Back in March 2017, Bruce Holsinger of the University of Virginia started the #thanskfortyping hashtag to highlight the unnamed wives of academia who typed manuscripts for their husbands, translated texts, did the paleography (that is, deciphered the text of old manuscripts–a difficult skill to acquire), rewrote whole chapters, and did other editing tasks. The hashtag sparked a conversation about gender roles and the unacknowledged labor of women (and wives) in the academy. Many of them essentially ghostwrote their husbands’ books! However, we can expand this conversation to look at the invisible and semi-invisible labor behind every piece of published writing.
We tend to have a Romantic view of the writer, the tortured genius who labors alone in his (yes, typically his) room. Misunderstood by the world, longing to write for himself but burdened by the need to write for money, he forges onward, always hoping for the flash of insight to strike so he can begin his masterpiece. This is ridiculous. Writers seldom work alone and they seldom write only because moved by the Muses. Writers have to work at what they do and they usually work in collaboration.
The examples I just raised may bring to mind ghostwriting, which is actually a pretty common occurrence in our world. We know that politicians typically have ghostwriters and that celebrities who publish books usually are not the ones who wrote them. We suspect that James Patterson did not actually write all the books with his name on the cover. But ghostwriting is far more prevalent than that and we may not think of many texts as having been ghostwritten. Each time someone writes content for a company that goes on the website or on social media, or in the pamphlet handed out at the career fair, someone ghostwrote the content. Their names do not appear on the text and they receive no public acknowledgement for their skills. We accept that various (often unnamed) voices go into these texts–usually the ghostwriter and the celebrity whom they interview or who reviews the text, or the ghostwriter and someone in upper management. However, let’s put aside ghostwriting for a moment and look at the other ways texts are produce in collaboration.
Writers do not work in isolation because they are a part of the world. A writer who reads something and wants to respond to that that text either by building on it or criticizing it is in some ways indebted to the unnamed inspiration (not the Muses) behind their work. Could we arguably suggest that Stephanie Meyer is a sort-of collaborator with the writer of every YA paranormal romance that followed Twilight? Or that Tolkien is a sort-of collaborator with every high fantasy published since The Lord of the Rings? The genius of the writer did not suggest to authors that a paranormal romance with demons instead of vampires would be marketable, or that high fantasy works ought to be set as a rule in pseudo-medieval worlds. Other writers did!
Further, writers typically receive feedback from other sources whose recognition, if anything, is a line in the acknowledgements section. A writer who goes to writing workshops or has a friend or family member read their work and offer feedback has worked in collaboration. Maybe your favorite scene or the funniest joke in your favorite story were suggested by the writer’s sister. But you’ll never know if the writer does not say. Likewise, editors routinely offer ways for authors to streamline plots, add more romance, change the narrative voice, etc. They are suggesting major structural changes to the book! Might we suggest that editors in some ways are co-authors?
Just about every text is a collaboration, so let’s take a moment to acknowledge the network of individuals behind the stories we love. The acknowledgments section is an often overlooked but very important part of the book. Each person in there (and potentially more whose names were unintentionally left out) somehow made the book possible or made the book stronger. Thanks for typing, everyone!