Oh, so he’s the one responsible for Cats.

Today, a collection of T.S. Eliot’s letters and a copy of The Waste Land sold in an auction for about $438,000. Say it with me, boys and girls: Damn, I really need to write more letters!

This got me to thinking about things like being a writer and correspondence. Though I doubt I’ll ever write anything that will turn me into college English class fodder like Eliot, I had to think it would be kind of strange to have my e-mails auctioned off for hundreds of thousands of dollars after I die. (Especially since the world of my e-mail is a very strange place that even I don’t want to be associated with half of the time.)

As writers, we write. Some of that is meant to be seen by others and some of it, well, isn’t. Yet, if we become a part of the public consciousness (or, perhaps, even if we don’t), there are still people out there who could possibly be interested in our ephemera — the letters, the notes, the journals, the files of pieces never finished — and I’m curious as to whether you ever think about this possibility. Even though you’d be dead, how would you feel about someone auctioning off your correspondence 40 years after you shuffled off this mortal coil? Publishing your journal? Collecting your unpolished, unfinished work and selling it as a set of your B-sides?

Do you think about it? Do you want your stuff burned after your death? Do you plan to burn it before your death? Just because you’re an artist, do other people have a right to the thoughts you don’t want them to see?

Or do you secretly want others to see these things? Do you ever write your so-called private stuff with an imagined audience in mind?

14 Responses

  1. WellI am one of those people

    I am one of those people fascinated by the letters and journals of writers I like. I feel a little guilty sometimes, wondering if they would have wanted this. I’ve never picked up a bio of JD Salinger because he obviously wants to be left alone, and I never looked at the Cobain journal thing because it just seemed so dirty.

    But I think a lot of writers do write even their personal correspondence with an eye to posterity, especially somebody like Kerouac.

    I’m a pack rat, so I have all my old emails and journals in some form or another, and it horrifies me to think of somebody reading that stuff after I’m dead, but then I realize I would be dead, and the idea of vanity in the afterlife (or lack thereof) seems even sillier.

  2. I think your last paragraph
    I think your last paragraph is very true, though I think I would die (again) if people were to read all the crap I write now. Because so much of the stuff that I don’t mind people seeing is crap, so imagine how crappy the crap I don’t want anybody to see is.

    I guess, for me at least, it’s not so much the notion of afterlife vanity as it is the difference between public and private. Though I occasionally fail at this, I try very hard to protect what’s private because it’s nobody’s business, and I think I’d be pretty irritated if someone disrespected that and published my e-mails, or something. Of course, it’d give me a reason to haunt them, so there’s that.

    Another issue that is related to this, I think, is the whole persona thing. How much is the writing produced by a writer just a persona? And wouldn’t having journals (or whatever) published after death just blow that all to hell?

    (And would that be a problem?)

  3. Sniffing out truthsThere’s an
    Sniffing out truths

    There’s an ancient human tradition of being kind to the dead. I think there’s a fine line between sharing intimate details of some interest with the public (who seem to clamor brainlessly for that sort of thing)and selling every little tidbit or sordid closet skeleton for whatever dollars these bring in. Frankly I don’t care. Somebody wants to sniff through my dirty underwear than I hope it’s fitting for those who would be interested in that.

    The biographer has to have enough taste and integrity to portray his dead subject fairly; not gloss over the negative; not sell out dirty little secrets that add nothing. Some writers, artists, have better lives than their works. Nothing wrong with that. Jack Kerouac seems to have better works than his life, maybe there is something wrong with that. I haven’t gotten much from his biographers. Maybe we should all lead the kind of life we’d want someone to biographize about. I think most people do anyway.

    Finally, no. I want to be rich (not famous) when I’m alive so I can be of help to others. Other than that, I have no need of fortune and fame; can’t imagine needing either when I’m dead.

  4. Posthumously defamedTo have
    Posthumously defamed

    To have your privacy stripped away is something you must accept as a public figure, unless you leave specific instructions to people you trust not to whore out your name for a few bucks. For instance, I opened up Cobain’s journal in a bookstore and encountered on the first page, in his handwriting, the simple sentence: “Don’t read my journal when I’m gone.” I put it down and considered writing an admonishing letter to the publisher. I agree that it felt very dirty.

    And Steve McQueen never could have known that he could be posthumously inserted into an advertisement for Nissan. Che Guevera couldn’t have known that he would become the posterchild (literally posterized and t-shirted) for rich college kids everywhere. Conversely, Van Gogh, who couldn’t sell a painting while he lived, never would have guessed that his paintings would go for tens of millions of dollars, assumingly making his family rich, if they held on to any of them.

    And then there are the authors that ask for their work to be destroyed after they die. They entrust a good friend with the task, and he has to make the decision. Kafka and Gogol come to mind. Max Brod refused his friends last wish, but whoever Gogol asked threw his works into the fire. Kafka was in and out of hospitals, but does that take away his ability to make that decision? It didn’t seem to take away his ability to write. And I don’t feel dirty reading Kafka’s stories he wanted destroyed. And I would have liked to read the second half of Deal Souls.

    With correspondence, I think writers are divided. Now you have to expect it. I think modern writers are careful about what they put down on paper. Now you know. Anything Pynchon mails will be saved, whether to sell on e-bay or to be published in a correspondence collection. E-mails will prove to be an interesting quandary. I still believe that anything truly important is much better suited for ‘snail mail.’ I send out so many trite e-mails that you could never sift through the junk. But the letters I send are important, save the ones defending myself against parking tickets.

    In response, I don’t think I’d want my journal read, which is why I write it in Da Vinci’s backward code and printed “Please don’t read my journal when I’m gone” across the first page. Well, maybe those were bad examples? I think unfinished work is fair game, and mostly of use only to people who are experts and know it is not the full picture. And contemporary authors do write letters knowing full well they will be seen by the public.

    PS. Recently, we have lost the idea of fiction. We read, and we immediately assume the main character is the author, and the views in the novel mirror the author’s. Many writers take offense to this, as they probably should. It makes it hard to write a book if you know you will be called out for thinking a certain way. Did Dostoevsky have to defend the fact that he was not the narrator in Notes From Underground? Is Nabakov a child molestor? People don’t seem to get the idea of fiction, so if it is not apparent wherefrom the author derives his charcters, people will search through his journals and correspondence to find it. This is why The Da Vinci Code is accepted as fact (well, that and the fact that Mr Brown goes on talk shows claiming it as fact). That is why Metal Storm (the Turkish piece reviewed in the NYTBR this week) is accepted as a very real possibility in Turkey. And who knows, it is possibly why Metal Storm isn’t translated into English yet.

    *Metal Storm is a semi-scifi book about America invading Turkey to get a better grip on Iraq. Then the Russians and Europeans step in and repel the USA. Striking while the iron is hot, a nuke is sent toward DC, taking down the big bully. The Turks have taken this to be a possible reality, strange considering that the Russians have typically been their enemy.

  5. Bottlecaps burried in
    Bottlecaps burried in spam…

    Most letters that are saved for posterity were important to someone at some time, and I mean usually someone other than the author. It’s not often that basic, or what one might consider sophmoric incantations are kept & maintained by anyone. Think, for instance, of all of the letters that Neal Cassady wrote that were thrown away or destroyed, including the most famous ‘Cherry Mary’ one. Think of all the poems & stories that Kerouac wrote that were lost in his journeys, all of the passing thoughts that were not recorded, all of the songs that Morrison wrote on cocktail napkins or all of the jokes that Richard Pryor threw away during binges, all lost & not saved. I believe if you send out a spam mailer or ‘badly’ written correspondence, it will get lost in the wind, unless it is discovered by some archeologist like a bottlecap in the desert, but if the words paint a picture or define an emotion or memory, then they will survive, no matter who the author might be, though it is certainly easier to sell them w/ fame’s co-signature, there are quite a few anonymous quotes & idioms circling the globe.

  6. Big egoI have a massive ego
    Big ego

    I have a massive ego and believe I am destined to be the best writer on the planet at some point in the future, so obviously everything I write is watched carefully, with the thought in mind that everything I write–whether a note to my girlfriend or a shopping list or a response to an official warning at work–will someday be dissected and admired by some crazed fan in the future. Or perhaps I just like to make everything I write say more than it needs to. I express myself in everything that I write. And I have a big ego.

  7. Lots of interesting things in
    Lots of interesting things in this post, but it’s early in the day, so I’m just going to pick up on one thing, at least for now, and that would be your postscript, about people not understanding that fiction is fiction. As someone who writes fiction (though not very frequently, and not at all lately), I’ve had people assume that the I or the She in a story is me. And it (almost) always isn’t; I just like to tell stories. Because of this, I always assume that if it’s labeled as fiction, then it’s made up. Even with things that are metafictional, I think that writers use their names for characters, but that doesn’t mean that they think/feel/do the things that the character does. But perhaps that’s an increasingly rare way of reading.

    I think this ties into the main question like so: even if nobody reads your journals or your letters or your e-mails or anything else, there’s still that public body of work that’s meant to be read. Do you think, since people don’t always understand that writers are creative and can make things up entirely, that this would have any bearing on what a writer would choose to write? Or, does it make it more necessary for a writer to be more careful in the creation of a public persona?

    I don’t know the answers, or if there are answers, even, but I’m curious.

  8. Mirror, mirror…How can you
    Mirror, mirror…

    How can you write anything without some type of audience in mind? Whether it’s for one or one thousand, doesn’t matter, I think it’s impossible.

    I just don’t see how it can be done. Even if you yourself are the audience.

  9. A Lost ArtI really miss the
    A Lost Art

    I really miss the lost art of letter writing. There was something special about sitting down with pen and stationery (and not MS Word or E-mail) and writing someone. It was so much more intimate and personal that way. I remember the anticipation and slight twinge of excitement when you would trot to the old mailbox to see if you had a response from your special someone. I received a handwritten letter just yesterday from an old friend with whom I had lost touch-it was very nice. As far as journaling and unfinished pieces-I may care if someone reads them now without my permission-but for when I’m dead-who knows how I will feel-I’ve never been dead! And T.S. Eliot WAS a damn fine writer.

  10. I do think that writers are
    I do think that writers are becoming increasingly aware of their public image, and it is one reason why many try to stay out of the public eye. I think Dave Eggers is a huge success because of his image. I think Pynchon stays out of the limelight because he doesn’t want people to have preconceived notions about him going into one of his books. And I think it works inversely as well. Many writers choose not to write about taboo subjects because they don’t want to be identified with them. But on the otherhand, sometimes controversy sells (See Michael Moore). Another overblown example of this (not that Moore is overblown or anything) are all the writers during communism. Most wrote fictional stories which got them arrested because the government deemed them communists. In fact your very image as an artist made you anti-communist.

    I believe there is a delicate balance you have to walk in this day and age…if you care at all what people think of you. Or you can trod all over that balance ala Hunter Thompson, but then that becomes your inescapable image. And when you want to tone it down a bit…

    One of the worst pitfalls for an artist is to be a one trick pony. No one likes to be typecast. I think Easton Ellis falls into this category. I think Safran Foer is slipping into it. And image contributes to that. If you write every book about a chauvinistic cokehead republican, then everyone will think that is what you are. Which is why we have to go to fringe artists to get anything atypical. You’re not going to get the same stuff every time out of Gilbert Sorrentino. You’ll find few cliches in Millhauser. It’s the reason why older books are so interesting. They are different, maybe cliche at the time, but what do I know about 19th century Russia?

    But in most cases, either the book shapes the opinion of the author or the author shapes the opinion of the book. This is a general reflection which doesn’t neccesarily describe litkicks folks, who are more astute readers than most.

  11. They’re waiting for me to
    They’re waiting for me to croak …

    I see it all clearly now. The jackals are circling…buzzards chortle darkly as they store my books, letters, prescriptions for ointment, and unmailed letters to Janeane Garofalo…store it all in a trunk until the time is right.

    First, a few items appear at flea markets and antique shops, used book stores and Outre conventions, all this while I’m still in my study with pipe and medicine!

    Oh, grievous world…

    Too late the hero…

    as John Bonham said.

  12. Ok, like so many of my peers,
    Ok, like so many of my peers, I am conflicted. Darn that human trait!
    Part of me says: “Hey, it’s personal, it’s private and doesn’t need to be shared…” The other half says: “Eh, why not? That’s what writing is all about! Posterity, history, blah, blah, blah…” (Yes, I speak the way I write)

    So who wins?

    I say that there are arguments for both sides. If anyone’s read the Diary of Anne Frank, we know that some of the best historical information and first-person accounts have come from snooping and digging up those old bones. But do I really want people to read my old letters to friends posthumously for profit? (Not without my share, buddy!)

    And although I agree about the “snail mail” comment from a place of nostagia, I also know that it’s really hard these days to find an empty moment with which to break out the quill and parchment. It’s so much easier and faster to email. Traditionally, the time that it takes to actually write in one’s own hand is endearing, but not as practical. It does however, improve one’s literary skills and vocabulary more so than “tech” language and html/text could ever do.

    Dammit! I’m torn…

    *steam pouring out of ears*

    Okay, this’ll solve it: postcards!
    Short, sweet, and small. So much easier to manage than bulky letters and multitudinous emails.
    What say you?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

What We're Up To ...

Litkicks will turn 30 years old in the summer of 2024! We can’t believe it ourselves. We don’t run as many blog posts about books and writers as we used to, but founder Marc Eliot Stein aka Levi Asher is busy running two podcasts. Please check out our latest work!