The Great Estate

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Writer Suzi Feay explores the power and influence of the literary estate on our cultural and intellectual life - its control over what appears in print, what is revealed and what remains concealed from public view - including letters, journals, unpublished works.

Talking to a number of writers, biographers, critics, novelists and publishers, as well as literary executors, Suzi asks why it is a family's private concerns, often the self appointed 'keepers of the flame' should outweigh questions of the cultural good, open access, scholarly research and even critical honesty.

A stash of old letters is found that reveals a cherished author to be far less than perfect - is it right that they are embargoed for a hundred years? Do great writers, in the years after their death, belong first to their families or to the wider world? Is privacy sacred or does the reading public have a right to know?

The programme looks at a number of case-histories of great literary estates - from Joyce to Nabokov, Henry James and Elliot to Larkin and Kafka - including the censorious and the bizarre, and exploring changing ideas of posterity, copyright, biography and the onset of literary celebrity.

Lucrative modern estates are often run ruthlessly, represented by powerful literary agencies. But beyond issues of copyright, questions remain about what parts of a writer's work and life exist in the public realm, what comes to light only under pressure and what may never see the light of day - all bound to the power of the literary estate. In an era where public censorship of literary work is consigned to memories of the Lady Chatterley trial, is private censorship alive and well?

Producer: Simon Hollis
A Brook Lapping production for BBC Radio 4.
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