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A literary executor is a person with decision-making power in respect of a literary estate. According to Wills, Administration and Taxation: a practical guide (1990)[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 estates[edit]

The literary estate of an author who has died will often 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 It may also include original manuscripts of published work, which potentially have a market value; unpublished work in a finished state or partially completed; and papers of intrinsic literary interest such as correspondence or personal diaries and records.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 has more to it than the simple 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 obvious tensions: 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] 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 instead legally owned by Marianne Steiner and Vera Saudková.[3]


  1. ^ J. S. Barlow, John S. Barlow, Lesley C. King, A. G. King, Wills, Administration and Taxation: a practical guide (1990), p. 192; [1]
  2. ^ [2]
  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.)

Original courtesy of Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Literary_executor — Please support Wikipedia.
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20 news items

Boston Globe

Boston Globe
Tue, 30 Sep 2014 08:27:59 -0700

The simple inscription on the new stone — taken from Kerouac's best-known book, the wanderers' bible “On the Road” — was an easy decision, said John Sampas, Kerouac's literary executor and Stella's lone surviving sibling. “I could have picked lots of ...


Sun, 28 Sep 2014 11:00:00 -0700

Close female companions and collaborators are also engagingly drawn, from Williams' loyal longtime agent Audrey Wood to his essentially self-appointed literary executor Maria St. Just, a sometime actress and ambitious social butterfly who coveted ...
Fri, 26 Sep 2014 11:13:35 -0700

The white theater producer Robert Nemiroff, who was married for a time to Hansberry and became her literary executor after her death, astutely observed that "Raisin" not only authentically reflected the past and present but also saw into the future ...

The New Yorker

The New Yorker
Sun, 14 Sep 2014 21:12:49 -0700

Wilson, who served Fitzgerald beautifully as a literary executor, thought it was absurd that his drunken, often silly college friend could become a dying-and-reviving god—which is surely how Dylan Thomas's and Percy Shelley's friends felt about a ...


Chicago Tribune
Thu, 18 Sep 2014 07:09:22 -0700

Clearly, Leverich saw his friend Lahr as a kindred spirit, a lover of Williams and his work who understood (and had written about) Leverich's travails with Maria St. Just, a controlling literary executor who had never wanted Leverich to write the book ...
Sat, 06 Sep 2014 16:03:45 -0700

Lord Alfred Douglas is on trial for the alleged libel of Oscar Wilde's literary executor – page 3. - The Germans are accused of forging a speech by former Liberal Minister John Burns – page 4. - Buyers of Part 4 of “The Great War” are promised a ...

The Independent

The Independent
Sun, 21 Sep 2014 05:43:55 -0700

In Lahr's words, it had had “a five-year stranglehold” inflicted on it by Williams's soi-disant literary executor, Lady Maria St Just. The result was a New Yorker essay on the unedifying antics of the estate which opened with envenomed equipoise ...


Tue, 09 Sep 2014 09:44:16 -0700

“The rat represents how Bigger sees himself through the eyes of people who see him and condemn him,” says Kelley, who consulted with Julia Wright, Richard Wright's daughter and literary executor, on the project. “The rat is him, but it's him through ...

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