Burning Your Papers
You know that you are going to die sooner or later. Authors are no exception. Like their books, they have a shelf life. After you get over the shock and accept your fate, one of the first orders of business is put your affairs in order. I’ve always like that expression. Especially in Thailand where that can be a tall order during one’s life let alone on one’s death.
What caught my attention was an article in the New York Times about Franz Kafka:
“During his lifetime, Franz Kafka burned an estimated 90 percent of his work. After his death at age 41, in 1924, a letter was discovered in his desk in Prague, addressed to his friend Max Brod. “Dearest Max,” it began. “My last request: Everything I leave behind me . . . in the way of diaries, manuscripts, letters (my own and others’), sketches and so on, to be burned unread.” Less than two months later, Brod, disregarding Kafka’s request, signed an agreement to prepare a posthumous edition of Kafka’s unpublished novels.”
Kafka’s friend Max Brod thumbed his nose at Kafka’s request and proceeded to arrange the publication of Kafka’s “The Trial” came out in 1925, followed by “The Castle” (1926) and “Amerika” (1927). His purpose was noble enough; allow the world the chance to read, contemplate and enjoy the way Kafka processed reality. He overlooked at once Kafka’s operation system had shut down, he wanted the products that this operating system destroyed.
That didn’t happen. Thanks to Brod.
A couple of thoughts emerge out of Kafka’s last wish and Brod’s defiance of that wish. The first is what priceless books were in the 90% destroyed by Kafka’s own hand. We will never read any of them because Kafka burnt them before he died.
Second, you can’t trust anyone who survives you to set a match to the pile of your papers that you wish to go up in smoke. It doesn’t matter that you address her or him ‘dearest’ or that you believe that person would never betray your final wish. Third, the day when a best friend could burn an author’s papers and create such an effective void has vanished. Dead. Buried. Why? Paper is no longer the only source of an author’s work product.
You can’t burn digital.
Authors need to update their plan for death and archive destruction to fit a digital age. And it is no longer wise to trust a friend to carry out your wishes if his highest level of technological competence is lighting a match. You need a computer geek for a friend if you stand a remote chance of cleaning your record from the face of the earth. That might not be enough. Kafka’s last wishes for his work, over time, have received as much if not more attention than his surviving books. To summarize: Kafka trusted a friend. And in a Kafkaesque twist, Kafka got screwed. But the ending is entirely noir as we all benefited from Brod’s high-minded treachery. Kafka’s wish and Brod’s refusal to carry it out is a classic case study for ethics and morality classes around the world, asking: Defend Max Brod’s decision to ignore his friend’s final request.
Analog or digital age, one thing remains constant—people come up with all kinds of excuses not to follow an author’s burn instruction. Such as: the world deserves to read masterpieces and no author should be entitled to deprive the universe of their genius. Or leave the capitalist and free markets to work out the solution, which is obvious: there may be big money in that pile of papers and setting it on fire would bring a bolt of lightning from Milton Friedman, striking you dead. Bottom line is that no one would act on request to set fire to a warehouse of cash. A court would issue an injunction.
Kafka died during the analog age. What about future Kafkas in the digital age? Burning papers is, well, so yesterday’s technology. Primitive, isolated, contained, controllable and manageable. Once upon a time an author had a good chance of controlling what happened to his or her papers and unpublished work after death. He or she might miss a random letter or notebook but most of it is close at hand, easy to gather up, pile up in the back garden and torch. This is no longer possible. The author will have collected thousands of bits of debris, which like the Kepler Belt circulate around his or her name forever—emails, blogs, comments, Facebook, Twitter, the history log on a computer, bookmarks and stored photographs and videos. This stuff is a time bomb, waiting to go off from the moment the author departs.
Now ask your best friend to go through all of this and delete everything that might show a secret interest in zebra covered chairs, bondage equipment, radical fringe preachers, sexy photos and videos involving three-legged albino hamsters, his favorite seventy-three porno sites with usage records, membership numbers, avatars—more than half which feature underfed people slinging around in leather and masks. In other words, the tasks of the author’s executor is no longer limited to erasing from the planet his or her prior writings, but the more pressing and urgent need is to whitewash the wall of the deceased’s digital life from all of that private graffiti that paints a private world populated with strange and weird desires, fetishes, and passions.
Think of trolling through the goldmine of smut, weirdness, psychologically disturbed images, rants and raves, and the belching and farting videos from YouTube that the author has cleverly hidden in a folder titled: Mystery Conference Panels. All if secret life comes tumbling out before you’re body is cold in the grave, or your ashes have cooled to room temperature. In the future, the market won’t be for the books left behind by writers, but the right to catalog, organize, distribute and (remember that warehouse of money) cash in on the digital life and times of—you fill in the blank. Colin Cotterill, Matt Rees, Barbara Nadel, V.S. Naipaul (don’t think he does digital), Stephen King, Stieg Larsson—I wonder what he left behind on his harddisk drive?—and does Elizabeth Gilbert have any secrets in her digital world that were left out of her book?
I predict the next hot thing in the writing community will be a start up company that promises authors to erase those awkward bits of their digital past within thirty days of their death. Of course, the author won’t be around to check on the result, and there is always the possibility the company might take an author’s money and pull a Max Brod.
Authors face a new series of risk by dying in the digital age. Franz Kafka had a fighting chance to turn his manuscripts to ashes before he popped along to the next publishing world, leaving only 10% in the hands of Max Brod. Any time you get 90% of anything, count that as a success. In our time author’s unless they start deleting now, will have only a small chance of eliminating even 10% of their shady thoughts, perversion, petty quarrels, small minded prejudices, and overblown egos they’ve shot into cyberspace like a repeat action shotgun. People will be picking the buckshot out of the digital walls forever.
In the future, the chances are that writers may be, like slugs, are remembered more for their messy smear of their digital trail. Books, essays, plays, poems and memoirs are the controlled, polished, exact, professional, the best face, the one authors show to the public. We live in an age where the hunger is less for the public face than for the private face that blinks back from the mirror, the one that knows the nasty little secrets that can never be burned away.