Literary estates

A thought-provoking article by Paul Taylor in last Thursday’s Independent on writers’ archives – taking David Hare, Harold Pinter, Bertoldt Brecht, Philip Larkin, Sylvia Plath, Samuel Beckett and Alan Bennett as his sample.

…it is inconsistent on the one hand [for David Hare] to accept a knighthood from a grateful nation (on behalf of left-wing dramatists), while allowing your papers to drift in the direction of the money… There is sometimes an interpretative link between how we regard a writer’s work and how (a) he or she disposes of personal papers before death and (b) how his or her estate protects and pursues the posthumous interests of the said work.

 Taylor considers the duties of literary estates “…to exercise control imaginatively in the interests of the creative afterlife of an artist’s work and in the financial interests of the artist’s beneficiaries”.  He claims, supported with examples, that “they sometimes act with a counter-productive repressiveness”.

So far, fair enough.  However he then goes on to say, in the context of a critic being refused permission by the estate to quote from letters in his possession as a new edition of the letters is in progress,

You can question the ethics of attempting to prevent a private individual from quoting for fair comment [in an article in the aumun 2009 edition of the cultural magazine Intelligent Life]from letters that belong to him.  And you can certainly puzzle hard over the fact that when Wardle’s letters became known to the estate, no attempt was made to persuade the critic to lodge this material in the archive in the Biriths Library.  This is where Pinter’s papers are housed, a privilege for which the dramatist, though a wealthy and classily connected man, charged the nation £1.1m.

All sorts of issues here which I’m not sure that Taylor has fully grasped or assumptions that I disagree with.

  • copyright.  I guess depends on the purpose of Wardle’s article (fair dealing provision in section 30 of the Copyright Designs and Patents Act 1998 for the purpose of “criticism or review”), but the letters from Pinter to Wardle remain in Pinter’s copyright. 
  • principle of provenance.  The letters from Pinter to Wardle now form part of Wardle’s papers or archive, not Pinter’s.  Asking/expecting him to extract the letters from Pinter from his own archive and to deposit them in the British Library along with Pinter’s archive disrupts the context of Wardle’s.  And also privileges Pinter over Wardle (who was the chief theatre critic of The Times 1963-1989 and then inaugural drama review of The Independent on Sunday).

But on the side of the writers/literary estates

  • artistic expression and earning from one’s own creativity.  So we’re back to copyright again (a.k.a. how earnings from creativity are protected, or not).  See other examples like the Pirate Bay case, and the ongoing debate about the future of the music industry etc. 
  • the preservation and/or use of early drafts, unpublished material etc in the individual’s archive.  See also recent publication of Nabokov’s Laura (panned by the critics) as another example.
  • the research problem – or finding the sources when they’re distributed.  Taylor says “I would hate to assume that Wardle is being permitted to fade from the collective memory bank on Planet Pinter because he fell out of love with the dramatist’s later work” [the presumed reason for the estate refusing Wardle permission to quote from Pinter’s letters to him].  Well, yes, ok – but there’s more to The Story of Pinter than Planet Pinter: the estate doesn’t have the monopoly on the story – see postmodernism etc etc.

One thing I wholeheartedly agree with, however, is Taylor’s almost throwaway comment at the end of the article:

The late appearing hero of this article is Alan Bennett who refused a knighthood and gave his papers to the Bodleian.

I may be biased (as a Yorkshirewoman, a huge Bennett fan, an Old Member, and an ex-Bodley employee), but this was one of the archival highlights of 2008 for me.  The University’s press release is here .  Bennett said at the time

‘I tend to re-write quite a bit so whatever I do tend to go into three or four versions all of which I keep, and since I don’t have a computer this does make for a fair amount of paperwork. The fact that a good deal of this is handwritten seems to delight the archivists at Bodley but it’s always dismayed me and there’s so much I’m quite glad to see the back of it. I just pity the poor research student who may have to make sense of it all.

More seriously I would like to emphasise that these accumulated writings come at no cost to the Library or indeed to the tax-payer because I see this gift as an obligation repaid. I was educated at Oxford at Exeter College and I was fortunate in my time because my education was entirely free. I say with some pride that I had a state education: school, university. None of it cost me or my parents a penny. It’s a situation which young people in education today can only dream of and this is wrong.

I believe that free education is a right and would dispute the notion that unless one pays for education it will be undervalued. I hope I never undervalued the education I had here and [though not to seem overpious] I see this gift, such as it is, as some small recompense both to the University and also, thought it is unfashionable to say this, to the state … or Nanny state as it is disparagingly called. Well, as I say I was lucky in my time and I’m grateful to be nannied.

I think its appropriate too that my stuff should be here in Oxford. My writing is nothing if not English and however universal and unboundaried scholarship may be these days I wouldn’t want to be lodged in some mid-western university. At the Bodleian I shall be rubbing shoulders with Thomas Hardy and Philip Larkin. They might not be all that pleased but I am.’

Sadly, despite aiming for the Bennett archive to be mostly available by January 2010 Bodley’s WMSS webpages contain no information as yet about the archive or the progress of cataloguing.

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