Sunday, 25 August 2013

"The grave's a fine and private place..." Or not

Who owns the dead?

The Guardian's website today has an article about David Shields and Shane Salerno, two biographers of the famously reclusive American author JD Salinger. They claim to have uncovered what Salinger had been working on before his death and to release some (all?) of it after 2015. They are also publishing an unauthorised biography of Salinger in September of this year. It is unauthorised because Salinger didn't want a biography, and indeed even blocked one published in his lifetime. His estate did not release documents to the biographers. Salinger said that he wrote only for himself in his later years.

So who owns a writer's work when they are dead? (Or even before?) If Salinger didn't want a biography and didn't want to publish his later writings, why should anyone have the right to go against his wishes? In particular, if he produced work he had no intention of sharing, then it's theft to make it publicly available, isn't it? I can see that someone who has done all the work of digging to write a biography will claim it's their work and they can publish it - though I don't necessarily agree that they should be allowed to publish it. But his own work? Shouldn't he have the last say on what happens to that and who sees it? Do we have to destroy our own writings to keep them private?

Salinger died recently - in 2010. His living relatives might be upset by this invasion of his and their privacy - privacy he spent 50 years protecting. If he had been dead 50 years, with few or no living relatives who remembered him, perhaps the claims of scholarship might win out over the author's own wishes. But Shields and Salerno are not Salinger scholars anyway, and it looks as if they have an eye to the main chance and a tidy profit rather than a genuine academic interest in disseminating his work - a task which could have waited a decent interval.

I hope no one will buy this biography, but suspect that is a vain hope. If I were ever as successful and famous as Salinger, I would be horrified at the prospect of such a violation of my wishes and would make sure nothing was left to be discovered. Why do we worry about relocating and honouring the bones of people who died centuries ago (Richard III, I'm looking at you), but won't honour the wishes of someone barely cold in the grave because - as a writer - he is considered public property?


  1. And this reminds me of something else I've always wondered about (and felt to be wrong): that there's no libel or slander of the dead. So, despite the saying about not "speaking ill of" the dead, in law the dead are the only people you can say what the hell you like about (including lies) and not be held to account. Now, the libel laws about the living are arguably too strong, but surely the dead, who cannot stand up and fight the slurs, are owed some protection, too? At least for a certain amount of time?

    Back to your point, though: I do agree that his wishes not to publish his writings should be honoured (besides, they are easily within copyright) but I'm not sure about his biography? I"m not sure we should be able prevent someone writing about us? We can try to prevent people getting the information (and if we do that well enough it will be a fairly paltry and narrow biography, I guess) but if they have the info and it has enough truth (going back to my point about how the dead should in any case have that protection) then I feel that in the case of a public figure there's a public interest argument. So, I'm with you on the Salinger writings, completely, but not so sure about the biog.

  2. I think with the biog it's more to do with the living relatives. If someone published my biography only three years after my death, I think there are some innocent parties who could be very upset. I suppose I think public interest in the case of a writer is not a very substantial defence. If it were, say, a politician who had authorised a war (ahem) there might be very relevant details in his biography that would help us understand the political situation or course of history. But a writer? Does it matter? Unless perhaps he had committed crimes, such as assaulting children. But if he did non-illegal things (and I have no idea whether he did) such as drinking too much or having affairs, it might be humiliating for his family to have that revealed and is of little more than prurient interest the public.

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