Mention certain literary estates to any number of editors, publishers and writers and you will see them shudder. These guardians of dead writers' works can be ferocious protectors of reputations. Stephen Joyce, grandson of James, destroyed more than 1,000 letters written by the writer's disturbed daughter Lucia to her father – as well as some to her from the man she loved, Samuel Beckett. Beckett's own estate gets very exercised when directors play fast and loose with his stage works, and T S Eliot's widow, Valerie, is considered largely responsible for the snail's pace at which her late husband's letters have been published.
Now William Faulkner's estate has come out fighting, with two lawsuits that, you might think, represent the far end of the scale of reasonableness. One is against Sony pictures, deemed responsible for loosely quoting a line from Faulkner's Requiem for a Nun ("the past is never dead. It's not even past") in Woody Allen's film Midnight in Paris.
The second lawsuit is perhaps less preposterous. Taking a quote from Faulkner about freedom ("We must be free not because we claim freedom, but because we practise it"), the military technology company Northrop Grumman is said to have used Faulkner's name to give itself a little literary kudos in a full-page ad in The Washington Post.
And so there you have it: the case for and the case against aggressively protective concern for the reputation of an author. Deeming the quotation, or even lifting, of a line and transplanting it into another unacceptable place places great restraints on the ability to comment on past wisdom.
If only the Faulkner estate had restricted their legal efforts to fighting Northrop Grumman, a company that manufactures the B-2 stealth bomber. But they look silly with the case against Sony. Protecting writers against being lifted by the military-industrial complex is one thing. Protecting them from being quoted by Woody Allen characters is another.