What Is an Author?

MV5BMjEyNTcyMTUwNV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTYwNTc4ODQ2__V1__CR0,0,311,311_SS90_I greatly enjoyed last week’s exchange among colleagues Bruce Boyden, Ed Fallone, and Gordon Hylton regarding literary sequels and the general purposes of copyright law. It is my impression that most blog posts do not purport to be “scholarly,” but the posts by Boyden, Fallone, and Hylton had the length and depth necessary for that characterization.  I hated to see the exchange end. 

The exchange rekindled for me the intellectual question of how to best understand what an “author” is.  The notion of an “author” in modern western culture is a weighty one, carrying with it some sense of origination.  It connotes more than “writer,” which is a less prestigious characterization that goes primarily to a particular activity.  We customarily assume “authors” are intense and even tortured souls heroically working alone.  We also sometimes assume that their chief incentive must and should be monetary enrichment.  These assumptions grow out of dominant ideological prescriptions related to, respectively, autonomous individualism and the bourgeois market economy.

I think it is better to conceive of an “author” as socially constituted. 

This is obviously the case when two or more people write a work together or when manuscript reviewers, editors, or critics play major roles in the composition of a work.  In addition, according to cultural studies commentator Lucien Goldmann, we should recognize the manner in which a purported “author” belongs to a “collective subject.”  The “author” in this conceptualization not only consciously collaborates but also functions in a fundamentally trans-individual way.  He or she works in a set of social relations and draws on established forms, reigning sentiments, and anticipated responses. 

If we appreciate the way an “author” is socially constituted, we might actually enrich the experience of authorship.  As Ed Fallone reminded us in one his posts from last week, the rampant commodification of our era often has the effect of alienating a person from the fruits of his or her labor.  This is as true for a person who writes a novel (or a sequel . . .) as it is for somebody building a birdcage.  Indeed, many “authors” eventually become so alienated that they disavow their works or even urge the destruction of their unpublished manuscripts.  Recognizing the truly social in individual authorship can help protect the beauty, integrity, and empowerment of creative labor.

This Post Has 4 Comments

  1. Bruce Boyden

    For those who are interested (e.g. students), there’s been a lot of commentary in copyright scholarship in the last 20 years or so on the “romantic notion of an author” and the extent to which it is (a) true, and (b) has played a role in shaping current copyright law. One of the best pieces I’ve read on this subject focuses on the emergence of the modern concept in the 18th century: Mark Rose, Authors and Owners: The Invention of Copyright (1993).

    David, I think your penultimate paragraph is right on target and helps resolve what I consider to be a fascinating issue in copyright law, namely the test for determining when someone is a joint author. There’s language in one of the key cases in this area, Childress v. Taylor, that I think suggests exactly what you are saying: that the test for who’s an author when multiple people collaborate on a work depends in part on the socially defined roles of the people involved, and is not simply a test of who contributed what. Thus, absent extraordinary circumstances, editors are not authors, no matter how much they reshape the end product. (There’s a fascinating news story I like to cite here suggesting that Raymond Carver’s minimalism may in fact have been the product of his editor’s ruthless pruning. True or not, it highlights the issue.) As I see it, Judge Newman, a noted copyright expert on the 2nd Circuit, almost admits that the line is somewhat arbitrary, but concludes that the advantages of a rule here based on social practice outweigh those of a standard applied ex post facto by judges.

  2. Gordon Hylton

    This is another fascinating question from the realm of intellectual property. At the risk of side-tracking the primary discussion, I would like to comment on just one of David’s observations, that is,that “many ‘authors’ eventually become so alienated that they disavow their works or even urge the destruction of their unpublished manuscripts.”

    Across time, some of the greatest writers in the western tradition have reached this conclusion. Virgil left instructions to destroy the unfinished Aeneid (fortunately overruled by Augustus); Kafka left his unpublished writing to his friend Max Brod with instructions to destroy them (which Brod ignored); and Nabokov’s unfinished novel “The Original of Laura,” was not destroyed by his family as he requested at the time of his death in 1977, and will, at long last, be published some time this year.

    I suspect it was not alienation, but a case of unreasonable expectations regarding the quality of their own work that led these three and others like them (including the composers Schubert and Puccini) to opt for destruction over publication. (Of course, those expectations could be a manifestation of alienation.)

  3. David R. Papke

    Bruce: It seems that the formal copyright law has come up with a functional solution with regard to works in which people other than the “author” do a significant amount of the composing. However, as you admit, there is an arbitrariness to the solution. When the law gets around to rationalizing what it has done, it seems that this is exactly where the dominant ideology would come into play. What better place for the law to turn?

    Gordon: The instances you mention seem to me examples of “authors” becoming alienated from their work. They separated from it. They ceased to find themselves within it. My suggestion, echoing Ed Fallone, is that alienation from creative work is likely to increase in the context of advanced consumer capitalism, in which creative work is quickly and even brutally commodified.

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