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A literary executor is a person granted (by a will) decision-making power in respect of a literary estate. According to Wills, Administration and Taxation: a practical guide (1990, UK)[1] "A will may appoint different executors to deal with different parts of the estate. One example of this is the appointment of a literary executor to deal with literary effects [...]".

Literary estate[edit]

The literary estate of an author who has died will consist mainly of the copyright and other intellectual property rights of published works, including for example film and translation rights. It may also include original manuscripts of published work, which potentially have a market value, unpublished work in a finished state or partially completed work and papers of intrinsic literary interest such as correspondence or personal diaries and records. In academia, the German term Nachlass for the legacy of papers is often used.

Since the literary estate is a legacy to the author's heirs, the management of it in financial terms is a responsibility of trust. The position of literary executor extends beyond the monetary aspect, though: appointment to such a position, perhaps informally, is often a matter of the author's choice during his or her lifetime.

If a sympathetic and understanding friend is in the position of literary executor, there can be conflict: what is to be managed is not just a portfolio of intellectual property, but a posthumous reputation. Wishes of the deceased author may have been clearly expressed but are not always respected. Family members often express strong feelings about privacy of the dead. For example, biographical writing is likely to be of a quite different authority if it is carried out with access to private papers. The literary executor then becomes a gatekeeper.


Examples of literary executors include Sir Edward Marsh for Rupert Brooke, Robert Baldwin Ross for Oscar Wilde, Robert Hayward Barlow for H. P. Lovecraft, Rush Rhees for Ludwig Wittgenstein, Otto Nathan for Albert Einstein, and Regine Olsen for Søren Kierkegaard.

A particularly notorious example is Elisabeth Förster-Nietzsche for Friedrich Nietzsche, as she resorted to fraud to make her brother's Nachlass more compatible with Nazi ideology.[2][dead link] An exceptionally productive example is that of Rudolf Steiner. Although he did not originally intend that the stenographs of his thousands of lectures to be published, he relented and named his second wife, Marie Steiner-von Sivers, to direct his Nachlass, which has produced more than three hundred volumes since his death in 1925.

Older examples of such appointments, such as Kenelm Digby for Ben Jonson, are essentially editorial rather than legal. A contemporary case is Christopher Tolkien's work on J. R. R. Tolkien's papers.

A notable example is the case of Franz Kafka, who left no will. His friend Max Brod assumed the function of literary executor, though most of the literary estate was legally owned by Marianne Steiner and Vera Saudková.[3]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Barlow, J. S., King, L. C., King, A. G. (1990). Wills, Administration and Taxation: a practical guide. Sweet and Maxwell, London. p. 192. Retrieved 14 November 2014. 
  2. ^ [1]
  3. ^ Reed, T. J. "Pasley, Sir John Malcolm". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (online ed.). Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/94106.  (Subscription or UK public library membership required.)

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Boston Globe (subscription)

Boston Globe (subscription)
Fri, 24 Apr 2015 13:48:45 -0700

Graduates: 2,700. Honorary degrees: Carole Cowan, former president of Middlesex Community College; John Sampas, literary executor of beat generation icon Jack Kerouac's estate; (Second ceremony:) Barry Perry, former chairman and CEO, Engelhard Inc ...

The New Yorker

The New Yorker
Thu, 23 Apr 2015 03:52:30 -0700

Churchill's brief obituary was part of a longer remembrance of Brooke by the politician's private secretary, Edward Marsh, a patron of the arts who became Brooke's literary executor. Marsh had become infatuated with the young poet after seeing him on ...

The Guardian (blog)

The Guardian (blog)
Tue, 21 Apr 2015 08:00:04 -0700

“Perhaps email does best with crushes,” suggests the writer artist and critic Matias Viegener, who is also Acker's literary executor, in his introduction to Acker and Wark's collected correspondence, written over a few intense weeks and now published ...


Tue, 07 Apr 2015 00:15:44 -0700

... took her own life at age 30, she left behind numerous poems and manuscripts, as well as two young children and an estranged husband—the future British Poet Laureate Ted Hughes, who became, by virtue of English inheritance laws, her literary executor.

Christian Science Monitor

Christian Science Monitor
Fri, 17 Apr 2015 05:56:15 -0700

(He has edited several Auden collections and is the literary executor of Auden's estate.) His chapter on Auden – “Neighbor” – is as lovely and expert as one would hope, with a particular emphasis on Auden's “secret life” of generosity and human ...

Boston Globe (subscription)

Boston Globe (subscription)
Mon, 13 Apr 2015 20:11:15 -0700

After Bishop's death, Methfessel served as her literary executor until her own death in 2009. Curiously, for all the poet's apparent misgivings about Worcester, she is buried there, beneath a headstone that quotes from her poem “The Bight”: “All the ...

Irish Independent

Irish Independent
Tue, 21 Apr 2015 18:30:00 -0700

Their friendship was young when Deakin died but the connection was already robust and Macfarlane is Deakin's literary executor. He quotes from a letter he received in that role from a Dutchman living in Warwickshire for many years which included the ...

NPR (blog)

NPR (blog)
Mon, 13 Apr 2015 11:39:04 -0700

Turing left his mathematical books to Robin Gandy, a student and close friend who served as his literary executor. In 1977, Gandy donated all the documents he inherited to King's College, Cambridge, with one exception: this notebook. Bonhams auction ...

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