Tag Archives: writing

Why we shouldn’t care about author intentions: some disorganised musings

Recently the Guardian ran an article about fiction writer Polly Courtney, who is dropping her publisher because of the apparently misleading covers they inflicted on her books. Courtney cites frustration at the ‘pink, fluffy packaging’ Harper Collins imprint Avon has wrapped around her books, and has indicated she’ll be going back to self-publishing to take back control.

In other news, Julian Assange is in a fight with publishers Conongate who have printed an incongruously titled ‘unauthorised autobiography’ of the apostle of free speech. It’s reported that Julian accepted a hefty advance and produced 70,000 words of memoir with ghostwriter Andrew O’Hagan before giving up the project and spending the advance. Canongate have, rather understandably, decided to recoup their losses through the path of least resistance – publishing the autobiography without the approval of the ‘author’.

Finally, a story from closer to home, for which I have and offer no evidence or assurances of truth. I recently heard about an academic whose book suddenly appeared on Google Books without his permission. On his contacting Google he was, supposedly, paid some form of royalty and told that company policy was to deal with authors as they got in touch. The take home message of this story was meant to be ‘how evil is Google’, but I wasn’t really convinced.

So, three stories about cranky authors, angry at ‘unauthorised’ tampering with their work. The book historian in me wants to say so what? After all it was ever thus.

Lets start with the issue of packaging and marketing. In the medieval world of scribal reproduction an author would have had less than nothing to do with what physical form their work took. Those decisions were made by the individuals who commissioned the reproduction of a text – usually wealthy individuals or religious groups. Even after the introduction of print, sheets were sold unbound and without decoration, so that purchasers could choose the bindings and rubrication for themselves.

Of course binding isn’t the only important part of a book’s physical form: size, typography, paper and other factors were meaning-laden well beyond the medieval period – indicating that the intended audience was wealthy or poor, pious or a bit deviant (see for example Jerome McGann’s discussion of Byron’s Don Juan in “Theory of Texts”, London Review of Books, 1988). Given the clear importance of format on reader experience it’s important to ask who chose it. The answer varies, but the author almost never figures.

What, then, about cases of a text being published without the author’s knowledge or even in spite of their explicit wishes? The juiciest examples come from cases of posthumous publication. A 2009 article in Time surveyed some famous cases of posthumous publication, from Machiavelli to Mark Twain, Jane Austen to Steig Larsson. Perhaps the most illustrative are those cases where an author has died leaving instructions that all their scribblings be destroyed. As Twain explained in a letter to Orion and Mollie Clemens, 19 and 20 October 1865

You had better shove this in the stove … I don’t want any absurd ‘literary remains’ & ‘unpublished letters of Mark Twain’ published after I am planted.

If wishes like these hadn’t been ignored the literary canon would be without major works by Mark Twain, Emily Dickinson and Franz Kafka among others. Just imagine how many PhDs would have remained unwritten.

The three parables at the start of these musings miss another important field of unauthorised modification, though. This includes reworkings, adaptations and other creative reimagining of literary works. William Shakespeare could never have imagined that his complete works would eventually be published 140 characters at a time on an internet microblogging site called Twitter, by a bot called ‘Willy Shakes’ (@IAM_SHAKESPEARE). Without explicit authorisation, then, should we denounce this as unacceptable piracy? What about cinematic adaptation of a dead author’s work – a la Lord of the Rings? Or the countless anthologies that rip and mix works, in the best tradition of medieval miscellanies.

These examples all demonstrate the myriad ways in which our culture accepts and engages in unauthorised modification and use of literary works. This is the practice of the last millenia and the stories at the top show that it continues to be common practice. The question remains, should we care? How acceptable is all of this repackaging, unauthorised publication and creative reworking?

I think there are two issues that need to be unpacked here. The first is commercial (who is and who should be making money out of a literary work), while the second is cultural (how can a work be used and influenced by subsequent individuals). Both of these issues are covered by copyright, but blanket protection and lock-down is not necessarily an ideal situation.

Generally, if anyone is making money out of a literary work, and if the author as primary creator is still around, then they have a right to a fair share in that profit.

In the academic world, such as in the example quoted above, things are a little more complicated. When an academic produces work on a salary at least partially funded by the general public, do they then have the right to charge the public for access to that work? Put like that it seems a bit like wanting to have your cake and eat it too. Of course most academics get little to no profit out of a publication, so it’s the academic publishers who are milking the system. That’s a debate for another day though.

So, finally we consider post-author influence on and use of a piece of writing. There is a primary right that should always be respected – the right of attribution. If one person’s work has been used by another, that legacy should be clearly stated.

There is a limit though. Does an author have an unassailable right to control every reading of their work, down to look, feel and format? Should they be able to control (given the impossibility that they could foresee) how their work will be used, adapted, reworked and otherwise interpreted? In my opinion the answer to both of these questions is no. It’s neither practical nor desirable for the figure of an author to take on that level of power. Exalting one creative individual to this level ignores the fundamental fact that all writers come after – they have all been influenced, and those with enough talent and luck will influence in their turn.

It’s the work, not the intentions, that we should care about with authors. Recognising the legacy and, where appropriate, paying for the product are one thing. Allowing the figure of the author to have tyrannical control over a text is undesirable and unrealistic.