Sunday, 14 September 2014

The Problem of Authorship by Mary Hoffman

A huge row erupted via Facebook last week involving three novelists, one journalist and a major publishing house. One novelist claimed, incorrectly as it turned out, on a thread on the private page of another novelist that a third novelist did not write all the books published over their name in a  popular series.

For the purposes of this post it is not necessarily to know the identities of any of the writers, the series or the publishing house. An inadvertent libel had been committed in what the libeller thought was a private context, like a dinner party, and has been corrected.

But it raises many interesting questions about privacy in Social Media, what constitutes libel, what is a proportionate response and, most importantly, what is the nature of authorship. I write all my own books and would be pretty annoyed to see it claimed anywhere that I did not. But I have had help. Once I paid a researcher to do some preliminary work for me. It was helpful but not essential; much of what she found out, I had discovered independently and I have never been tempted to do this again.

I have used consultants, always credited in the books, to read all or part of the manuscript and comment before publication. Once, when ill and exhausted, I got my husband to do some preliminary sketching out of the possible content of a non-fiction title for children. Is any of the above cheating? I don't think so.

What about ghost-writing? I have never done it but I know people who have. In this the deal is made with the reader that the writer, usually a non-literary celebrity, has written the actual words within the covers, even though the publisher, the "ghost" and many other insiders know or suspect this not to be the case. (Actually even when a book has NOT been ghost-written, there is often an assumption that it has - how surprised people were to find that actors like David Niven, Dirk Bogarde and Rupert Everett have a way with their own words as well as other people's!)

I actually think it's shabby not to credit the Ghost, but perhaps publishers fear shattering the illusion.

James Patterson by Susan Sollie Patterson (Creative Commons)

The hugely successful author James Patterson cheerfully admits to the use of a team of writers to create "his" books. These are not Ghosts but credited co-authors, who often go on to create their own successful literary careers, having used Patterson's ideas as a springboard. Patterson admits to having so many ideas for plots and relatively little interest in doing the day-to-day sentence-by-sentence business that he needs eight or nine other writers to bring his books to fruition.

Another such was Tom Clancy, who died nearly a year ago. His action novels and film scripts made him rich and he used credited co-authors on some of his later titles.

Worse to my mind are the non-existent entities of "Lucy Daniels," "Daisy Meadows" and "Adam Blade" who are in fact committees of writers, some of whom I know, writing to a strictly laid-down brief.

To change media, Damien Hirst has done something similar.

Still image from the 2010 documentary "The Future of Art" by Erik Niedling and Ingo Niermann. by Christian Görmer
He conceived is spot paintings but carried out only five of them; the rest were completed by assistants. Those paintings are still called Damien Hirsts and fetch the prices his name commands, even when he has not blobbed a single spot of paint from his own brush. At least he admits it.

But when did it all change? In the Renaissance in Italy artists had "bottegas" or workshops, which could develop into "schools." When you visit Italian art galleries, many labels are prefixed by "Scuola di" or "Bottega di."

Andrea di Cione ("Verocchio ") Baptism of Christ - public domain

Leonardo da Vinci was apprenticed to Andrea di Cione, called Verocchio = "true eye," when he upstaged his master by painting the angel in the left of this picture. Needless to say, the painting was known as Verocchio's own work until Giorgio Vasari mentioned Leonardo's hand in it, but there was no intention to deceive.

You can just imagine it - "Eh, Leo! You can do that little angel holding Christ's robe. If you make a pasticcio of it, no-one will notice." What a nightmare of an apprentice to have!

So who is the "author" of a book or painting? The one who lays down the scheme or the one at the keyboard or canvas?