Vladimir Nabokov

NABOKV-L post 0025997, Sat, 7 Feb 2015 08:41:35 -0500

Harper Lee and the vexed question of who owns an author's work ...

Guardian News


Harper Lee and the vexed question of who owns an author's work

Writers from Kafka to Nabokov have had work published against their wishes. Controversy is swirling over whether or not Harper Lee is in that category, but should she or the demands of literary culture have the final say?

Harper Lee at home in Monroeville, Alabama. Photograph: Penny Weaver/AP
Joanna Scutts
Friday 6 February 2015 12.50 EST
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If this week’s dramatically swerving Harper Lee story has shown us anything –beyond the need for clear eldercare guidelines – it’s that the ownership and authorship of great American novels are fraught with controversy. Happily, Lee is, as she reassured us yesterday in a follow-up statement to the press, “alive and kicking”. But her story is particularly compelling because the discovery of the long-lost manuscript, and the fight for the right to publish and profit from it, usually doesn’t take place until the author is dead. Literary history is rife with family quarrels over legacy – which are ultimately tussles over who owns a work of art.

If it weren’t for the posthumous meddling of friends, family, patrons and publishers, we wouldn’t be able to read the Aeneid, The Canterbury Tales, Northanger Abbey, The Bell Jar, The Master and Margarita, A Confederacy of Dunces, 2666, or The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. We’d be without pretty much the entire oeuvres of Emily Dickinson and Shakespeare. So even when publication goes against an author’s express wishes – when Max Brod refused to destroy his friend Franz Kafka’s unfinished works – it’s hard to maintain the position that the writer is always right, or to respect the dead at the expense of the living culture. As the writer Lincoln Michel recently put it, in a piece otherwise in favour of an author’s claims: “A world without unfinished Kafka is essentially a world without Kafka, and that’s not one I want to live in.”

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Much of the drama of the Lee story turned on the question of why the author had suddenly reversed her steadfast refusal to publish anything more after To Kill a Mockingbird.If such a definitive decision can be overturned, it shakes our faith in the idea that we can know what a writer would have wanted. For agents who manage the posthumous estates of great writers, a great deal depends on what kind of instructions have been left by the author or the literary executor he or she appoints – if, indeed, there is an executor.

Georges Borchardt, whose agency represents the estates of authors including Samuel Beckett, Aldous Huxley and Hannah Arendt, points out that this is ultimately a question of human judgment and ability: “Some literary executors are more competent or more enlightened than others.” The same is true of the agents who advise them. In his long career, Borchardt has occasionally had to intervene to stop a publication out of respect for the wishes of an author or an estate, and has faced accusations that he has thus “deprived readers of the privilege of reading” a particular work. In other cases, his agency has been instrumental in sharing unknown works with readers, as with the recent publication of two previously unseen Tennessee Williams poems. Borchardt admits that “these decisions will appear to some as arbitrary,” but he says that each case, and each estate, varies in its priorities.

When publishers decide to go ahead with releasing a posthumous, often unfinished work, they can face a fierce backlash. After the 2009 publication of The Original of Laura, fragments of a novel-in-progress by Vladimir Nabokov, Penguin Classics editor Alexis Kirschbaum defended her decision – and that of Dmitri Nabokov, the author’s son – to go against the author’s wishes that the notes be destroyed.

She argued that the decision to publish was intended to protect Nabokov’s legacy by forestalling any other publication, but was also an acknowledgement “that an artist’s gift and his art do not belong to the artist, nor to his family, but to us all”. Penguin’s edition made clear that the novel was in fragments by reproducing photographs of the 138 index cards on which the notes were written, partly with the goal of showing readers how much labour and doubt goes into the process of literary creation. Kirschbaum also hoped that the controversy generated by The Original of Laura would inspire readers to move past the “tired association … with butterflies and little girls” and the notoriety of Lolita to discover the rest of Nabokov’s oeuvre, which Penguin was republishing in conjunction with the “new” novel. In a similar way, the announcement of Lee’s Go Set a Watchman is reviving interest in To Kill a Mockingbird, a novel most people haven’t picked up since high school.

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The publication of an “incomplete” novel highlights the role of an editor in making choices that can’t help but differ from the author’s. As the novelist EL Doctorow pointed out when Ernest Hemingway’s unfinished novel The Garden of Eden was published in 1986, after drastic cuts to the sprawling manuscript, “the truth about editing the work of a dead writer in such circumstances is that you can only cut to affirm his strengths, to reiterate the strategies of style for which he is known; whereas he himself may have been writing to transcend them”. In other words, they had to make Hemingway sound like Hemingway, even if he was trying to sound different. As several critics noted on the release of David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King, assembled from piles of notes and fragments after the author took his own life in 2008, the value and fascination of the book lay as much in what it revealed about the author’s mind at work as in the work that resulted.


Living and dying, as Wallace did, in the information age, raises new questions about where the limits lie on an author’s posthumously publishable material. Might every email and online posting become fair game? Or does the prevalence of social media and its culture of oversharing actually remove the mystery and excitement that once attached to the rediscovered diary or the cache of lost letters in the author’s attic? When Salman Rushdie or Margaret Atwood share fleeting thoughts and opinions on Twitter, are they inadvertently lowering the value of their posthumous papers?

The fascination of the new Harper Lee novel is impossible to separate from her seclusion and silence towards the press. Her reclusiveness has created an aura of mystery around her and around her first book that is part of the reason why this new novel was initially greeted with the kind of disbelief and excitement that might attend the discovery of a lost play by Shakespeare – or, more pertinently, new stories by the similarly reticent JD Salinger. Despite the squeamish reaction to Shane Salerno’s documentary and biography of Salinger, the possibility of new stories by a beloved writer remains tantalizing.

It’s not a coincidence that in addition to sharing private habits, Salinger and Lee are the authors of books that most people connected deeply with at a young age, and which become quasi-religious totems in consequence. Nor is it coincidence that their books, especially To Kill a Mockingbird, tell stories that are deeply rooted in personal experience, making it easy to conflate author and narrator. When, in an exchange that’s been bandied about several times in the past few days, Lee told Oprah Winfrey that she isn’t Scout, she’s Boo Radley, it was taken as a genuine statement about the author’s reclusive nature.

But what it really proves is that, as an author of a novel like this (and there aren’t really any other novels quite like this), Lee is trapped in the story of Scout Finch, whether as a child or, soon, an adult. Authors, though, are not their characters, nor are they the sole authorities over their books, in life or in death, and we owe it to Harper Lee to remember that.

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