A few weeks ago, after several years of trying to find a home for her personal archives, Susan Sontag finally found a buyer: The UCLA Library purchased them for a reported $1.1 million, supplied by an unidentified alumnus. The collection includes Sontag’s voluminous correspondence, numerous drafts of her numerous novels and works of criticism, and the film scripts and production notes from the four European movies she directed and produced. The deal also involved Sontag’s 20,000-book library, including 1,100 volumes of her own work translated into 28 languages. UCLA has also secured the “right of first review” for sales of any of the writer’s future manuscripts. In fact, though archivists are resolutely tight-lipped about dollar sums, the amount UCLA paid for Sontag’s material seems among the highest for any living author. And so the sale is not just a triumph for scholars who require access to a Portuguese translation of Illness as Metaphor but also for Sontag’s agent, Andrew Wylie.
The seven-figure deal is a relatively new phenomenon in the world of literary archives. In fact, up until the late ‘60s, most writers donated their work, encouraged by generous tax write-offs. But artists and writers facing a steep tax bill would simply “buy $70 worth of canvas and oil paints, sit down and paint $180,000 worth of paintings, and donate them,” Andreas Brown, the owner of New York’s Gotham Book Mart, explains. So, in 1969, Congress ended deductions for gifts of “self-generated” work. Almost immediately, donations dried up and sales shot up.
At first, only a couple of institutions were willing to shell out for rough drafts, lecture notes, and portentous scribbles from contemporary authors (back then, the term “manuscript” more likely conjured up images of the Book of Kells than of drafts of a Tennessee Williams play). In the 1950s and ‘60s, Harry Ransom, a onetime English professor, set out to establish the University of Texas as the American “Bibliothèque Nationale,” gobbling up large parts of the archives of D.H. Lawrence, Ernest Hemingway, Robert Lowell, William Faulkner, Evelyn Waugh, and Graham Greene, for what now look like bargain basement prices (most were in the five figures). As universities and research institutions grew more competitive about attracting scholars, prices have shot up. Take the respective papers of V.S. Naipaul, Christopher Isherwood, and Vladimir Nabokov, each of which recently sold for prices said to range from mid-to-high six figures. In 1994, Stanford University reportedly paid $980,000 for Allen Ginsberg’s personal archives (including a pair of tennis shoes, his high-school report card, and beard clippings). Ginsberg seemed mildly amused that his papers ended up at a university that had previously shown little interest in his work—Palo Alto was not exactly a Beat haven. But the price was right—the most ever, at the time, paid to a living writer—and certainly satisfied his agent, none other than Andrew Wylie.
Libraries, like sports franchises signing rookies to long-term contracts, have also invested in the initial archives of up-and-coming writers, with the option to purchase future material. So Washington University signed up William Gass before he had published a major work, the University of Texas bought the drafts of Larry McMurtry’s first novel in the early ‘60s, and, more recently, the Huntington Library struck a deal with British novelist Hilary Mantel. These arrangements often involve nudging writers to save anything they produce, including greeting cards, lecture flyers, and scraps of paper on which they have jotted down notes for future works. (This is the fondness for literary refuse Woody Allen parodied in his “The Metterling Lists,” a deadpan exegesis of a deceased writer’s laundry lists.) American libraries have also begun to snatch up the archives of many British writers—Tom Stoppard’s papers reside at the University of Texas’s arcadia, and Emory recently paid $600,000 for Ted Hughes’ papers—causing an Elgin Marbles-like stir in Britain over their failure to maintain their national artistic treasures.
However, the market is not always kind to authorial egos, and it seems unlikely that Sontag-size windfalls will become the norm. According to a recent article in Talk, after Andrew Wylie’s then-London-partner Gillon Aitken tried to sell Paul Theroux’s archives for a seven-figure sum, several American libraries were so shocked by the price tag that they simply wouldn’t deal with him again (“I thought it was a nice, round number,” Aitken told Talk). And for the last few years, Wylie has been peddling the papers of Norman Mailer for a reported asking price of over $2 million. Initially assembled by his mother, the collection includes a copy of Mailer’s bar mitzvah speech.