What is authorship?
In order to return to the first time I thought of myself as an author, I first have to return to the first time I thought of myself as a reader—an event I remember distinctly. I first thought of myself as a reader when I found myself about halfway through Beverly Cleary’s Ramona the Pest, my first chapter book, and I knew I was going to be able to read the whole thing all on my own. Between my own joy in reading and the obvious pride of my parents, self-identifying as a reader quickly became an important part of my identity. I read every Ramona book I could get my hands on and then began reading anything else Beverly Cleary had ever written. My first-grade teacher thought I was anti-social; I just liked books better than other kids.
I picked up on the fact that books had authors pretty early on, although I have no explicit memory of suddenly understanding this concept. However, attention to authorship has always been my first choice in coordinating my reading. After leaving Beverly Cleary behind, I moved on to other reading materials that were sure bets: the Boxcar Children series by Gertrude Chandler Warner never disappointed me, and after that it was on to the Nancy Drew series, written by Carolyn Keene. Because these books were written by the same people about the same characters, I knew I could read them and I knew I would like them. At the time I didn’t know that Carolyn Keene was a pseudonym for several authors, but I did read every Nancy Drew book the local library could get me. At some point during that phase, someone told me that Carolyn Keene also wrote The Hardy Boys series under the pen name Franklin W. Dixon. While this was not the case (although it turned out not to be so far from the truth, either), it nevertheless began my interest in The Hardy Boys and I read hundreds of those titles in my late elementary-school years.
By seventh grade, I’d figured out the truth about Carolyn Keene and Franklin W. Dixon. Not surprisingly, then, I’d also begun to invest in the idea of collective authorship. Some friends introduced me to Star Wars, and as I became more a part of their group, I began to read extensively in the Star Wars Extended Universe. Although written by numerous authors, these books all maintain similar writing styles and hold true to a single, cohesive plotline. At some point, I made the connection that authors, too, have preferred writing and reading styles, and I learned to look up the authors of books that I liked to find out who they were reading. This led me to interests in Anne McCaffrey, Mercedes Lackey, and Robert Jordan, among others. My continuing interest in the bodies of authors’ works and my tendency to prefer series, where plotlines are complicated and character development is of vital importance, meant that I began to conceptualize an author as someone capable of building extremely complex fantasy worlds. Obviously, this set me up to fall hard for classics like Brave New World and 1984 as well as for recent cult crazes that manifest as book series, such as Harry Potter, Twilight, and The Hunger Games.
This ability to construct entire fictional worlds that go beyond the scope of a single book has often been the defining difference between a writer and an author in my mind. The term author has always struck me as having a more deep-reaching and independent connotation, while the term writer perhaps indicates more of an ability to reflect familiar contexts for short durations. Writers reflect; authors create. This distinction, which is certainly one I would like to problematize, seems to suggest that scholars are most often writers and fantasy/fiction creators are most often authors. Interestingly, I also associate the image of the isolated genius with the term writer rather than with author, which contradicts my previous understanding of a writer as a reflective person and an author as an isolated creator. Perhaps the real issue is one of hierarchy; I seem to invest more social capital with the term writer: Writers, to me, are isolated geniuses who do important cultural work, while authors are the creators of the escapist works that were a huge influence on my young life.
This analysis begs the question: How do I situate myself between these terms? The answer comes surprisingly easily. I’m a writer, not an author. Initially, this realization embarrassed me. Who am I to call myself a writer, right after I’ve determined that writers are more socially responsible than authors? But if I could choose to call myself an author, instead, I would. The reason I don’t—the reason I can’t—is because to be an author seems to require some creative spark and some sustained talent that I don’t feel comfortable claiming. I’ve written lots of things—newspaper articles, columns, and editorials, term papers, technical pieces, brochures, and more—but I haven’t authored anything. I haven’t produced anything that required serious consideration of continuity over a long work. I haven’t produced anything independent or terribly deep in a literary sense. I have been a writer, but I have not yet achieved the things that would let me lay claim to the title of author. In this, then, I have to figure out how to theorize a sort of reversal. If the terms writer and author are indicative of a hierarchy, how is that hierarchy really situated?
Perhaps hierarchy is the wrong way to be thinking of the relationship between these two words. After all, writing/authoring is all about relationships; maybe a superior/inferior relationship is not the way to theorize a difference between an author and a writer. Perhaps the difference between the terms is really about relationships with audiences. But suggesting that popular works are authored and academic works are written doesn’t seem right, either. For one thing, I’ve certainly felt like an author at times when constructing scholarly texts. Most often, the texts that made me feel like an author are the texts that I’ve invested the most time and (metaphorical) blood and sweat in. But feeling like an author doesn’t necessarily negate my feeling like a writer, which leads me to believe that writer is simply the broader term. As the subject I really want to explore is contested authorship, perhaps examples of contested authorship might elaborate this point.
The first that sprang to mind is the example of James Frey and A Million Little Pieces, and I found myself trying to remember if news reports referred to him as an author or a writer before he was named a fraud. Lacking that kind of memory, I turned to another repository of public knowledge—the oft-demonized (based on collective, contested authorship) Wikipedia. And the results are fascinating. Wikipedia tells me that Frey is a writer. But a search on Anne McCaffrey designates her as an author. And Suzanne Collins is a “television writer and author.” Perhaps, then, my feelings on authors and writers are the subconscious result of social cues; the title of writer is one that is easier to retain, while the title of author implies some sort of elite status and maybe even some level of social approval.
Another example of contested authorship that is dear to my heart lies in the Star Wars Expanded Universe. Although it’s been years since I’ve read extensively in this series, I still check out fan sites from time to time. Recently, I’ve become interested in the development of the franchise, and that’s when I discovered the difference between George Lucas’s Star Wars Universe and the Expanded Universe. Apparently, George Lucas (through LucasFilm Ltd) authorizes books published in the Expanded Universe, but he maintains the right to continue to publish his own storyline. This means that the adventures of the well-known characters of Lucas’s original Star Wars could eventually be described in two different, conflicting storylines. Essentially, this relegates authors in the Expanded Universe to secondary status—much like fan fiction writers/authors—as any plot that Lucas publishes will be labeled the true story by the true author. Nevertheless, this reality hasn’t kept fans—or LucasFilm officials—from labeling Expanded Universe producers as authors. Although their authorship is clearly secondary, they do retain that authorship.
These examples lead me to my new theory on authorship, and this is likely the theory that I will interrogate throughout this course: Authorship is about recognition of something larger; it’s about adhering to cultural patterns and expectations that go beyond oneself or one single work. The fact that authorship is so invested in cultural patterns and expectations—that fact that it depends on relationships to other works and other people—means that it effects the world in a very direct way. It changes the way people think and act. This great power is why people invest so much energy in elevating authors to an almost mystical level; it’s also why people are so eager to be—and so emotionally invested in being—gatekeepers for authorship.
The anger directed at those who violate the conventions of authorship makes something else apparent, and it’s something unsurprising given authorship’s reliance on relationships, cultural expectations, and gatekeeping functions: Authorship creates community. Although my initial reaction, brought about from years of experience as a reader, was that authorship is about creating and sustaining complex fictional worlds, I have often overlooked the real-world effects of my own participation in those fictional places. Even over the course of this narrative, I have mentioned several spaces in which authorship takes on the complexities associated with a community of people with like interests: fan fiction, wikis as sources of knowledge, even cliques in junior high. Authorship creates and sustains these opportunities.
With the rise of such a community, authorship undergoes some transformations. In some ways, it is diluted as people who were not the original authors of the work step forward to take different sorts of responsibilities for the work’s life as it extends beyond the original author. Examples of this include fan clubs, book clubs, fan fiction, themed websites, and so on. But at the same time, the authorship of the original creator of the work is reaffirmed and sustained as the author is cast as a sort of isolated genius, and often this status is solidified as fans anticipate future works by the author. In a very real way, then, an author who is successful in recognizing larger cultural patterns and expectations and creating a work that resonates with them creates not only a written work but also a variety of real communities.
The contestation of authorship after such communities are created is so fascinating and provoking because these communities retain a place of reverence for the author. If an author is contested in some way, that place of reverence may become either a subject of strife or a very real void. The basis for the community—a place that has been the object of much love and commitment—has been yanked away, leaving readers/fans/community members feeling cheated. In this way, the much-theorized death of the author remains a myth. If the author did not matter beyond the production of the text, then contested authorship would not engender the anger and outrage that we have seen it cause time and again. The strife resulting from cases of contested authorship also reaffirms the idea that authorship is about recognition of something larger than oneself; when someone invested with authorship—someone who has proven themselves aware of cultural patterns and expectations in a big way—violates the rules of authorship, that violation ruptures the fabric of the community that authorship created. This, then, is a final difference between a writer and an author: An author has a responsibility to sustain the communities that his or her works have generated.