“Collaboration and Concepts of Authorship” by M. T. Inge

Accept that the idea of a single author is simply no longer viable. Boom. Do not question this! Inge barks loudly about this which makes me, a writer, more than a little annoyed. Why? Inge insists authors are not individual creators in our modern digital world. Instead, texts are the culmination of many discourses: the environment(s) in which writing happens, the writer’s mental state and pressures upon that writer, and the reader/audience expected to get/consume the final print version. (623) No writing can escape the influences that created it, Inge’s claim to which I concur. Everything is “socially constructed” indeed. (623)

We’ve said for eons that writers must write what they know. Inge is taking it a step further by saying that we must remember that no one lives in a vacuum, so that anything written must be considered within the light of culture and social aspects it was formed, from the ether to a concrete set of words, phrases, sentences and paragraphs. Inge continues by reminding us that society’s “rank commercialism” (623) means that our system of publishing means that “mediation and compromise” is still inherently part and parcel of the process.
As a Melville fan, I was intrigued how he first used Melville as an example of an author who fits the American myth of “the author as solitary genius” (623) because he wrote what he wanted to, rather than to write for the readers of his era. Only a few writers have written for themselves and besides Melville, Inge claims that Kafka and Dickinson are great examples but they are exceptions to the rule. Most writers prefer to be part of the process, they want to be involved, which made me think of the popularity of booksigning events at places like B&N.
The idea of owning a text, saying hey, I wrote that, I claim that, is relatively a recent concept. Inge refers to how we don’t know who wrote plays in 17th century England, or the Illiad. (624) Plays were meant to be adapted, not frozen in historical time. He is trying to show that most of the time someone has stood between the author and his audience in the form of a reviser, mediator, etc. The development of moveable type, simply added another role to that list, that of a printer who acted as editor, typesetter, and promoter. Typefaces became standardized which established grammar and spelling rules which begat new technologies which further complicated the collaborative process. In short, the publishing process is a pool of “many negotiations and compromises.” (625) He makes a crucial distinction which I appreciated and re-read several times to let it sink in: “The publishing process is not the same as a collaboration between two or more authors in the writing of a book, but it is a collaboration that involves many people with various degrees of influence on the finished text.” (625) Inge cites the examples of Keats, Coleridge, and Eliot whose writings are considered classics, yet they all used collaboration of some sort. However, the idea of joint authorship simply won’t be accepted as long as critics require a work to be the result of a single mind. (625)
How interesting it was to discover that one of the most iconic literary voices of the 20-century American literature, F. Scott Fitzgerald, relied heavily on the help of editor Maxwell Perkins. Fitzgerald said an editor didn’t add to a book but is like a handmaiden to an author. (626) I was surprised to read that Fitzgerald apparently wasn’t great at punctuation or spelling so his editors (Perkins et al.) fixed a lot of the text. I am amazed at how much influence editors have, a fact that both concerns and comforts me as a writer myself.
The addition of topics such as film and media and culture during the last decades of the 20th century simply enlarged this idea of collaboration. Auteur theory, the film studies version of the solitary genius idea (628) simply took the study of themes and symbols and applied them to broader cultural genres. The last art form added was that of comics, of which I have no interest. However, I see that Inge mentions it to further show his point about how collaboration is at the heart of creative works, whether it’s on paper or on film. In fact, just as few writers like Melville were solitary souls, so was Charles M. Schultz, creator and sole artist for the iconic Peanuts comic strip. Again, Inge states Schultz was but a rare exception to the rule. In short, collaboration is the “order of the day.” (629)
Inge is asking us to consider collaboration in a broader sense, not just saying two or more people involved, but saying anytime “another hand enters into an effort.” (629) Therefore, even with his own published efforts, he does not claim sole ownership, even when only his name is given. The bigger picture for Inge is that we should not downgrade authors for compromising according to whatever forces are at play in their setting. (630)
Inge opines that if we just step back and allow a broader view of authorship, we can be more realistic in how we read literature.
Inge, M. Thomas. “Collaboration and Concepts of Authorship”. PMLA 116.3 (2001): 623–630. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/463502
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