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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 It may also include original manuscripts of published work, which potentially have a market value; unpublished work in a finished state or partially completed; and papers of intrinsic literary interest such as correspondence or personal diaries and records.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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151 news items


Thu, 14 Aug 2014 08:56:15 -0700

However, as The New York Times pointed out, the company took Orwell's ironic comments out of context and failed to share his true point of view on the subject. Bill Hamilton, the literary executor for the Orwell estate, responded to the story with a ...

The New Republic

The New Republic
Mon, 25 Aug 2014 19:03:45 -0700

(In the funniest scene in the novel, the protagonist compulsively rewashes his hands, scared of contaminating the sample, before masturbating into a plastic container.) Meanwhile his ailing mentor, Bernard, has named him his literary executor. In the ...
Berkshire Eagle
Wed, 27 Aug 2014 09:52:30 -0700

Scholar and literary executor Holly Peppe and vice president of the Millay Society board of directors will talk Saturday about Edna St. Vincent Millay, whose Columbia County home Steepletop is shown. « 1; ». SPENCERTOWN, N.Y. -- When Jonathan Weiner ...
Irish Times
Tue, 26 Aug 2014 16:01:53 -0700

Pearse's literary executor, Desmond Ryan, wrote: Beneath the debris of the Civil War “the spirit of the Irish revolution was buried. It was the hour of reaction, of the place-hunter, the intriguer, the hopeless, the mediocre, the superstitious ...

Boing Boing

Boing Boing
Thu, 21 Aug 2014 09:52:30 -0700

Kuttner met his wife, the writer CL Moore, through a mutual correspondence with HP Lovecraft; when he died, she became his literary executor, then married a non-writer who ordered her to stop writing, and insisted that she suppress future publication ...

The New Yorker

The New Yorker
Mon, 04 Aug 2014 05:48:52 -0700

In “The Lady and Tennessee,” John Lahr details the tumultuous friendship between Tennessee Williams and Lady Maria St. Just, the woman who inspired the role of Maggie the Cat and later became the playwright's literary executor. We've also included a ...


Wed, 20 Aug 2014 16:04:03 -0700

His literary executor sent a letter to the New York Times likening Amazon's letter to the “doublespeak” employed by the totalitarian Ministry of Truth in “1984.” Significantly, Amazon emailed the same letter to an unknown (but presumably large) number ...
Thu, 14 Aug 2014 15:45:17 -0700

The literary executor of George Orwell's estate is accusing Amazon.com of committing an Orwellian crime: doublespeak. In a letter in the New York Times, Bill Hamilton criticized Amazon for "turning the facts inside out" by alleging that the British ...

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