Please Destroy My Manuscripts, and Other News


On the Shelf

Destroy his plays (but not, presumably, his cats): Albee’s last wishes


  • A dead author’s wishes are seldom observed. When I die, for instance, I want my entire oeuvre to go out of print permanently. Only skywriters will be licensed to reproduce my words, in a typeface per my specifications, on beachfront properties throughout America. Finding an executor to comply with these wishes will be hard, but I’m thirty-one and have published zero books, so maybe I can take my time. Other authors, especially those who are already dead, are less fortunate. As Michael Paulson reports, Edward Albee, who died last fall, left very explicit instructions in his will—his works in progress are to be destroyed immediately. But the vagaries of estate law allow for some wiggle room here. Will Albee’s executors follow through on the command, if they haven’t already? “Albee wants two of his friends to destroy any incomplete manuscripts he left behind … Now at stake, at a minimum, are the latest drafts of Albee’s final known project, Laying an Egg, about a middle-aged woman struggling to become pregnant. (Paradoxically, one plot element concerned her father’s will.) The play was twice scheduled for production at Signature Theatre, an Off Broadway nonprofit in New York, and twice withdrawn by Albee, who said it wasn’t ready … James Bundy, dean of the Yale School of Drama, said ‘Edward’s choice strikes me as entirely in keeping with his own exacting standards … It’s no more our business than it would have been if he had made a little bonfire of his work before his death, or shredded some manuscripts one day long ago—perhaps he did … It’s ultimately a good thing for artists to negotiate their own artistic destinies within the framework of the relevant laws: They have no more, and no fewer, rights than would you and I in the same situation.’ ”
  • A writer’s style is critical to his or her success, which is why I’m never seen without my signature garment: a Day-Glo orange safety vest that says to all passersby, When I’m not busy writing, I like to pump your gas in New Jersey. A new book by Terry Newman, Legendary Authors and the Clothes They Wore, argues that even writers who shrug off the importance of fashion are in some way dressing for success. Vanessa Friedman writes, “The sartorial choices authors make are deeply connected to the narrative choices they make—or, as Beckett put it, ‘the fabric of language’ they use … In developing their own idiosyncratic style signatures, they created trends that fashion itself seized on, was inspired by and still finds a fertile source of ideation today … In the same way that pet owners sometimes come to resemble their animals, writers often come to resemble their discourse (or, in the case of John Updike, their main character—which is to say, suburbia). [Molly] Stern refers to it as a ‘stylistic earmark’ … It makes sense: When you spend a fair amount of time thinking about why a character would wear something, or what marks a character—their value system—it would be almost impossible for that same kind of thinking and analysis not to filter down into your own wardrobe, whether or not the effect was deliberate.”

  • The world is full of code, Ellen Ullman writes, and yet the authors of that code are overwhelmingly male. If you think that fact doesn’t color the world we’re living in, you’re in for a rude awakening in the years to come: “Technology is not neutral; it is made by people with intentions. Machines and algorithms are imbued with the values of their makers, values that move outward into the wider, nontechnical world. It matters greatly, then, who writes the code. The vast majority of software engineers are white or Asian men under the age of forty. These programmers, along with marketers, propose new applications and their target user groups to venture capitalists, who decide which startups are funded … Life is enmeshed in code, and yet only a bare percentage of human beings on earth understands what a computer program actually is … I think of the tens of thousands of students streaming in from around the globe who are expected to participate in a dialogue saturated with references to Star Trek, cult comedy skits, and video-game culture, which is itself overpopulated by men and known for its hostility to women. The crucial question for new programmers is this: Do you feel invited in?”
  • The pharmaceutical trade cards of the nineteenth century prove that false advertising can be really pretty, Claire Voon writes: “These small, light cardboard cards, known as trade cards, proliferated in the last two decades of the 1800s. They were distributed by merchants to their customers to promote their products, and many of the most elaborately and skillfully designed ones were those from the pharmaceutical industry. As freely given pictures with color—a novelty at the time—they were cherished, collected, and saved in scrapbooks like treasured baseball cards … Besides birds and blossoms, images of cuddly animals, cherubs, and children at play helped to market gastrine, multipurpose syrups, and blood purifiers. A trade card advertising Ayer’s Hair Vigor even ventures into the realm of mythology, featuring five mermaids applying the liquid cure to gray hair, baldness, dandruff, and more.”