Up in smoke: should an author’s dying wishes be obeyed?

Harper Lee never wanted Go Set a Watchman brought out, Sylvia Plath’s diary was burned by Ted Hughes – the controversial world of literary legacies

When a writer is born into a family, the Polish poet Czesław Miłosz said, that family is finished. Yes, but when a writer dies that family’s troubles have only just begun. Wills may be contradictory and instructions to literary executors confused. Works left behind on computers or in desk drawers may be of uncertain status: were they intended for publication or not? And if the writer is famous enough, there’ll be biographers to deal with: can they be trusted to paint a kindly portrait? In their lifetime, authors have a measure of control. Once they’re gone, it’s left to others to guard their reputations.

The vigilance can be fierce, with the appointed custodians (whether spouses, children, lawyers, agents, editors or friends) not so much keepers ...