Research and papers
- Follow Erin A. Frost on WordPress.com
Find me on LinkedIn
Themesaccess activism authorship bodies class composition composition&rhetoric criminal justice culture digital rhetorics disability efficiency feminisms gaming gender girls health hypertext identity journalism medical rhetoric methodologies methods pedagogy race race+rhetoric+technology reproduction research rhetorics of risk science sexuality technical communication technology visible rhetoric women
Tag Archives: authorship
Posted on October 24, 2012
A re-post from the Chronicle. (The photo at left is from the Chronicle as well.) This article discusses “the largest analysis ever done of academic articles by gender, reaching across hundreds of years and hundreds of fields.” Researchers looked at a data sample that stretched across 345 years and found that 22 percent of authors were female. It also examined other criteria, such as the frequency of women being listed as first author and how publishing connects to getting jobs. Go the full article by clicking this link: http://chronicle.com/article/The-Hard-Numbers-Behind/135236/?cid=gs&utm_source=gs&utm_medium=en
Posted on May 19, 2012
Some time ago, I talked about assigning a project in my rhetoric class that required students to look at historical figures in the field of rhetoric and to construct some sort of timeline (or anti-timeline, to resist chronological ordering) showing which figures they believe are most important to survey-of-rhetoric type endeavors and what the relationships between those figures are. This came after we read several historiographic pieces (especially focusing on Aspasia), so students were purposefully engaging in historiography in this project.
They came up with some really awesome stuff. Continue reading →
Posted on November 3, 2010
The following paper was my midterm exam for a class on contested authorship. I thought the subject (which my professor chose) was fascinating. I usually try to avoid posting controversial things about people who are still “out there,” but I thought this was a worthwhile endeavor in thinking about why we cast blame where we do and how we might think differently.
When the story of a climate science plagiarism scandal recently broke into mainstream media via USA Today’s ScienceFair blog, it did so under the headline “University investigating prominent science climate critic” (Vergano). This story refers to the offending document as the “Wegman report” throughout, as do other sites reporting on the incident (Vergano; Littlemore; “Wegman Plagiarism Scandal Heating up”; Grinzo). In fact, this document—officially titled the Ad Hoc Committee Report on the ‘Hockey Stick’ Global Climate Reconstruction—is uniformly referred to as the Wegman report, and all the sources I reviewed attributed the authorship of the piece to Dr. Edward Wegman of George Mason University. All this, despite the fact that “This report was authored by Edward J. Wegman, George Mason University, David W. Scott, Rice University, and Yasmin H. Said, The Johns Hopkins University” (Wegman, Scott, Said 1). Thus, the contested nature of the authorship of this document is clear upon even a cursory examination. (It is worth noting that I will refer to the document that spawned this controversy as Wegman, Scott, and Said’s report, in order to acknowledge all listed authors.) In the following pages, I will demonstrate how this text has been taken up in terms of originality, autonomy, ownership, morality, credit, and identity. I will also show how these tenets, in relation to authorship, are moving issues of plagiarism from institutional and disciplinary arenas to cultural and legal ones, which has implications for the larger scope of how we think about authorship today.
As our course readings have suggested, the historical trend of Western societies in the last few centuries has been toward individual authorship rights that equate texts to property (Rose; Woodmansee and Jaszi; Howard). In addition, we have seen that plagiarism is often described within the framework of a theft metaphor (Robillard). It is perhaps unsurprising, then, that one of the comments recorded by Vergano in the USA Today story comes from Raymond Bradley, who wrote the book (Paleoclimatology: Reconstructing Climates of the Quaternary) that Wegman is accused of plagiarizing. Bradley said—twice, in the space of just three sentences—that his work had been “lifted.” Lifting, in the context Bradley is using it, stands in for stealing, as in shoplifting. Stealing is a moral issue, and Bradley is appealing to the general public, making this an issue of what a particular culture deems acceptable. In other words, Bradley is appealing to a cultural sense of ownership of texts; he is telling readers of USA Today that Wegman stole his intellectual property. (This point is mapped onto section D3 of the chart in Appendix A.)
Ownership goes hand-in-hand with credit. As discussed above, the credit for authorship of the report—as put forth by the report itself—should (based on standard scholarly convention) go to Wegman, Scott, and Said. Nevertheless, everyone talking about the report online seems to insist on calling the Wegman, Scott, and Said text “the Wegman report.” Even John R. Mashey, who authored the follow-up report that raised concerns of plagiarism in the Wegman, Scott, and Said report, refers to that document as the “Wegman Report” in his very first sentence. Mashey uses the term in quotation marks, clearly aware that Wegman is not the sole author—as evidenced by his naming all three authors before the end of the same sentence—but just as clearly aware of the importance of referring to the report by its name in popular culture. This evidences the importance, both in academic and popular culture, of attributing credit—authorship—in particular ways. (This point is mapped onto section D5 of the chart in Appendix A.)
In fact, credit is popularly seen as a moral issue. Bradley, along with reporters on the case, framed plagiarism as a situation with a transgressor and a victim; the transgressor, then, is the immoral criminal. Bradley wrote a letter to Wegman’s institution, George Mason University, “demanding an investigation” of the report in question. GMU spokesman Daniel Walsch and the university’s misconduct policy both affirmed this rhetoric in the USA Today article, using judicial terms including “inquiry,” “misconduct,” “allegation,” and “investigation.” The “Wegman Plagiarism Scandal Heating up” article refers to “the depths to which Edward Wegman stooped,” “circumstantial evidence,” and “integrity.” Littlemore talks about “manipulation” and suggests that “it is reasonable to ask whether Barton, Wegman, et al., are guilty of misleading Congress, a felony offense” (emphasis mine). It is clear that Bradley and these reporters (I use the term loosely, to include independent and anonymous bloggers) are working within and capitalizing on an understanding of plagiarism as a moral issue, to the point of literally criminalizing it. This foregrounds a move from cultural condemnation to legal repercussions, shown especially by Littlemore’s reference to a possible felony offense as defined by the U.S. judicial system. (These points are mapped onto section D4 and E4 of the chart in Appendix A.)
But official sanctions in regard to Wegman’s plagiarism may also be taken at the institutional level. While it was Mashey who first suggested legal implications (33), it was George Mason University that took up this rhetoric and put the term “investigation” into the mainstream USA Today article. In the article, Walsch said the incident is “under a formal investigation by the university, and has moved past a preliminary ‘inquiry’ to a committee effort.” Walsch also explained that GMU is dealing with the situation under protocols from the school’s misconduct policy, which certainly frames the issue as a moral one. The implication, of course, is that GMU will pass a moral judgment and will subsequently either absolve or punish Wegman. (This point is mapped onto section B4 of the chart in Appendix A.)
Originality and autonomy are perhaps constituent pieces of anti-plagiarism arguments based on morality. Originality, especially, is an important part of the cultural makeup we assign to our identities as Americans. In the USA Today article, Bradley said, “Talk about irony. It just seems surreal (that) these authors could criticize my work when they are lifting my words.” In other words, Bradley finds it especially insulting to his own sense of authorship that others calling themselves authors would not only take his words, but use those words against him. Bradley is annoyed that someone who would so confrontationally criticize his work would also “lift” it—thereby paying it an inherent compliment—which, in Bradley’s eyes, undercuts the criticism. If another author is going to criticize Bradley’s work, he seems to say, they should at least possess the originality to do it in their own words. (This point is mapped onto section D1 of the chart in Appendix A.)
Furthermore, in reappropriating words without attribution, the plagiarist(s) complicated his/their “victim’s” autonomy. Bradley’s words were no longer saying what he intended them to say; his work was violently co-opted. This could be thought of as a sort of silencing; should this go unpunished, writers/scholars might fear that any words they write will be twisted back on themselves. This result of such a belief might be a cultural silencing of scholarship. Interestingly, the usual reaction to plagiarism is to reduce the autonomy of the accused plagiarist—in this case, Wegman—in an attempt to restore the autonomy of the “victims” of plagiarism. Historically, we have seen that charges of plagiarism can result in intellectuals losing tenure and other memberships in scholarly communities. This results in difficulty in publishing, speaking, and generally in being heard. It takes away the autonomy of the accused plagiarist. (This point is mapped onto section D2 of the chart in Appendix A.)
Scholarly and cultural identity arise as important issues when considering the implications of the scandal for Wegman’s career, whether or not he is ultimately found to be “guilty” by any official institutions. It quickly becomes clear that the use of hyperlinks in USA Today story cements Wegman as the “real” author. (This point is mapped onto section D6 of the chart in Appendix A.) The first time Wegman is mentioned is in this context: “In 2006, GMU statistics professor, Edward Wegman, spearheaded a Congressional committee report critical of scientists’ reconstructions of past climate conditions . . . ” (hyperlinks from original purposely maintained). The issue of eliding the report’s collective scholarship comes up again here, since both of the hyperlinks shown in the quote above lead to Wegman’s biography page. In fact, Scott and Said are not named in the story, and their names do not come up as a result of any of the hyperlinks in the story—with one exception. (Interestingly, the “Wegman report” itself is not hyperlinked to the story.) That exception comes with the linked text “plagiarism and misconduct charge” in the story’s first sentence, which goes directly to a PDF file of Mashey’s critical report on the Wegman, Scott, and Said report. As mentioned above, it is clear that Mashey has a handle on the actual authorship of the piece. Other than this exception, the ways that hyperlinks are used in this article paints a picture of a lone scholar whose authorship is the only authorship being contested.
This hyperlink to Mashey’s report is also an important move because it essentially frames Mashey as the precipitator of the entire scandal. Since Mashey published this report on the anonymously authored Deep Climate blog, we can read that it was intended for a discinplinary audience. Not surprisingly, much of what Mashey does in the first few pages of his report depends on scholarly/disciplinary conventions of authorship. Indeed, Mashey makes some interesting rhetorical choices in terms of constructing authorship, and part of his analysis of the Wegman, Scott, and Said report puts a fascinating new spin on the entire situation. In the second paragraph of the 250-page Strange Scholarship in the Wegman Report: A Façade for the Climate Anti-Science PR Campaign, Mashey gets to the heart of the authorship issue:
Much of the work was done by Said (then less than 1 year post-PhD) and by students several years pre-PhD. The (distinguished) 2nd author Scott wrote only a 3-page standard mathematical Appendix. Some commenters were surprised to be later named as serious reviewers. Comments were often ignored anyway. People were misused. (Mashey 1)
Rather than forgetting or ignoring Scott and Said’s authorship, as does nearly everyone else discussing the case, Mashey delves right into directly addressing whose authorship is at stake. He also contests the authorship of others involved in the report in new ways. He begins by noting that Said had not had her PhD for very long at the time the report was published, with the unstated implication that this undermines the credibility of the report. He then says that a number of students who did not yet have PhDs were majorly involved in the writing of the report, again intimating that the report’s real authors were not excellent scholars. Mashey flips the usual scenario, contesting the authorship of the report by affirming the authorship—but not the credibility—of those who are unnamed or not named first in the report’s byline. (This point is mapped onto section C5 of the chart in Appendix A.)
Next, in an intriguing twist, Mashey goes on to somewhat absolve Scott by saying that Scott only wrote a small part of the offending report, and even describes Scott as “distinguished” in a parenthetical aside. Ironically, Mashey is contesting Scott’s authorship and, in so doing, promoting a view of Scott as moral, as innocent, as a victim of others’ failings. (This point is mapped onto section C4 of the chart in Appendix A.) In the same vein, Mashey points out that others were duped along with Scott; these people were not expecting to have their names attached to this report; they were not expecting to be invested with the responsibility that comes with authorship. The final, stark sentence in this paragraph—“People were misused”—makes it clear that Mashey is casting a moral judgment on those who flouted disciplinary convention and tricked Scott, the reviewers, and the readers of this report.
But Mashey is not the only one to address issues of authorship even within the primary texts associated with this scandal. In fact, Wegman, Scott, and Said were the first to contest the authorship of others, and they did so in the very text of the Ad Hoc Committee Report on the ‘hockey Stick’ Global Climate Reconstruction. On page 5, the authors give four recommendations, the second of which includes a call for “a more comprehensive and concise policy on disclosure” related to federally funded research. (In an aside, they also reference “intellectual property” in this paragraph, thereby drawing upon the property/theft metaphor previously explored.) This may be intimating at bias on the parts of the scholars whose work Wegman, Scott, and Said are refuting.
The scholars Wegman, Scott, and Said are preparing to undermine most notably include Dr. Michael Mann, Dr. Raymond Bradley (the same Raymond Bradley from whose work this report allegedly plagiarized), and Dr. Malcolm Hughes. On page 7, Wegman, Scott, and Said explain that letters were sent to Mann, Bradley, and Hughes about their work prior to the formation of the Ad Hoc Committee. The content of these letters is not explained, but Wegman, Scott, and Said do note that Mann’s response demonstrated “a confrontational tone” (7). They go on to blatantly cast doubt on the credibility of Mann, Bradley, and Hughes by including in the report a section entitled “Requests to Drs. Mann, Bradley, and Hughes” (8). These “requests”—which include curriculum vitae, disclosures of financial support and political agreements, location of data, and explanation for refusing to admit study results to the public domain—are a clear attempt to suggest these authors were not qualified to do the work they did (8). The combination of Wegman, Scott, and Said’s attack on Mann’s tone in personal communications and attacks on the scholarly identities of all three researchers represents a rather violent case of contested authorship. (This point is mapped onto section C6 of the chart in Appendix A.) At this point, it has become extremely clear that layers upon layers of contested authorship are at work in the situation involving the so-called “Wegman report.”
In the opening of this essay, I described how popular culture has taken up the issue of plagiarism in the Wegman, Scott, and Said report as a reflection on the authorship and credibility of only the first-named author. This move to make Wegman responsible for authorship of the Wegman, Scott, and Said report is perhaps a reflection of a cultural desire to move toward authorship rights that make texts the same as property. Such a move would allow us, as a society, to firmly assign responsibility for texts—that responsibility being either praise or blame, as necessary—without worrying about the complications of remixing or of collaborative authorship that are, in reality, the way texts are composed.
Whatever the reason for the privileging of Wegman’s authorship over Scott and Said’s, this situation foregrounds an ironic reversal. To use the language of the popular metaphor, the authors of the report stole Bradley’s work so that they might receive more credit for being groundbreaking writers and researchers. Wegman allowed himself, as first author, to be invested with sole cultural authorship of the text. Now that the report has been exposed as a product of plagiarism, it’s entirely likely that Wegman would like a little less of the authorship he has been invested with. The very sense of authorship that once set him up as an authority now brands him as a plagiarist.
Another ironic reversal comes with the mainstreaming of this story. In “Wegman Plagiarism Scandal Heating up,” the anonymous author notes that “the ScienceFair blog at USA Today has posted on it, so it’s probably going to reach ‘mainstream’ status soon.” This mainstream status adds another layer (or more) of authorship questions to the situation. For example, much of this essay has focused on how online reporters have taken up the issue. In addition, mainstreaming casts the entire event in a new light because of the additional effects of major public attention. I return to Bradley’s use of the theft metaphor, when he said his work had been “lifted,” as an example. If we think about this wording as a body metaphor, in the tradition of George Lakoff’s work, we find a new perspective. Lifting involves elevating something to a higher place, which, it seems, is what Wegman has done for Bradley’s work. In addition to invoking “lifting” as in stealing, Bradley may as well have meant it as in the bodily derived metaphor of elevating. Given the story’s growing cultural capital in national media now, one might think Wegman did Bradley a favor by gaining public attention for his work. Bradley will no doubt gain fame—and perhaps even fortune—as a result of the “Wegman report” scandal. Wegman, meanwhile, will likely carry the stigma of plagiarism, by himself—for no one except me is calling it the Wegman, Scott, and Said report—for the rest of his academic life. The shift that invests Wegman as sole author and the visible concentration (in the chart in Appendix A) of authorship issues in the cultural realm suggest a movement within modern Western society to a high valuing of individual authorship. I suggest that this movement begins in the public sphere and is now echoing in institutional and disciplinary areas, as shown by the Wegman scandal.
Bradley, Raymond S. Paleoclimatology Reconstructing Climates of the Quaternary. Amsterdam, u.a.: Elsevier, 2008. Print.
Grinzo, Lou. “The Wegman Report.” The Cost of Energy. 8 Oct. 2010. Web. 16 Oct. 2010. <http://www.grinzo.com/energy/index.php/2010/10/08/the-wegman-report/>.
Howard, Rebecca Moore. Standing in the Shadow of Giants: Plagiarists, Authors, Collaborators. Stamford, CT: Ablex Pub., 1999. Print.
Lakoff, George. The Political Mind: Why You Can’t Understand 21st-century Politics with an 18th-century Brain. New York: Viking, 2008. Print.
Littlemore, Richard. “Wegman’s Report Highly Politicized – and Fatally Flawed.” DeSmogBlog | Clearing the PR Pollution That Clouds Climate Science. Kevin Grandia, 8 Feb. 2010. Web. 15 Oct. 2010. <http://www.desmogblog.com/wegmans-report-highly-politicized-and-fatally-flawed>.
Mashey, John R. Strange Scholarship in the Wegman Report: A Façade for the Climate Anti-Science PR Campaign. Report. Vol. 1. Deep Climate: Exploring Climate Science Disinformation in Canada, Sept. 26 2010. < http://deepclimate.files.wordpress.com/2010/09/strange-scholarship-v1-02.pdf >.
Robillard, Amy. “Pass It On: Revising the Plagiarism Is Theft Metaphor.” JAC 29.1-2 (2009): 405-35. Print.
Rose, Mark. Authors and Owners: the Invention of Copyright. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1993. Print.
Vergano, Dan. “University Investigating Prominent Climate Science Critic – Science Fair: Science and Space News – USATODAY.com.” News, Travel, Weather, Entertainment, Sports, Technology, U.S. & World – USATODAY.com. 8 Oct. 2010. Web. 13 Oct. 2010. <http://content.usatoday.com/communities/sciencefair/post/2010/10/wegman-plagiarism-investigation-/1>.
Wegman, Edward J., David W. Scott, and Yasmin H. Said. Ad Hoc Committee Report on the ‘hockey Stick’ Global Climate Reconstruction. Washington, DC: United States House Committee on Energy and Commerce, 2006. Print.
“Wegman Plagiarism Scandal Heating up.” The Way Things Break. 8 Oct. 2010. Web. 14 Oct. 2010. <http://thingsbreak.wordpress.com/2010/10/08/wegman-plagiarism-scandal-heating-up/>.
Woodmansee, Martha, and Peter Jaszi. The Construction of Authorship: Textual Appropriation in Law and Literature. Durham: Duke UP, 1994. Print.
Posted on October 2, 2010
Notes–just some passages of interest–from the following book chapter:
Casarino, Cesare. “Can the Subaltern Confess? Pasolini, Gramsci, Foucault, and the Deployment of Sexuality.” The Rhetoric of Sincerity. By Ernst Van. Alphen, Mieke Bal, and C. E. Smith. Stanford, CA: Stanford UP, 2009. 121-43. Print.
These passages resonate with me somewhere between my interests in the socialization of sexuality and issues of authorship and sincerity. I’m still working out how, but maybe putting these pulled quotes in close proximity to one another will show some themes.
- Casarino suggests that “sincerity is the standard both of itself and of insincerity” (121). That is, one cannot define insincerity without first defining sincerity.
- He also posits that there are three types of sincerity – sincerity, insincerity, and real sincerity (meaning it exists in an encounter with the real) (122).
- Casarino surveys “the nexus of relations binding confession, sexuality, and subalternity–a nexus that, as I will try to show, presupposes a definition of sincerity as production of truth” (122).
- Casarino looks at Pier Paolo Pasolini’s documentary Love Meetings (based in Italy), Foucault’s review of that film, Foucault’s The History of Sexuality, and Antonio Bramsci’s essay “The Southern Question” (again, in relation to Italy). The documentary consists of Pasolini questioning people he meets in public places about sexuality, often answering for them when they hesitate. Casarino notes that Pasolini “want(s) to extract the ‘logical’ truth from the interviewees, but that, in reality, one will have to settle for less, namely, ‘at least psychological truth,’ or in other words, at least a part if not the whole” (125-126). The subjects of Love Meetings were subaltern–“Either Southerners or children, or both” (127-8).
- The documentary is non-confessional because it is not used “in orer to reveal–either in words or in bodies–that hidden truth of sex which is hidden by necessity and by definition. He uses it, rather, in order to plunge into that gaping abyss between words and bodies which opens up as soon as the physical presence, tactile behavior, bodily movements, facial expressions, or affective registers of the interviewees express a truth that can neither be hidden nor be revealed, a truth that can neither be affirmed nor be denied from the standpoint of confession” (127).
- Casarino says, The History of Sexuality “turns confession into nothing short of an infectious pandemic” (130).
- “For laughter, of course, is often one of the most powerful weapons available to subalterns of all sorts” (141).
- “It is almost as if Pasolini is trying to convince the poor children of the Southern slums that he is much more like them than like those two boring old farts. It is almost as if he is attempting to strike a secret alliance with those subaltern subjects as well as to disavow any allegiance with the pontificating adult representatives of the intellectual bourgeoisie” (142-3)
- “The former (the children) do not really care what words they speak, and hence their bodies can enact and display a sublime inaptitude to confess. This inaptitude points to other pleasures, other sincerities, and other truths–and puts them all beyond our reach” (143). (this is the conclusion of the essay)
Posted on September 22, 2010
Every once in a while I get nostalgic for the days when I worked as a reporter. Today is one of those days, because I’ve found several national news stories today that shocked me. These are stories that I know I could have written much better. In fact, the problems with these stories make me pretty angry.
The first was this CNN story about the @pigspotter Twitterer. Essentially, a South African is posting warnings of speed traps for motorists on Twitter and the police have sued him. Content aside, I want to know when it became common practice for journalists to use the word “cops” to refer to police. I recognize that no language is neutral, but “police” is the accepted term for journalists. You’ll notice that even @pigspotter uses the term “police” in all his correspondence with CNN (although he uses other terms, like “cops” in his tweets), but this journalist chose to use “cops” three times of her own volition, outside of quotes or paraphrased material. The screenshots below record this usage, even if CNN updates it. (Note the caption on the photo, which may have been written by the journalist or by an editor. The bottom image has two instances of the word “cop.”)
This is not a regional/cultural thing, because one of those references was to Florida police and the story has no dateline, indicating that it’s U.S.-based. So, what’s the deal? Are journalists with national audiences just not required to be aware of their language and its effects?
Another example, in “Supreme Court Won’t Stop Execution of Virginia Woman” … when did it become acceptable to refer to women by their first names and men by their last names? This is a major credibility issue. As Amy Robillard asserts in her College English article “Young Scholars Affecting Composition: A Challenge to Disciplinary Citation Practices,” the usage of first names seriously reduces the respect given the person named. Granted, this woman is a death row inmate. But … she’s also a death row inmate for conspiring in a murder that two men actually committed (and neither of them received the death penalty). I’m not saying she’s not an awful person … but she’s still as much a person as her two co-conspirators, and they’re referred to by last name on second reference. She’s still as much of a person as any other criminal ever reported on, and they are always (according to AP style) referred to by last name on second reference. Check out this direct quote from the article, which I’ve included as a screenshot because I anticipate that CNN will revise the story:
Even though this was no doubt an unintentional slip, it still showcases the mental processes used by CNN staff to classify women differently than men.
Posted on September 1, 2010
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.