Personal privacy and literary executors

folleThis story is driving me nuts. Friday’s Gazette reports that Nelly Arcan’s money-hungry publishers are trying to hack into her computer to exploit the potential goldmine of unpublished work it houses. Various experts weigh in, throughout the piece, suggesting either that it’s the publisher’s right to do this or, more sanely, that it’s up to her family or any “literary heir” she may have named in her will.

But first things first: since when have publishers become so powerful? Show me the line in a writer’s contract that says their publisher owns the rights to any and all writing that author may have produced throughout her lifetime, and I’ll show you a line that needs to be struck by a good lawyer. Especially when authors may move from one publisher to another, as Nelly Arcan did. The money-grubbing bastards at Éditions du Seuil should be slapped for their naked greed, suggesting that they will be publishing a posthumous novel by Arcan in 2010, and infringing upon her personal privacy rights by hacking into her computer. It’s disgusting.

It’s not clear from this article whether Arcan did have any sort of contract with Éditions du Seuil for this untitled “forthcoming” novel (Montreal publisher Coups de tête is slated to publish her final novel, Paradis clef en main, though it’s possible she may have had another contract with the French publisher), so to be fair, perhaps she had a two book deal (or more) with them that they are just trying to claim. But even so, it’s très gauche to be discussing business less than a month after Arcan took her own life.

Furthermore, the piece doesn’t make it clear what right, if any, the publisher would have to print an unfinished piece, over and above her family’s wishes. Jean Barbe, of Éditions Leméac, is quoted as saying that it’s up to the family to decide whether or not to allow the publication, and agrees that it is a question of greed to discuss the issue at this point in time. Nancy Morelli, on the other hand, suggests that it would actually be up to the literary executor, if any exists, because it’s really a question of intellectual property ownership.

Troublingly, Morelli says that there is no concern for the wishes of the deceased herself, if she has not named an executor. She asks, “Are we to respect the wishes of Franz Kafka, who said, ‘Destroy all my stuff’?”

In a word: Yes.

To me, this is not a question of intellectual property—which unquestionable belongs to the author, unless she has somehow signed this all-important right over to an immoral publisher—but of personal privacy. The thought of someone hacking into my computer to publish all of my private thoughts, random scribblings, bits and pieces that are half-baked or merely jotted down to jog my memory at a later date is truly troubling. Private items should be kept private, no matter how much they may allegedly add to the literary canon. Authors hold their work back for any number of reasons, and if they specifically state in their will that they want their unfinished works to be destroyed, this should be the final word.

OriginaloflauraThis calls to mind the issues surrounding Lolita author Vladimir Nabokov’s final, unfinished work, The Original of Laura. At the time of his death, Nabokov’s wife and son were named the literary executors and instructed to burn the work. Wrestling with this, the work was put aside in a bank vault, but not destroyed. Nabokov’s son, Dmitri, finally decided to publish the book in 2008, and an excerpt is to be published in the December 2009 issue of Playboy. Is this what Vladimir would have wanted? Clearly not, as he instructed that his notes be burned. Is this going to boost Dmitri’s own profile as the “literary heir” of his famous father? Undoubtedly. Who gains, and who loses? And is it right to disrespect the wishes of the artist who created the work?

These are issues of personal privacy, and of trust. Perhaps it is silly to argue about whether or not someone who is no longer on this plane of existence would be upset by these betrayals and intrusions, but I wonder if we would feel the same way arguing over the same issues with regard to living authors. J.D. Salinger is still alive, but refuses to pen more stories for the world. This is totally his right, and anyone who attempts to publish his works without his permission will be reprimanded. Why shouldn’t the same be true of deceased authors? Do we have any more claim on their life’s work once they, as the gatekeepers, are out of the way? Should we not continue to respect their privacy by refusing to publish unfinished work, particularly work that is password-protected on a computer?

There is something very sinister to me about those who argue in favour of publishers’ rights, because it seems to me that these are the very people who would like us to believe that personal privacy is just a myth. If it is, then they have all the right in the world to trample our privacies, our rights and freedoms. And that simply will not stand. If an author must burn her own work in order to protect it from prying eyes, then clearly something in the publishing system is broken. I certainly would not want my own computer hacked into, my private writings published against my will, or my trusted friends and relatives to betray me. And if writing that into my will isn’t going to prevent those things from happening, then what the hell will?

One Response
  1. LeRoy says:

    I’m not sure where to stand on this issue. I love Kafka and if it wasn’t for Max Jacob not listening to him and publishing his work, we might not be speaking of one of the greatest contemporary writers today.

    But one thing’s for sure: trying to hack into some dead person’s computer to publish a novel that’s probably not finished is preposterous at best.

    And whether Seuil has a contract with Arcan or not, it’s clearly a faux pas.