Death, Taxes and the American Way of Literary Estates

Now I can confess: when I first heard the news that J.D. Salinger died, I was instant-messaging with my editor at DailyFinance and said something to the effect of “not to sound crass, but his family is going to end up a whole lot richer as a result.” Obviously, the big question, as the AP’s Hillel Italie succinctly put it, is “what’s in the safe?” – which is why I had put in my own two cents about what will surely be the title of an upcoming thriller, The Salinger Vault (oh wait, looks like someone wrote that already.) But my so-called crassness stemmed from the piece being edited, and now live – a look at the wacky loophole that repeals the federal estate tax, for the time being, for the duration of 2010. 

The piece, which for contractual reasons I cannot quote from here, stems from my longtime fascination with legacy and what happens after death – especially for authors. It’s why I’ve read disappointingly little of Raymond Carver but can quote chapter and verse about the battles Tess Gallagher waged to get the “real” versions of her husband’s stories out in the world lest they settle for Gordon Lish’s semi-authorial stamp on “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love” and the like. It’s why Andrew Wylie interests me less as an agent of living authors than of dead ones, why literary biographies soon after a subject’s death both appeals to and repels me (cf. Louis Begley on John Updike, D.T. Max on David Foster Wallace) and why most of my author interviews of late somehow stray into the notion of what they plan on doing with their voluminous literary archives.

You’re not supposed to speak ill of the dead, and you’re not supposed to ask what happens to the unpublished manuscripts and creative endeavors when the body’s hardly cold. But look at how so many estates end up in legal hell, with heirs wrangling over the right to publish or not publish what the recently deceased writer wanted or did not want. Even a perfectly ordered estate takes a great deal of time to sift through, but it seems that the more time spent in advance thinking about what to do, the less there will be headaches.

Unless, of course, you’re related to J.D. Salinger. Because there’s just no way I can envision a simple solution, even if he had taken the step to put most of his earnings into a self-named trust back in 2008. Not when CATCHER IN THE RYE still brings in a boatload of backlist bounty for Little, Brown, acting as the publisher’s secret ingredient for continued success. Kafka wanted his manuscripts burned, and look how that turned out. Nabokov didn’t want THE ORIGINAL OF LAURA published, and look how that turned out. But wouldn’t it be strange if it turned out the decision to let loose those hypothetical magical revolutionary* manuscripts depended on whether the estate tax repeal – and thus, the beefing up of family coffers – actually stuck for the remainder of the year?

*obligatory Apple iPad joke. It’s been that kind of week.