I have probed my moral intuitions carefully and, while I have no definite answer, I find that Nabokov’s wishes deserve substantial respect; the wishes of a very recently dead author, say Kurt Vonnegut, would deserve very great respect; and the wishes of any author alive today will, in the sadly inevitable event of his or her death, deserve overwhelming respect.
However, as I go back in time my solicitude for the author declines; so I am only moderately conflicted about the decision of Kafka’s literary agent to override Kafka’s (d. 1924) wishes and posthumously publish his work; I am almost completely indifferent to whether or not Dickens (d. 1870) would have wanted us reading the unfinished Edwin Drood; and I would regard it as laughable to care about whether it’s OK to go through the private notes and manuscripts of, say, the Venerable Bede (d. circa 735), or Catullus (d. circa 54 BC).
My respect for the author’s wishes declines slowly but steadily over the course of the twentieth century, and drops precipitously after 1914, bottoming out at so what? at roughly 1850. People who died prior to 1850 are things, vague phantoms, soil; who cares what they wanted?
So much for time. What do my intuitions say with respect to how far away the author lived from me? I’d probably rather not find out.