The Myth of the Solitary Genius Author

Discussion Post

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!

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33 thoughts on “The Myth of the Solitary Genius Author

  1. Nandini Bharadwaj says:

    A very thoughtful post, Krysta. I agree that one writer working wholly alone cannot produce a book. So many people (even pets) would have made the manuscript what it is when published. I do make it a point to read the acknowledgement section of each book that I read, especially the ones I loved, to silently thank everyone who made the book enjoyable to read. 🙂

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    • Krysta says:

      Yes, we mustn’t forget the pets! 😀 I like to read the acknowledgments sections, too. Sometimes they’re quite witty! Sometimes heartfelt. But usually very interesting!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Briana says:

    Another misconception I come across sometimes is the belief that editors today are crazily interventionist and that this was not the case for authors of classic literature–basically, that in the past you could be a solitary genius writer, but you can’t today. Now, I actually do think it’s possible to have too many cooks in the kitchen, and I have questions about how common it is today for people to hire beta readers, then a freelance editor, then a literary agent who edits, then an actual editor at the publishing house. (Not to disparage the work of editors, but if the writers already had a minimum of three other people suggest extensive edits, what is the person at the end of the line suggesting for edits? Especially when every agent and editor these days recommend that writers have their book “practically ready for publication before even showing it to me.”) BUT, though I think the number of people with hands in the editorial process has increased, the presence of editors is not new. People had editors in the 1800s, for example. And though we can’t really know about the writing process of older texts (say, Homer or Chaucer) because it wasn’t commonly discussed, I’d wager even these authors got some kind of feedback from someone on their work.

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    • Krysta says:

      Yes, I thought Jane Austen’s editor/publisher had rewritten the end of Persuasion? I should look that up, really, but I vaguely remember reading an edition where it had her original ending as well–and I thought that hers was, frankly, inferior. But I’m sure that many writers in the past centuries asked others for advice or feedback. Even if they didn’t have a writing group, surely they tested a few lines out on friends now and then, unless they were intensely private?

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  3. Briana says:

    Also I want to throw out that there’s still some weird stigma about coauthoring papers/monographs/etc. in the humanities in the academy–which is weird because, for example, literature experts should know exactly how common collaboration in writing is! I’ve heard different explanations for this, but a lot of it seems like rubbish. Like, an established scholar is doing younger scholars a favor by not collaborating or co-writing with them because “readers will just assume the more experienced scholar did all the work anyway.” Personally, I imagine a lot of interesting work could be done if some academics weren’t so adamant about having their name and their name only on the work, primarily because they simply don’t want to share the credit for anything. Experts should share their strengths, not hoard them.

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    • Krysta says:

      Yes, I find that hilarious because no one really writes a book alone at all but we have to PRETEND they do so academics can get tenure in the humanities. Meanwhile, in STEM fields, they co-author all the time and seem to get along just fine. I’m sure humanities departments could learn something from the mentorship that occurs in STEM departments.

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      • Briana says:

        Yeah, I was thinking about how weird it is that STEM is on top of this and humanities academics are still trying to pretend their research happens in complete isolation, when everyone knows that’s untrue.

        Liked by 1 person

        • Krysta says:

          Someone in bio once told me co-authorship was bad and would stop a person’s career and I just kind of stared at her. Because they routinely co-author in her field.

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          • Briana says:

            Yeah, I was under the impression that in many STEM fields (though not all), but there are just handfuls of co-authors. And often they just list them alphabetically so the person who did technically did practically nothing on the project could get the primary citation if their name is early in the alphabet.

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            • Krysta says:

              I remember reading a magazine article about how co-authorship was getting out of hand in some labs and there were too many names on the papers. People were getting mad that everyone who did any little thing for the project was being recognized as an author.

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            • Briana says:

              Yeah, you probably could go too far with listing everyone as an “author.” I see the value of an acknowledgements section for people who were helpful but, ultimately, kind of minor parts of the process.

              Liked by 1 person

  4. majoringinliterature says:

    I totally agree with this. Writing is a collaborative activity and while the myth of super-talented writers who just pour amazing words straight out of their heads is attractive, it’s not really true. Having done a bit of proofreading and translating, sometimes it can be tough to be the person charged with trying to perfect someone else’s raw material. I also definitely agree with the idea that authors build on the work of earlier writers, and I love the idea of thinking of them as collaborators.

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  5. Ellen @ Quest Reviews says:

    Very interesting thoughts here! I’m trying my hardest to be a writer myself, and I turn down a lot of opportunities to be social because of that. Just because I need time — large blocks of time — to sit down and type. But you’re so right about that craving need for feedback and approbation. I share my writing with anyone who will read it and rake them for detailed feedback.

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    • Krysta says:

      Yes, there are many professions that require individuals to work in quiet. However, I think we can still acknowledge all the people who influence and inspire our writing even if they are not in the room with us while we sit on our laptops! 🙂

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  6. theorangutanlibrarian says:

    Very “Death of the Author” 😉 Of course there is some collaboration in the production of a book. Also, just to chime into the discussion you and Briana were having about editing not being new, we know for certain a lot of things were edited out of Hardy (usually “offensive” content) and I’ve read Dicken’s original ending for Great Expectations (personally I thought it was better cos it made more sense). And we already know there was a lot of collaboration from authors of classics, like Gatsby being edited by TS Eliot and Frankenstein being edited by both Percy Bysshe Shelley and Byron. Also, in terms of ancient classics, like Homer, we also know that it was written in the oral tradition- meaning it didn’t just have many, many authors over the course of centuries as it was recomposed every time another person sang it (there are parts of the Iliad that date to much later centuries and were clearly added in later). There is so much debate over whether a poet called Homer even existed, or whether he was just the mythical figure of the author (we know that it is unlikely such a figure wrote both the Iliad and the Odyssey- especially as writer DNA would suggest not, and the fact that the Odyssey was clearly composed at different times). I could literally go on forever about editors (I mean, Shakespeare was inevitably changed when it was written down, as was Emily Dickinson’s work when it was restructured for publication). So yes, editors are as old as writing 🙂

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    • Krysta says:

      All very excellent points! And that’s true–we don’t have copies of Shakespeare’s plays in his own handwriting. I think it’s fascinating, though, that we continue to pretend in a sense that we have the original unfiltered Shakespeare. We have two versions of Hamlet, for instance, but that typically isn’t mentioned. And modern productions of King Lear are usually conflations of the two versions we have. But we don’t talk about that. It’s not necessarily advertised that you’re going to see the Quarto version or the Folio version or whatever when you attend a play.

      You can see how little people understand about Shakespeare’s writing process and what we have from him in the reaction to the news last October that the New Oxford Shakespeare was going to credit Marlowe as a co-author on the Henry VI plays. People were fascinated and maybe a little surprised. People were asking me what I thought and I literally didn’t care because I’m not invested in this idea we’ve fashioned that Shakespeare possesses unique genius. Shakespeare, like most playwrights of his day, routinely collaborated so what’s one more co-author added to the list? And the funny thing is, even though we act like Shakespeare is super special and no one else possesses his genius, I think you’d be hard pressed to go to the average reader and have them identify which lines he wrote and which his collaborators wrote.

      So, yes, Shakespeare collaborated and his plays were published twice without his input so clearly other people were changing lines or trying to publish them from memory. But the average person doesn’t really know any of this. It doesn’t fit the narrative we have of what an author or what Shakespeare in particular is “supposed” to look like!

      Liked by 1 person

      • theorangutanlibrarian says:

        Yes very true!! Hmm I tend to not distrust the narrative whenever people credit any of Shakespeare’s work to Marlowe- cos there’s usually an agenda behind it. It tends to be people that can’t stand the idea of a nobody actor having written the plays, whereas Marlowe was a respectable person that went to Oxbridge- it’s always maddening when people use literature to push an agenda, which is why I tend to object to it. Do I think there was collaboration? Well I think that probably would have come from his actors adapting his words on the stage etc. And do I think they influenced each other- yes certainly. I would have to look into this particular case- it’s just that the evidence in general points to them having distinct writer’s “DNA”- so I always dispute these claims.

        Anyway, I’m rambling again. I tend to be in the middle on these things, because as I said, there is obviously collaboration going on, but I do like to give credit where its due to the individuals that created great literature. So yes to collaboration, but also yes to the power of the individual 😉

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        • Krysta says:

          I don’t find theories of collaboration necessarily suspect because most of the playwrights in Shakespeare’s time collaborated. It’s only in modern times that we have this idea that writing something with someone else makes you less of a writer. But authorship in seventeenth-century England didn’t have that connotation. Shakespeare worked with Fletcher on Henry VIII, Two Noble Kinsmen, and Cardenio. He’s generally accepted as having worked with George Wilkins on Pericles.

          Does that mean that he collaborated with Marlowe? No, not necessarily. And I’m not ready to say that he did because the fact that the linguistic patterns of certain passages sound like Marlowe could just mean that Shakespeare was influenced by Marlowe’s work–not that they wrote the play together. Carol Rutter has suggested like you that the collaborators in this case may have been the actors, who would have been influenced by Marlowe. So I definitely think we should take into account other explanations and other evidence before we just accept that certain word patterns exist and therefore must mean X or Y.

          The issue of collaboration is different from the Shakespeare authorship”controversy” (which I keep intending to write a post about….). I agree that the controversy doesn’t exist. Shakespeare scholars don’t believe in it, much like scientists don’t believe climate change is a question or that vaccinations cause autism, but I guess conspiracy theories always have a certain appeal. Certainly the idea that Shakespeare wasn’t Shakespeare is rooted in classism. And the idea that Shakespeare was really Marlowe is particularly absurd among the various claims for the “real” author considering that Marlowe was dead before Shakespeare’s career ended. 😀

          I think, too, people are starting to realize that Shakespeare could have easily been Shakespeare because the grammar school education he would have received would have been very good. Despite Jonson’s line about Shakespeare’s “little Latin,” Shakespeare would have known Latin sufficiently from his education. Plus playwrights in Renaissance England weren’t necessarily admired. Plays were considered a low form of entertainment. Surely a unknown actor could aspire to writing them?

          It’s perhaps worth noting, too, that the new Oxford Shakespeare suggests other collaborators and adds Arden of Faversham as a Shakespeare play with an anonymous collaborator. All very interesting but nothing that made headlines because the general public isn’t likely to know the names of the other collaborators, nor are they likely to have an opinion on Arden of Faversham. Which I do not particularly like myself so, with the age-old wisdom of many a literary critic, perhaps I shall declare, “Shakespeare could not have written it because I do not like it.” 😉

          But I do find the reporting on Shakespeare fascinating because I think it really speaks to the idea people have of Shakespeare more than it speaks to Shakespeare himself.

          Thanks for the lovely long comments, by the way! I do love talking about Shakespeare! It’s nice to have someone who also seems to like him! 😉

          Liked by 1 person

          • theorangutanlibrarian says:

            Fair enough, I meant less the issue of collaborating and more attributing work posthumously to multiple authors/other authors with very little evidence. For instance, while I would say there’s evidence of people editing Shakespeare’s work or as you said, working on certain plays with other people, there’s not enough information on this to start attributing work to others beyond the work we already know he collaborated on (and actually evidence that Marlowe was a separate playwright and that they influenced each other’s work but were more likely rivals).

            I agree with you there about it being the actors who were more likely to be collaborators. I just think that in terms of attaching Marlowe’s name to a new edition of Shakespeare is suspect, because I don’t know if there’s enough evidence to do that (again- I’d need to actually look into that- but I’m not sure what I would consider to be enough evidence to make such a bold claim that made it reasonable to actually attribute it). Nor would I think it was advisable to start sticking an asterix by the author’s name saying *mostly or *we think. I’m happy to have the name Shakespeare be attached to something alone and leave it at that- because we know so little that the name itself has its own mystique.

            Maybe it’s the classicist in me, but while I see the value in looking for clues about collaboration and how a work was produced, I don’t see the value in attributing Shakespeare’s work to other authors- as I said in my other comment, classicists tend to be okay with saying “by Homer” (when what they mean is the work attributed to Homer, but was written in the oral tradition, composed over hundreds of years, and edited by others…)

            Ahh I’m glad you agree on that!!! It’s such a ludicrous conspiracy theory and we have evidence to disprove pretty much every crackpot theory I’ve heard so far. As I said, it’s so long ago and we know so little about him, that I don’t see why people feel the need to attribute his work elsewhere unless they have an agenda. Like you said, attributing his work to Marlowe is very much a case of classism. Yes precisely- agree with you completely!!
            Hahaha that’s hilarious- yes I think that works as criticism 😉

            Yes absolutely!! And thank you- it’s always fun to talk Shakespeare with someone else who loves him too 😀

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            • Krysta says:

              I haven’t read all the details on the new Oxford Shakespeare, so my sketchy understanding of it right now is that they’ve assigned certain passages of the Henry VI plays to Marlowe because of the word patterns, or how likely such words are to appear in close proximity to each other. I also read somewhere, however, that the process they used wrongly attributed some works to certain authors when they were testing it. So it’s a tricky thing. I’m not sure I would want to attributed authorship solely based on an algorithm. The fact that Marlowe and Shakespeare would have been working for separate companies does, as you suggest, make the idea of collaboration somewhat more complicated. Are we to overlook this historical problem because of an algorithm?

              In the end, though, I’m not particularly bothered by which scholars think which plays were collaborations. It’s enough for me that we have the plays! Who wrote them or which parts of them is an interesting historical mystery, but I don’t think it will change what I think of the works. As you say, we don’t get tangled up in knots about Homer!

              My second favorite conspiracy theory is that Elizabeth I was really Shakespeare. Because how could lowly Shakespeare write courtly characters if he wasn’t at court?! What is this thing called fiction? Surely reading or hearing about something doesn’t give you any ability to write about it! 😀

              Liked by 1 person

  7. Dennis says:

    I think this is a common error. I see this in the world of science and industry as well. People always want to talk about Galileo, Newton, Einstein, usw, as if they were alone in a closet thinking about their subjects.
    The corporate world was (is?) just as bad. I remember during the 2nd wave feminist revival (late ’60s through the ’70s) were a lecturer chastised us for thinking that corporate wives were merely jewelry for their husbands. The work that the wives put into their husband’s success was largely ignored.
    Ultimately, we are in debt for all of our successes to an amazing web of interactions. Our failures are much more complicated, though I tend to accept the common apology that translators give: The good parts are because others helped me, the bad parts are my own.

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    • Krysta says:

      That’s quite interesting. And a little sad. In a way, it seems like we have moved forward, but perhaps not far enough yet? I think we recognize women more for their contributions,. But expecting everyone to bear the burden of doing all this work themselves when clearly we all need help to achieve so much, seems a little unfair to all the writers and academics still struggling out there to get published. You’ve definitely got a head start on everyone else if you have (a potentially unacknowledged) network to help you do your work!

      Ah, yes. The typical disclaimer. I guess if someone helped me, I would want to clear them from any mistakes I might make, too. It seems courteous, at least.

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      • Dennis says:

        I would argue that we have not moved forward. We tend to see that women, minorities, usw are capable as the rich white guys that have come before, but we are just substituting a set of non-white guys for the original set. The old boys network is not a conspiracy against women and minorities, but one against anyone who is not in the network (sorry, conspiracy 101. The next semester covers the faked moon landing).
        The issue is how do we acknowledge those who are ancillary but essential. I once likened it to a spider web: the more distant elements turn out to be as important as any portion of the web but, to an outsider, all one sees is the spider in the middle.

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        • Krysta says:

          That is true. We do still tend to forget the people in the background. And it can be all too easy to fade into the background if you don’t know how to play the game everyone else is playing.

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