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December 10, 2006

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What's An Author?

What’s an author? Why, just the sum of her readers, of course!

Try this on for size:

This is not to say that all networked writing will take place in vast wiki collectives. The individual author will be needed more than ever as a guide through the info-glutted landscape. But writers’ relationship with their readers will change as writing moves from the solitary desk to the collaborative network. No longer just an audience, readers will become assets, and eventually writers will be judged not for the number of books they sell but for the quality and breadth of their networks.

And then imagine that perhaps it is not actually a new phenomenon. What’s Plato but the collection of people who have read, discussed, and saved Plato? What’s Rachel Carson without the same?

I am newly in love with the idea of authorship as the creation of a community — by whatever means necessary or possible — around your ideas.

English majors, have at it.

(Link from’s great and completely-out-of-left-field report on books.)

Posted December 10, 2006 at 11:01 | Comments (12) | Permasnark
File under: Books, Writing & Such, Briefly Noted, Society/Culture


So far, I think the best articulation of the counter-argument to this is from Jason Lanier, who argues that populism (aka "wisdom of the crowds") is creating a mediocre, non-progressive thinking:

Digital Maoism: The Hazards of the New Online Collectivism

His argument has problems, but it's worth reading.

Yeah, I followed the digital maoism thread via Nicholas Carr.

I think Ben Vershbow's take is pretty distinct: It retains an individual author -- it's not just some wiki oversoul -- but changes our notion of that author's product.

Couldn't it be said that the real product of is the body of people who read it -- the people that it convinces to come back again & again, or subscribe, or propagate the ideas or link to them? You are still the author, the maestro of that product -- but it is a bigger thing than a list of links.

I mean, that sounds pretty abstract, but I think there's something interesting there.

Weird, when I wrote the above comment, I hadn't gotten to "D" yet in NYT Mag's Year in Ideas, where none other than Steven Johnson covers Lanier's Digital Maoism:

Anyway, I'm not sure the Future of the Book's project is all that distinct from Lanier's gripe -- their cause célèbre is the multi-authored networked book (which I happen to think is on the precipice of something big, so I included it in my Best Blogs post). But using the Fimoculous/blogosphere example, the argument that Lanier would likely make is that the consensus that happens through aggregation creates the illusion of meritocracy where the collection is actually less than the whole. I'd disagree with that, but it's also one of those things you can never quite know. We are, to some degree, in Plato's cave on this one.

Not that I have any grand principles or reading to back this up, but my own recent exercises in trying to get back into a habit of writing have reminded me what a solitary exercise it is. Certainly, the goal of almost any writing is to try and make some sort of connection with a reader, and I like your image of Plato as the grand aggregate of the people who have read Plato and engaged with his argument over the years, but I think that in writing like few other projects there is a tremendous disconnect between the process of creation and the final product. (Take as evidence the number of people who have written books but have no idea or interest in the publishing or bookselling processes.)

I know from my own experience, that I am absolutely unable to write (even my ostensibly-social blog) when I am engaged with another person, and from what I read about the efforts o other writers to seek and maintain solitude for their writing, I gather that I am not alone, at least in that.

I guess the most relevant lit-theory texts would be:

1) "Tradition and the Individual Talent," by T.S. Eliot
2) "The Death of the Author" by Roland Barthes
3) "What Is An Author?" by Michel Foucault
4) _Is There A Text In This Class?_ by Stanley Fish


1) Authorship is less an individual autonomous creation than a re-reading of inherited texts -- furthermore, those texts, as a living tradition, are themselves transformed by these re-readings.
2) Signals a move past critical uses of the author as god, i.e., the fixed guarantor of meaning, in favor of a looser "dissemination" of the text.
3) Authorship is a function of variable historical-legal discourses, at once a proper name, a means for unifying a disparate body of texts, and serving as a potential marker for punishment. (Determination of authorship really only becomes historically important in the modern period when the state wants to punish authors for what they write.)
4) A more reader-oriented version of all of the above.

It seems to me that while writing can be a very solitary act, the work itself is defined by readership and dissemination, as Tim's post suggests.

To crib a bit from James P. Carse's Finite and Infinite Games, "[artists, storytellers, mythologists] are not, however, makers of actualities, but makers of possibilities. The creativity of culture has no outcome, no conclusion. It does not result in art works, artifacts, products. Creativity is a continuity that engenders itself in others."

With that in mind, the increasingly interactive nature of works as they find their way on-line imbues added value and helps them grow beyond the stand alone pieces.

But while I agree that the response will be ever changing, I think there needs to be a point where the author's basic contribution is set in stone (let's avoid Lucas style continual revisonism, shall we?) and the continued creative life of a work belongs to the audience.

Your phrase "by whatever means necessary or possible" is, I think, where the most interesting angle lies, because it hints at the issue of whether writers want to create a community around their ideas in the first place (or if they do, whether they accept the community that does form). The solitude sought by writers in not necessarily limited to the act of writing itself. This presuposes that the writers being considered are still alive - sorry Plato.

I also think the idea doesn't work so well for first books, at least in the realm of fiction. Yes, they are responsible for creating the communities in which ideas are exchanged, but that first act of creation, in many cases, can be so intimate that it seems vulgar to imply a "community" makes one an "author".

I'm awfully persuaded by Foucault's argument that the idea of an author isn't a fixed Platonic idea, but an "author-function" that varies with respect to time, place, discursive field, or even usage. In other words, the author's name never refers only to the owner of the hand who writes. We can say "I'm reading Plato this summer" -- the name unifies 1) a body of work and 2) a body of thought. (As lots of people point out, the metaphor of a "body" unified under a name or soul seems to guide the way we've thought about writing.)

Take Shakespeare, for example. Probably the quintessential creative "author" in English. But (conspiracy theories aside) he co-wrote at least a handful of his plays, and may have received sole credit for a few more because he was a part owner of the theater company who performed and published them. We also have a much profounder sense of his achievement as an author because his friends got together after he died and published a handsome edition of all of his writings, featuring his name and portrait prominently. Except for poet/playwright Ben Jonson, that was unprecedented for a playwright. It would be like if someone put together a DVD set of Simpsons episodes titled "The Complete John Schwartzwelder."

Film is another good example. We tend to devolve the author-function to the director, in no small part because of auteurs like Hitchcock, Welles, or Godard, who made movies with a distinctive style and exercised much more control over the finished product than others. But we could as easily give the author function to the screenwriter (Charlie Kaufmann, Aaron Sorkin) or the producer (see David O. Selznick on Gone With the Wind, many classic Hollywood films).

To large extent, the reason why George Lucas has been able to unambiguously present himself as the sole "author" of the original Star Wars trilogy -- even though he only directed one of the films and co-wrote the others -- is because of the legal ownership he has over those films. If he'd been making those movies in the forties, he'd never have been able to mess around with 'em.

I think that there's a useful distinction to be made in terms of the act of authorship in creating a text and "authorship" in terms of the more general task of the creation of the meaning of a text. Tim points out some useful case studies: film and theatre, which are more collaborative works than we normally think of the composition of a poem or play as being. In fact, the authorial solitude of the modern poet or novelist may well be a historical anomaly— the modern novel is the product of the manufacturing processes and markets of the indstrial revolution, and poetry and extended prose both were, for most of human history, transmitted orally, making each performance an act of authorship.

I like Mr. Lavolette's image of the creation of a text as a creation of "possibility"— even today, each individual's act of reading creates meaning. Still, and it may even be self-interest, but the individual text, often created in isolation, carries a great deal of weight. I have no desire to re-deify "The Author." We've rightly taken him off an unrealistic pedestal. We should be careful, however not to move too far in the opposite direction. I think that the past few years have demonstrated that while there are great possibilities in hypertext and collaborative authorship, what books and especially works of fiction, plays, and poems are trying to do has little to do with clickable links or choose-your-own-adventure. Sure, plenty of us would love the opportunity to participate in Tolkien's world, and there are now ways to do that, but how many of us want something different to happen when Frodo stands over the cracks of doom?

Wow! Good and learned comments all.

I also like the notion of the author-function, Tim. And, to dorkily extend the analogy, I like the idea of taking the integral of that function -- finding the area of all the people affected by it. (I know, I know, analogies are like soups.) But I find that more interesting than the function itself.

Going further -- I know this is just anecdotal, but isn't it funny how one of the primary applications of texts today is as 'social glue' between people? We joke that 'you may know me by the media I consume' and yet it's kinda true. And there is nothing like the connection you can instantly make with someone who's read & enjoyed the same book as you.

Maybe what I'm getting at is that the horizontal connections between readers of a text could be as important as the vertical connection between text and reader.

And indeed it's that big horizontal web -- necessarily larger than the vertical web (thank you geometry) -- that is the author's true product.

I have no idea if I actually believe that or not, but I am trying to divine if there might be something novel here and not just Foucault redux.

Actually -- that's only true of communities of four or more readers. I, er, just drew it out. I think Pythagoras would dig this theory of texts but he's probably the only one. Pretty silly.

However, I maintain that there's something new here.

Maybe in the future critics won't argue over texts but instead over communities of readers.

Yeah, I followed the digital maoism thread via Nicholas Carr.

I think Ben Vershbow's take is pretty distinct: It retains an individual author -- it's not just some wiki oversoul -- but changes our notion of that author's product.

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