I am woefully behind on my reading but trying to catch up the last week or so, and I just read a provocative and important article by Elise Findlay (whom I met recently when I was visiting St. Mary’s College, though I didn’t know at the time about this essay!) called “When Writers Aren’t Authors: A Qualitative Study of Unattributed Writers” in the May 2019 issue of College English. It reports on a lovely piece of research Findlay conducted with four former or current professional writers, and focuses especially on their relationship to the work they do, its connection to their identity/identities, and their experiences of agency and of vulnerability in terms of traditional understandings of authorship and ownership of text. And she introduces two strategies these writers employ—“writing to hide” and “strategic (dis)connection.”
Findlay argues, persuasively to my mind, for the multiplicity or hybridity of writers, for their ability to adapt a range of personas as they carry out a range of literate performances: “Professional writers—especially those writing in the institutional voices or on behalf of an employer—invent, construct, and perform a multiplicity of identities, personae, and selves.” As I see it, this is a quality of all writers, not just professional ones, and is part of what Lisa Ede and I describe as the collaborative continuum on which all writing exists. So I take Findlay’s point—and then some—since the argument she makes in this study underscores the complicated constructed nature of all text and the network of relationships that produce it.
Findlay is absolutely right that the ideology of the author as singular and autonomous is at odds with the way writing gets done in the world and that it limits the role of writers, making those writers who are “owners” of text seem more important and powerful than those who are not. As she says later in the essay, “overemphasis on imitation and collaboration reflects and propagates a view of professional writers as lesser, nonagentive, powerless—playing into frameworks of ownership and authorship. . . .” And perhaps this statement is still accurate, but I resist it as I’ve been resisting such dichotomies for forty years. Imitation and collaboration, in my view, are powerful tools writers use to make meaning—in fact, they are primary tools and certainly not lesser ones. That these tools resist the “frameworks of ownership and authorship” that have governed literate practices for a few hundred years is a strength.
All this to say that I agree with and am grateful to Findlay for raising the issues around authorship, ownership, and attribution in this essay—and I recommend it highly. And I agree that our pedagogies should address these issues as well, that students should examine their own multiple voices and selves and personae and perspectives, and that they can do so most effectively beyond the capitalistic constraints of ownership.
But that’s a pretty tall order, as Findlay acknowledges. In talking with students in the Stanford Study of Writing, I tracked many of their struggles and shifting thoughts about their relationship to what they wrote: many wavered between feeling identified with their writing and feeling completely disconnected from it. A number wanted to think of language and writing as “wanting to be free” from the constraints of copyright and ownership, able to reject the whole concept of plagiarism as bogus and to see language as an open field of play (see Larry Lessig’s extensive writings in support of a reformation). One student wrote at length about what he called the “authorless prose” of Wikipedia and compared it to the rigidly controlled and owned texts produced within a company like Google.
These are all questions and issues that Findlay’s essay asks and addresses, and they are ones teachers of writing can be bringing to our students. In concluding her essay, Findlay suggests that students might be asked to “write from positions with which they disagree or are disinterested, to write on behalf of a client or other external entity, to actively mask their own writerly ‘voice’ in the service of a unified, collaboratively written voice or to proactively create a writerly persona with specific investments and personality taints and then practice writing as that persona” (453). I expect that such assignments are already being offered to students, as they reflect the sequence of assignments described in the ancient progymnasmata.
Another possibility that I’ve seen at work in the classroom is to ask students to explore their own multiplicity, their own varying personae, as well as to chart all of the ways in which they are inevitably collaborating with others whenever they compose. As Findlay points out, such a view goes against a form of expressivism that sees writers as seeking to express a unified, autonomous self. And it resists the ideology of singular authorship as all-powerful, economically and politically (an ideology reified by the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling). On the other hand, it clearly recognizes the reality of writers writing today, and offers them ways to think about their writing in productive, meaningful, and performative ways. So thanks to Elise Findlay and to others who are calling on us to reorient our attention to writers and to view multiplicity as an effective framework for doing so.
Image Credit: Pixabay Image 865073 by picjumbo_com, used under the Pixabay License