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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 It may also include original manuscripts of published work, which potentially have a market value, unpublished work in a finished state or partially completed work and papers of intrinsic literary interest such as correspondence or personal diaries and records.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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After the outbreak of peace, the couple moved to Oxford, where Deakin resumed his academic career. He was made Warden of St Antony's in 1950, and was Winston Churchill's ultra-dependable literary executor and assistant. The novel, by Anthony Horowitz, ...

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John Sampas, literary executor of beat generation icon Jack Kerouac's estate, who has led several successful initiatives supporting the arts and celebrating the life and works of Kerouac, who was Sampas' brother-in-law. Under Sampas' management ...

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Sat, 16 May 2015 13:14:49 -0700

In addition to Burton, the university also presented honorary degrees to Donato Tramuto, founder, CEO and chairman of Reading-based Physicians Interactive; Carole Cowan, former president of Middlesex Community College; John Sampas, literary executor ...

The Guardian (blog)

The Guardian (blog)
Wed, 13 May 2015 06:04:05 -0700

... (“the devil take it all!”), then this seems entirely in keeping with the middle-class milieu of early 20th-century Europe. Of the two editions, the Schocken is the better-looking and comes with an afterword by Kafka's friend and literary executor ...

Slate Magazine

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About halfway through I'm Very Into You, a collection of the 1995–96 correspondence between the writers Kathy Acker and McKenzie Wark, Acker writes, “Life's too short not to be lived as fully as possible. Wonder what'll happen next?” In Acker's case, a ...

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