Sunday, April 02, 2006

More on the Right to Destroy

A timely follow-up to my post below on the right to destroy: The New York Times reported yesterday on the controversy surrounding the publication of a collection of previously unpublished pieces by the poet Elizabeth Bishop, who died in 1979. Helen Vendler took no prisoners in The New Republic:

This book should not have been issued with its present subtitle of “Uncollected Poems, Drafts, and Fragments.” It should have been called “Repudiated Poems.” For Elizabeth Bishop had years to publish the poems included here, had she wanted to publish them. They remained unpublished (not “uncollected”) because, for the most part, they did not meet her fastidious standards ....

The take-away lesson for artists is to either (a) get rid of anything you wouldn't want to see the light of day during your lifetime (Vendler mentions, ominously, that "I am told that poets now, fearing an Alice Quinn [editor of the new collection] in their future, are incinerating their drafts"; poet Billy Collins updates the sentiment for the age of the word processor, where it comes out sounding much less dramatic: "I don't save my drafts ... I just press delete, so the early work just vanishes into cyber void. A motto I've adopted is, if at first you don't succeed, hide all evidence you ever tried") or (b) leave very clear instructions about what can and can't be done with drafts, fragments, etc. and, perhaps even more importantly (in light of the Franz Kafka example discussed in my earlier post), put the decision-making authority (including copyright ownership) into the hands of people you trust will carry out your wishes.