties entail honoring the author’s late-in-life wishes, protecting the copyright of her works, and overseeing new licensing and publishing agreements. Side effects may include legal battles between far-flung descendants of marginal relation, lucrative offers from “vulture” agent Andrew Wylie, and the proliferation of alternate editions ostensibly reflective of the author’s true wishes or style. Whether an author’s estate falls into these traps depends on the nature of any legally binding agreements.

A well-run estate, guided by an ironclad will, could provide financial security for several generations of a writer’s family and ensure that the work itself—these precious texts that should be our true concern—is open to future publication, scholarship, adaptation, and the like. Given the United States’ conservative copyright laws, such an arrangement could survive for 75 years or more. Or, if you’re the grandson of a certain Irish master, you too could be immersed in obstructionist lawsuits more than 60 years after his death.

2 Comments

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A.G. Pasquella's picture
This article makes me think of Jack Kerouac’s Estate Troubles. Kerouac left everything to his mother and didn’t want anything to go to his then-wife Stella Sampas or her family… but then Kerouac’s mother died and left Kerouac’s Estate to Stella, and when Stella died, the Sampas family took (and retains) full control over the Kerouac estate.
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Lawrence Tate's picture
Lawrence Tate · 8 years ago
The question of copyright renewal often plays a role here. The poet and novelist Gil Orlovitz (1918-1973) is an example. He died intestate, so his estate went to his wife (who survived him by only a few years) and his two sons, who now control his works in copyright. These consist of a few early plays for which he renewed copyright himself, before his death, and his works published after 1963, which consist of a few late poems and his two novels (including his best-known work Milkbottle H). I have been told by a man who knew Orlovitz well that his sons, when approached about the possible reissue of their father’s work a decade or so ago, politely made it very clear that they detested their father and his memory and that they felt it quite appropriate that his work never be reissued and that he be forgotten forever. (If you’re familiar with Orlovitz’s biography, their sentiments are somewhat understandable.) However, because the sons apparently knew nothing about copyright renewal, all Orlovitz’s work first published between 1945 and 1963 - which includes about four-fifths of his poems, all his important plays, and all his short fiction - is now in the public domain and they cannot prevent republication. There are some other authors and estates that have stories like this.
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