Authors Who Wanted to Burn Their Work


I'm working on a long post about perfectionism. While I get it ready, my daily updates will be a little shorter.

For now, I wanted to expand on one point from that upcoming post: authors on their deathbed who wanted to burn their legacy.

Tradition first ascribes this tendency to the Roman poet Virgil, author of the Aeneid. But it extends to Gogol, Kafka, Proust, Dickinson, Nabokov, and surely more.

In some cases the work is partial, as in Nabokov's, or an early draft, as in Proust's. But the trend seems to be dissatisfaction with the work and its inability to reach the author's internal standard. In Kafka's, some believe he made the request specifically to the one person that he knew wouldn't follow it.

But since these are deathbed requests, I'm not sure how literally the authors intended them or why they didn't carry the work out themselves. Perhaps there's a buried hope here that the reader will preserve the work if it has true merit.

Even as a humble blogger, I understand the impulse. And I don't think just any old draft is worth keeping. But if quality grows rung by rung, it seems a cruel thing for an author to hide the ladder and act like they never had to climb.