Honoring an Author’s Last Wishes?

 Posted by on 20 April 2008 at 11:11 pm  Ethics, Law
Apr 202008

The controversy of whether Vladimir Nabokov’s last novel should be published against his wishes has apparently been resolved. Nabokov’s son Dmitri has reportedly decided to disregard his father’s explicit last wish that his final novel The Original of Laura be destroyed. The literary community is deeply divided on this issue, with some saying that the novel should be published for posterity’s sake, and others arguing that the author’s last wishes should respected.

I haven’t read any Nabokov, so I can’t comment on the merits of his work. But if he made his wishes clear in a legally binding document (such as a will), then they should be obeyed. On the other hand, if he expressed it as a nonbinding preference to his son (but didn’t formally put it in his will), then it’s the son’s decision.

Even in the latter case, I would still be inclined to honor the author’s preference even if I thought the world might be losing an incalculable piece of literary genius. The only exception would be if I had good reason to believe that the author’s expressed preferences didn’t actually reflect his genuine preferences (i.e., he was joking or suffering from dementia). But my default would be to go with the author’s wishes, unless there was a compelling reason to act otherwise.

(If the case of Nabokov isn’t sufficiently compelling, suppose that it was 1982 and you were the executor of Ayn Rand’s estate, and she had left similar instructions to burn the pages of her last unpublished novel. Although I can understand the temptation to publish it, I would hope that I would have enough integrity to respect her wishes.)

  • jim

    What if Ayn asked you to burn ALL her works, journals and notes? Wow . . . talk about a painful moral test.

  • Adam Fitchett

    I don’t see how one can have any moral obligations to a dead person. The book should be published.

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