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Birjees Hussain: Should that manuscript be burned?
March 16, 2018
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As writers we write anything and everything and it’s all over the place. There are diaries, notes on pieces of paper and first attempts at stupid novels on laptops and in various notebooks. Every writer does it, with perhaps a few exceptions, and I do it and have done it. Just the other day I was browsing through an old flash drive and came across a file containing what I know are the first few paragraphs of a book I was contemplating writing several years ago. I don’t know what it was about because I didn’t bother opening it but I know that there is another draft for another story idea in another notebook. Like I said every writer does it and whilst mine may not have any monetary value to other people, there are several well-known writers who do exactly what I do and whose works actually mean something, both morally and financially.

Now when authors write, they do so to have their works eventually published…or so you’d think. That is not always the case. Even when authors complete a work, they are very picky about what is for the public to read and what is not. Many a time, authors will write something, simply because it’s cathartic for them and then lock the piece of work away in a vault so that no one in their life time can read it.

Often times when a writer passes away, the person charged with managing his or her affairs runs into a huge problem. As they go through the deceased person’s personal belongings, they come across all sorts of things. Some are finished articles or manuscripts and some are unfinished and stashed away in a drawer looking very dishevelled or in a safe. If there is a will with instructions as to what is to be done, then the literary manager’s role is fairly straightforward as long as the contents of the will are clear.

But problems arise when there is no will or if there is one but its contents are subject to various interpretations.

When Harper Lee, author of ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’, passed away, the executors of her will had serious issues. They discovered what looked like a manuscript for a book hidden away in a safe deposit box and they didn’t know if it was meant to be published or not. In her lifetime she had always maintained that she would only ever publish one book and that is the famous ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’. One might rightly conclude that, based on her statement, no other material was to be published whether in her lifetime or following her death. If the will is unclear, her wishes should suffice and the book not get to a publisher.

A similar thing happened with the poet Lord Byron. When he passed away, his executors found a memoir which apparently was never meant to be for publication. There were arguments around whether or not it should be published anyway or whether the manuscript should be burned. Some argued against publication citing that it was not only vulgar and obscene but its publication was likely to hurt many of Lord Byron’s family members.

Now there is another issue here. When a person passes away and nominates an executor in his or her will, a lot of stuff can go on despite what is written in the legal document. Legal opinions, personal opinions and questions around the state of mind of the individual at the time the will was written and signed all play a role in deciding if the will should be executed in its entirety.

This actually reminds me of something the greatest playwright of all time once said about his writing. George Bernard Shaw, author of ‘’Pygmalion’ and ‘Man and Superman’ once said that his works were so sought after that even if he wrote a shopping list, it would be sold at an auction for a tidy sum. And he wasn’t boasting, he was stating a fact.

Money, fear and anger all contribute to whether the executor of a writer’s estate will want to either publish something or burn it. The saying is that books get burnt in anger whereas manuscripts in fear.

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