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Who Controls an Author's Legacy?

The Pale King CoverDoes anyone know if David Foster Wallace intended for his notes for The Pale King to be shaped into a book after his death? I doubt he communicated this to someone before his suicide three years ago, but I haven’t read much about the book yet, so Wallace might have done exactly that.

This brings to mind another question, one which also came up recently when Knopf published 138 index cards that comprised a rough draft of a new novel by Vladimir Nabakov, The Original of Laura: how much artistic liberty should we take with a dead author’s notes and papers?

More questions: Is publishing Nabakov’s index cards and DFW’s unfinished novel the equivalent of displaying or publishing the pencil sketches of a great painter? Does it matter that Nabakov insisted that his index cards be burned? Or is it a matter of degree? Nabakov’s family published the index cards as they were. Is it less justifiable to put DFW’s notes in chronological order and apply some editing – because at that point the editor is starting to apply his or her will to the material?

On the other hand, the only reason we have The Trial and The Castle is because Max Brod defied Franz Kafka’s orders to destroy his unpublished manuscripts. “Dearest Max,” Kafka wrote, “My last request: Everything I leave behind me to be burned unread.” The world is richer for Brod’s noncompliance.

All this being said, I’m sure I’ll eventually read The Pale King. My curiosity will eventually overwhelm any sort of principled stand I pretend to take. It’s like the deleted scenes now included as standard practice on a movie’s DVD. I have mixed feelings about deleted scenes. The film should be judged on its own merits, as presented to us by the director. Does including deleted scenes dim the structural integrity of the artistic product? Can you imagine a novelist including deleted scenes in the back of her book?  But we recently watched Harry Potter 7a on Blu-Ray, and as soon as the movie was over, we turned to the deleted scenes. I just can’t get enough of Harry, Ron, and Hermione.

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One comment on “Who Controls an Author's Legacy?

  1. The whole story is a little strange, but it really does appear that DFW wanted _The Pale King_ to come out in some format. He left an organized stack of papers, folders and floppy disks on a desk in his workspace with some sort of a label indicating that he was leaving it for his editor.

    Still, it’s a little strange to read, and the editor mentions that in the introduction. No one knows how close he was to finishing the book and the narrative arc is incomplete, for sure. I don’t know if I’d recommend the book for anyone who isn’t a DFW fan, but if you’ve read everything else, it’s not something you can really skip over forever.

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