Death Becomes Them: The Imperfect Art Of Posthumous Publishing

04/21/2011 10:34 am ET | Updated Jun 21, 2011

When an author dies, what happens to his unfinished manuscripts? From Max Brod’s famous refusal to burn the papers left behind by his friend Franz Kafka to Edmund Wilson’s valedictory edition of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s "The Last Tycoon," it’s a question that has captivated readers and weighed heavily on those left to speak for writers gone suddenly silent. And when the author’s death comes as a shock, everything is amplified, as demonstrated by the release this month of David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King, the never-finished “long thing” he was working on at the time of his 2008 suicide.

Following a writer’s death, a literary executor -- the person selected to manage the writer’s literary property -- may face a torrent of complications. Some authors leave wills or designate trustees. Others may state their intentions but never get around to putting them in writing. While individual cases vary, there is at least one point of widespread agreement among executors, editors, agents and authors: shepherding a posthumous, unfinished manuscript to publication is an approximate and imperfect art.

“Most literary executors learn on the job,” says the novelist Bradford Morrow, who in his youth befriended the poet Kenneth Rexroth and has served as his literary executor since Rexroth’s death in 1982. “It’s truly a labor of love.”

But even the executor who approaches reverently, with best intentions, confronts murky questions of loyalty and subjectivity. The journalist Ron Rosenbaum, in a 2008 Slate piece on Vladimir Nabokov’s unfinished manuscript of "The Original of Laura," nicely summed up the executor’s conundrum: “Does the lust for aesthetic beauty always allow us to rationalize trampling on the artist’s grave?”

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In 1977, a young literary scholar named John Callahan published an essay in a literary journal about the work of the novelist Ralph Ellison. Callahan was pleased with his work, and tracked down Ellison’s address in New York and sent him a copy. He didn’t expect a reply.

Two weeks later Callahan received a letter from Ellison, praising the essay and inviting Callahan to visit if he ever found himself in New York. The young scholar didn’t require any more prodding, and his visit to Ellison and his wife Fanny in their Riverside Drive apartment sparked a friendship that would last decades.

In 1994, shortly after his 80th birthday and more than four decades after the publication of his celebrated novel, “Invisible Man,” Ralph Ellison died of pancreatic cancer, and left no instructions for what should be done with his manuscripts. Ellison’s widow asked Callahan if he would help her manage his remaining papers, including his long-awaited second novel. Later that year, Mrs. Ellison legally appointed Callahan her husband’s literary executor.

Callahan dove into the executor’s task. He felt burdened, but after sifting through Ellison’s manuscripts, his confidence lifted.

“I realized, my god, this is wonderful stuff and it needs to be brought out. I realized that this man had left behind a trove, an archive of stuff, much of which needed to see the light of day.”

However, it was Ellison’s extensive work on an untitled and unfinished second novel that presented Callahan with questions that would keep him busy, and conflicted, for years. Retreating to a friend’s house on Long Island, he spread the voluminous notes on a wide table, and read. The quality was uneven, and nothing was in chronological order.

“I would read it and think, ‘This is not a novel, it’s closer to an archive,’” he remembers. “At first I felt discouraged. I wish to hell Ralph had left some instructions.”

In 1999, Random House published Ellison’s second novel, “Juneteenth.” Today, Callahan -- an English professor at Lewis & Clark College in Portland, Oregon -- regrets the hype surrounding its release. Instead of marketing it as Ralph Ellison’s Long-Awaited Second Novel, Callahan says, “We should have erred on the side of saying, ‘This is just a chunk, a large excerpt from the second novel.’”

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Even in cases where authors make careful preparations, intentions can be thwarted.

Richard Curtis, a New York literary agent, recalls being asked to appraise the estate of a famous author, whose will stated that no sequels to his bestselling series should be published. After a time, however, Curtis noticed that new books began appearing in the dead author’s name: prequels. “It was very clever,” he says, “how determined people managed to get around that.”

And despite the litany of anecdotes, editors and executors say that when faced with a new situation, there is very little useful precedent or wisdom to draw upon.

“The only guideline that I came away with is: be very public about the decisions you make,” says Michael Pietsch, David Foster Wallace’s editor at Little, Brown. Knowing that the posthumous publication of Wallace's final, unfinished novel would invite critical scrutiny, Pietsch felt a responsibility to set the stage with a message to readers.

In an editor’s note prefacing "The Pale King," Pietsch explains that Wallace’s widow and literary agent gave him access to the unfinished manuscript, notes, and other documents, and asked him to “assemble from these pages the best version of The Pale King that I could find.”

“It seemed to me that to present it without that explanation would be unkind and provocative,” he says.

The regrets of dead authors, of course, cannot be known. To a degree, as illustrated by the examples of Kafka and Nabokov -- whose son Dmitri disobeyed his orders to destroy the drafts of "Laura" -- the author’s dilemma might be put this way: after death, all bets are off.

“If you don’t want anyone to read your half-written manuscript, a screed against your ex-wife or your admission of something, destroy it,” says Lloyd Jassin, a publishing and entertainment lawyer in New York. “Once you’re gone, you never know.”

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