It’s not a subject most of us really like to think about. Our ending, that is. No, not the ending of a story, but our own end. As writers, though, we may be forgiven for a certain touch of vanity. It would be nice to know that our hard work won’t be lost when we depart this world. It would, in fact, please us to know that any incomplete manuscripts would pass on to somebody who cared enough to complete our work.
There can be few people who don’t know how the many letters, notes and manuscripts of J R R Tolkien have been used to produce many volumes. He isn’t alone in that. Another author whose partial works have been completed by others is Robert E Howard.
Now, I’m not saying that every writer has a following so avid that similar treatment will be afforded their unfinished tales. The first question is what do we cherish about those works that might involve us in thoughts of leaving them as bequests? Do we, indeed, have such works? Perhaps we’re content to leave only our published works to posterity. Then again, do we have some masterwork which we’ve been working on in the background for years? Something which we believe will make a true contribution to literature. Can we bear the thought of that being lost forever?
You may think that most writers are rather like pop stars. We may love their work but we can’t honestly say that it has made a profound difference to the world of music. Our works may equate to those songs, but that doesn’t make them of no worth. Tolkien may be a giant of literature, making the continued exploration of his works, published and unpublished, understandable. Howard, is not truly a giant in the same way, but his creation, Conan, is much loved and he did, in fact, create a world to accommodate Conan just as Tolkien created a world to fit his own tales to. Howard is “pop” and Tolkien is “classical”, but both have merits which have so enthralled their readers that other writers have found it desirable to continue their work. In vanity, we may believe that we at least match up to Howard, but we may also be such harsh critics of ourselves that we can’t believe that anybody would bother to treat our unfinished works as reverently. Personally, I think that the vain approach is better, as it expresses self-respect.
If we decide that we would be happiest leaving our collected works to somebody, then the question arises as to just who we should entrust with our treasures. It’s a pity that there isn’t some central organisation that can provide a safe, secure home for our works. Instead we’re left with uncertainty. Do we opt for a family member who has always supported us in our writing? Or do we choose an author we believe could do justice to what we leave behind? Neither offers more than a hope that our efforts will be preserved for posterity. The only thing that we can be certain of is that we can include a clause in our Will to provide for our families in the event that future income goes to them, and that the rights to both published and unpublished works remain with the family for as long as the family survives.
I’ve encountered the situation several times where I’ve been enjoying the continuing tales of a writer, and then being utterly frustrated because the writer has died. In a few cases, this has happened leaving the works incomplete. Worse, in some cases it’s known that a body of work lies somewhere, unpublished, perhaps awaiting some bold writer to complete the work. It seems almost criminal that such works are left to gather dust, at best, or may even be destroyed as being left unassigned to somebody who might value them.
Our works may not have a value that can be calculated in financial terms, but there are other kinds of value. I honestly believe that we should give due consideration to the intrinsic value of all our works, disregarding some false financial valuation. We leave our families, and friends, memories of ourselves. Through our works, we can leave them something else of ourselves. Never underestimate what that might mean.