Ed Wilson: What is an Author?

Ed Wilson: What is an Author?

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What is an author? What a seemingly silly question. Obviously an author is someone who writes something! Various scholars used to envision an author as someone who sat in an enclosed room, isolated from society who produced a document that sprang forth from the imagination. With this view of authorship, it was important to learn as much as possible about the person who did the writing, to learn about the authors experiences, imagination, and scholastic achievements. In short the author was a person, and the more we know about the author, the more we are able to understand the writing.

A more recent school of thought dismisses the notion of the writer in an enclosed room, isolated from society who works on a document in isolation, and instead moves to the other end of the spectrum. The author becomes a mere instrument who relates ideas that come from society, whose notions and idioms are products of the environment. The author in this perspective is a cog in a wheel grinding out social images … the writer is simply synthesizing stories born in the collective consciousness, matured by the societal memory, and given life via the will of the people. The author does not matter, the author is not important, the author is little more than a recording device.

As a writer of more than a dozen books, I find the second view offensive – the genius of Shakespeare is not that of William Shakespeare but rather the genius of Shakespeare is that of the people, the theatre goers, the actors, the printers, the monarchy, the mayor of London and of thousands of others who came into contact with the 38 plays attributed to the man Shakespeare.

On reflection, however, I do not write in isolation. My writings are influenced heavily by outside forces. All publishers have style guidelines: that impose certain requirements such as the following:

1. The use of International English – one cannot use a cultural reference that may not be readily understood by readers for whom English is not their primary language. Because of the Internet, satellite television, block buster movie events, sporting events, and ubiquitous music groups I often stretch this one and may slip in a reference to Mister Ed the talking horse, or Scooby Doo.

2. The use of gender non-specific language – this one is hard and fast and “he who violates this one does so at his own peril” :-)

3. Legal issues – one must respect copyright law, trade mark law, patent law, privacy law …..

4. Rules of grammar – one must have a really good and defensible reason to boldly violate rules of grammar.

5. Rules about style – such as preferring the active voice, use of indefinite articles, arbitrary sentence length guidelines, and so on …

6. Rules of punctuation – such as ellipses, em dashes, en dashes, parentheses, brackets, braces, exclamation marks, capitalization, italics and all of those seemingly trivial things …

When one considers the impact of all the various rules, style guidelines, and various editorial edicts one begins to think that maybe the author does not really matter after all. What about the editor who makes changes (either deliberately or accidently) to the meaning of sentences, or the printer who makes an “intelligent guess” because all of the corrections, deletions, insertions, and other changes have compounded after five different editors and the author have finished “marking up” the document.

Ah, but there is still one thing left to consider: I am the author. I had the idea for the book. I wrote the book. I decided whether or not to follow all of the rules. I decided whether or not to approve each change suggested by the style editor, the continuity editor, the grammar editor, the peer reviewer, the subject matter expert, and my wife! In the end, I am responsible for the book I write. If I do not put pen to paper, the book does not automatically spring to life. If I do not like the resultant product of all of the edits (including the page proofs from the printer) then either I make additional changes, or I call my agent and break the contract!  While the process may have changed a bit in the last 500 years in the end an author writes, an editor edits, a printer prints, and then a reader reads. Some things never change.

  • Great article, my compliments.


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