Originally published on Medium.com.
Authorship is not quite dead: the concept remains deep-seated in Western culture. However, alternatives with a focus on participative writing are becoming increasingly common in literary and business contexts, thereby starting to discredit this peculiar form of individualism. Is participation just more fun?
When we think of an author, we think of creative process, individual ownership of a unique idea, and the copyright law protecting the originality of that craft. The common narrative of authorship is meant to involve not more than one (struggling) artist, for the path to beauty is inevitably solitary. The resulting bond between the author and her text is indissoluble. Yet authorship is a recent concept, not a universal truth; it results from historical, cultural, and economic conjunctures related to Western capitalism, bourgeois culture, and patriarchy. In other words, it is relative, whereas writing can perhaps be seen entirely differently.
Authorship is a recent invention
The Oxford English Dictionary recognized authorship back in 1710. Before then, the term did not exist, although the idea had been developing for centuries before. In the Middle Ages, storytelling was oral. Instead of readers, there were hearers; discourses and contributions were mostly anonymous. Then, letter writing became a skill, a profession. Moreover, with the print revolution and the advent of copyright law, the ideas of individual authenticity became more rooted in society. When capitalism established itself as a cultural and economic view, individualism and bourgeois culture affirmed themselves, thereby cultivating the ideal ground for the blossoming of authorship. That’s when critics started to emphasize the creative project as an individual enterprise.
However, isn’t writing often a collaborative endeavor where external influences don’t appear in the records?
Think of how a book is conceived and produced: it rarely results from the work of one person alone. First, there is the research, for which the author often seeks external support; indeed, real life is frequently used as inspiration (this reminds me, for instance, of how straightforwardly Truman Capote turned his network of friends into literary material), though some solitary writing might still take place. Next, the copy will be revised, reworked, and edited several times before it’s ready to be published. More and more people intervene in its creation, even though the work appears under just one name.
Ghostwriting is the counterpart to authorship; in fact, it can represent the sublime prerequisite of its existence, for a ghostwriter creates an author. If the idea of authorship hadn’t become so powerful in defining the legacy of a public person, the ghostwriter wouldn’t have a reason to exist. However, as occasional transparency infiltrates the ghostwriting world through open acknowledgments of their contribution, unprecedented light is shed on the intrinsic collaborative nature of writing a book on behalf of somebody else. Admitting the existence of a ghostwriter defeats the purpose of having one, critics retort. Readership is as culturally biased as authorship, and it craves for one unique voice, not a multiplicity of voices.
Winners and losers of traditional authorship
Of course, plots don’t unfold that easily. If authorship appears to be persisting regardless, it is also because it protects the agency of the artist and her intellectual property. Writers across the globe claim their right to authorship; likewise, authors from minoritized groups attempt to penetrate the publishing industry and obtain artistic legacy. Just because (white male?) postmodern scholars have decided to deconstruct the concept shouldn’t mean that other groups should not leverage authorship as a tool for empowerment. To this extent, authorship carries a political dimension worth defending.
Yet the truth is that few writers can live off their creative efforts, no matter the community they belong to or their political agenda. Often, successful authors benefit from the recognition they have gained within their main professional field. Celebrity authors are a minority. Some enjoy their status, while others, like Elena Ferrante, have been trying to escape the limelight for decades. In a 2015 interview with The Paris Review, she remarks:
“I’m still very interested in testifying against the self-promotion obsessively imposed by the media. This demand for self-promotion diminishes the actual work in every sector of human activity, and it has become universal. The media simply can’t discuss an artwork unless it can point to some protagonist behind it. And yet there is no work of literature that is not the fruit of tradition, of many skills, of a sort of collective intelligence.”E. Ferrante
Within late capitalism, authorship ends up being caught in systems of privilege and inequality. Digitalization has seen the decline of hard copy sales. Publishers do not support writers with marketing the way they used to. Freelance bidding platforms show the extent to which rates for writers have sunken—and competition is high. Add to this that the self-publishing machine undergoes massive piracy, thereby reducing the chances of unknown writers making money from publication. In addition, the amount of free and relatively high quality content available online is discouraging readers from paying for the words they consume. Not to mention the real legal issue of plagiarism. The social and economic conjuncture worships authorship while simultaneously undermining its foundations. Not really an asset.
Collaborative writing as a viable alternative to authorship
Authorship is dysfunctional in such a lovely way. Over the past decades, nobody has been able to debunk it. It won’t happen anytime soon, because viable alternatives that take the complexity of the issue into account are lacking. But writing practices evolve.
Writing groups give everybody a chance to write. If you have no time to write a novel but you have a great idea, why not team up with other authors and get it done? The Italian collective Wu Ming is one successful example. Their texts get reworked to such an extent that the original version of a specific excerpt becomes irrelevant. Personal writing styles are blurred. This requires a lot of team play, discipline, and mutual understanding. It means abandoning one’s own claims to ownership, one’s ego. But it can work.
Content marketing is another field where authorship is trivial. In fact, content marketers are often ghostwriters for brands. Intellectual property is strongly regulated, meaning that the brand owns every word produced—the brand is the author. But this has one obvious disadvantage: the advertising scope of the writing restrains creative agency. Yet a focus on the actual processes shows that writing content for businesses is a participative endeavor that can inspire writers everywhere.
In a company’s content agenda, different teams collaborate to gather information for specific pieces. For instance, the product department will brainstorm with the marketing unit and the developers to create a booklet on, say, the Internet of Things. Texts will be written by marketing, revised with the help of other departments, and then finally undergo several stages of approval, which are not necessarily embedded in the company hierarchy. Individual production becomes scattered and is quickly shared and edited via collaborative platforms such as Zulip, Slack, or Confluence. Businesses manufacturing complex products are producers of complex knowledge, the elaboration of which needs the joint forces of experts. I know how exciting such projects can be, when guidelines and schedules allow for some creative freedom.
Models and training programs exist for making collaborative writing effective in a corporate environment. Distributing tasks, scheduling deliveries, managing and aligning expectations, and solving conflict are just a few of the requirements of such collaboration.
As a trained academic writer, I went through cultural shock when I entered the field of content marketing. I was looking to express my personal style, my identity as an author, wanting my name at the end of my blogs. However, the accent was on the fact that knowledge production is a collaborative endeavor, not owned by one individual. So are the words to describe that knowledge. My job consisted of producing drafts and making them available for editing, in meetings where experts would improve my technical vocabulary or address issues I hadn’t even considered. Sometimes, topics were drafted in stand-up meetings. The collective effort would make the content credible and lively. It is enthralling to see the transformative path texts take when people with very different backgrounds come together and unlock their creative potential.
Individual authorship affects writing as a creative act. While protecting individual agency and intellectual property, it is also subjected to many constraints—financial as well as cultural. However, every writing project carries a collaborative dimension. Maybe the only difference lies in the final attribution of the intellectual property. Writing groups question the authenticity attached to individualized work. While authorship-intensive industries such as academia seem to be behind the drag curve, the marketing universe can allow for innovation—when collaboration as a company culture is promoted, that is.
Business writing ends up being a gratifying profession for writers, meanwhile also triggering spaces for interesting participative experimentation. The techniques developed in such contexts can, in turn, inspire writers along their personal creative path.
Art is free. As are the modes of its invention, too.
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