Some General Reflections On Authorship

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In common usage the idea of an author seems unproblematic: it is the person who writes; usually the word is used to refer to the writer of a published work, be it a book, an article or a letter. Yet even this is perhaps not as straightforward as it may seem. Many books are listed under the person who has 'edited' a series of chapters or articles by different writers; clearly the writers of the separate chapters/articles are the collective authors, but the person credited for the book is the 'editor', who may have written just a short introduction.

Then there is the problem of copying and plagiarism - an important area for any student or writer to negotiate. If for the purposes of this chapter in this book I copy or rely heavily on someone else's book/text, then can I be said to be the 'author' of the chapter? If a student copies large chunks from, say, Bordwell and Thompson's Film Art in an essay, who is really the 'author' of the essay? Such plagiarism and stealing of other peoples' ideas and words have of course long been a subject of dispute: two quite different sorts of examples would be the controversy about 'was Shakespeare really the author of the plays that are attributed to him?' and the increasing numbers of long (and expensive) court cases (for example, that involving Bruce Springsteen) fought over alleged theft/plagiarism of relatively obscure fragments of music. Indeed, with the popularization of rap and sampling techniques since the 1980s, and with the increasing availability of written text, recorded sound and moving images through the Internet since the 1990s, another kind of major threat to common-sense ideas of authorship (and of course to the idea of copyright) has emerged. Of what, for example, is rapper Will Smith the Cauthor'? It is also to be noted, of course, that plagiarism in examination work is often punished with a 'Fail' grade.

The idea of the writer/painter/artist as gifted creator/'author' of his/her work of art is in fact a comparatively recent one in the history of humanity. Though the names of a number of artists and writers have of course been recorded over the centuries, the idea of the 'gifted artist' as 'author' of her/his (historically usually 'his') work really dates from the Renaissance of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries: before then the ultimate 'creator', or the source of inspiration, was most often seen as God (or some equivalent). Painters, sculptors and writers were principally seen as craftsmen.

Though it comes at the end of a (very) long history of ideas about writing/literature, the idea that Mary Shelley was the author of Frankenstein, Dickens of David Copperfield and Brett Easton Lewis of American Psycho can now be taken for granted. By extension, it is fair to see Leonard Cohen as the 'author' of The Future, John Lennon of Imagine.

These examples, however, begin to illustrate another kind of difficulty with the idea of an author. While obviously some authors/artists have created their work in private and with the aim of expressing their creativity (Rubens and Gauguin in painting perhaps, Virginia Woolf and Salman Rushdie in literature, to take a few random examples), this has certainly not been the norm. Most painting and sculpture before and after the Renaissance was commissioned either by the Church or by wealthy patrons - the 'artist' was thus basically doing a job for someone. Much music was also written/composed in the same way, and indeed many post-Renaissance composers, Mozart and Wagner among them, continued to rely on commissions and patronage to earn a living.

With the development of capitalism in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries (and of course throughout the twentieth), a new kind of market was created, works of art became commodities, and the artist/author's name became a label which could be used to sell the product: a painting, a book, a theatre production. The idea of the author as gifted creative individual is thus (in the grand scheme of things) a relatively recent development which fits perfectly into the dominant capitalist culture which has developed most particularly in Europe and North America over the last two centuries.

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