When an author dies, what happens to his unfinished manuscripts? From Max Brod’s famous refusal to burn the papers left behind by his friend Franz Kafka to Edmund Wilson’s valedictory edition of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Last Tycoon,” it’s a question that has captivated readers and weighed heavily on those left to speak for writers gone suddenly silent. And when the author’s death comes as a shock, everything is amplified, as demonstrated by the release this month of David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King, the never-finished “long thing” he was working on at the time of his 2008 suicide.
Following a writer’s death, a literary executor — the person selected to manage the writer’s literary property — may face a torrent of complications. Some authors leave wills or designate trustees. Others may state their intentions but never get around to putting them in writing. While individual cases vary, there is at least one point of widespread agreement among executors, editors, agents and authors: shepherding a posthumous, unfinished manuscript to publication is an approximate and imperfect art.
“Most literary executors learn on the job,” says the novelist Bradford Morrow, who in his youth befriended the poet Kenneth Rexroth and has served as his literary executor since Rexroth’s death in 1982. “It’s truly a labor of love.”