What is an author? Michel Foucault posed the question in the title of a now classic lecture delivered in 1969 to the Société française de la philosophie, calling it “slightly odd” (1977, “What Is an Author,” in Language, Counter-Memory, Practice, ed. D. Bouchard).
Given how influential the essay has become, it is today more likely to be this characterization itself which strikes us as strange. Perhaps, though, Foucault was identifying less the question's originality—others had asked it before him—than its underlying paradox, which is that it interrogates a concept whose force lies largely in its goes-without-saying aspect. In his lecture, he addressed two criticisms of his recent study, Les mots et les choses (1966, The Order of Things), which had taken him to task, first, for inaccurately representing the ideas of specific intellectuals, say Buffon or Marx; and second, for creating “monstrous families” through unconventional groupings of writers. He articulated surprise not at these criticisms per se, with which he did not disagree, but at a blind spot in his own reflection to which they pointed. For The Order of Things set out to track broad shifts in cultural discourses; it was not concerned with conveying the thought of any individual or the coherence of a group of thinkers. By invoking names, Foucault attracted criticism that was, in his view, quite beside the point. Yet he had cited them anyway, without a thought to their potentially errant meaning in the context. Why? “[W]hy did I use the names of authors in The Order of Things?” he asked (114). The lecture, at one level, thus sought to account for a reflex that Foucault had himself neglected to control: How, why, and when did the author become such an automatic and instinctive point of reference for evoking ideas, concepts and stories?
Foucault's question played up the historical contingency of an ideal whose self-evidence had endowed it with a “natural” quality. Foucault argued that authorship reflects a decisive shift in our conceptualization and valuation of texts, one by which a text comes to acquire its principal meaning and value through its association with a single person who stands “outside and precedes it” (115), and to whom the text points. Foucault's lecture enumerated what he took to be the key characteristics of “authored” texts, and scholars have since picked up on the central themes that he laid out. They have, in addition, been drawn to how authoriality transforms not just the texts but the individuals associated with them, individuals who will be defined as they were defined in Antoine Furetière's famous seventeenth-century dictionary: “authors: it is said of all those who have brought to light some kind of book” (1690, Dictionnaire). Furetière's definition suggests an obvious answer to Foucault's question. However, the ways in which a person's identity might be constituted by a primary relationship to a book, considered in all of its legal, political, economic, social, cultural, and aesthetic dimensions, opens up a range of complex issues, which the study of authorship addresses. To ask “what is an author” is to interrogate the nature of intellectual authority and freedom of expression; it is to ask about the meaning of originality, and about the role of writer in society, among other pressing questions.
Authorship as Legal Appropriation
For Foucault, an “authored” text is, first of all, an “object of appropriation,” that is, owned by an individual and, as a result, subject to legal control. We can understand such control in a variety of ways. It might refer to the surveillance of writers in new censorship regimes associated with the formation of centralized states in early modern Europe, and with the desire to regulate the circulation of print, especially after the transformative role played by the moveable type press in the rapid dissemination of Protestantism (see TYPOGRAPHY). In this view, authors emerged to the degree that political and religious authorities needed individuals whom they could make responsible— and punish—for the existence of heterodox tracts. Official book-trade regulations from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries do indeed insist that the writer's name, along with that of the printer/publisher, be highlighted on the title page of each copy; and it is plausible that such legislation “invented” a new type of intellectual identity based on the strict association of an individual to a written (and printed) text (see PUBLISHING).
Such stipulations were, however, systematically flouted, with the result that anonymity proved to be a widespread and acceptable authorial mode in the Old Regime intellectual field. La Rochefoucauld or Madame de Lafayette would clearly headline any list of the “great French authors of the seventeenth century.” Yet both refused to attach their names to published works, which circulated openly nonetheless. We might ask if the ordinances controlling the circulation of print articulated new concepts of authorial identity in the effort to monitor and control subversive writing, or if conversely, they simply sought to bring into their purview practices that had previously evolved outside of its purview. The question is certainly difficult to resolve; it is perhaps one of the defining traits of authorship that the relationship it posits between the writer and the authorities enforcing political order would always remain so ambiguous.
An alternative view of “appropriation” considers the author not as the effect of the regulation of print but as the outcome of new legal conceptions of personal rights and freedoms. The author is conceived as the “owner” of texts, a status affirmed in principles of literary or intellectual property which—whether formally codified in law or simply followed in custom—recognize the work, and the value of the work, to be functions of an individual's efforts and originality. Rather than censorship trials or print-trade decrees, this author appears historically as an interested party in lawsuits against counterfeiters or in contentious negotiations with printers over payments, where his or her litigiousness and commercial savvy are taken to reflect an underlying, defining desire for autonomy. At first glance, this is the independence of the professional seeking to make a living without having to rely on traditional forms of aristocratic and royal patronage, which are presumed to impose constraints on the writer's free expression by forcing deference before social rank. In this respect, the story of the writer's growing capacity to “live by the pen” is simultaneously construed as an account of intellectual liberation, one that tightly correlates the rise of an entrepreneurial mode of authorship with the development of the writer as a freethinking and unbeholden critic.
The proprietary model has been influential for studies focusing on England, in part due to what is normally considered to be the earlier commercialization of the English literary field in the eighteenth century. It could, of course, be argued that the literary field has always been commercialized, and in fact, a great deal of fruitful recent scholarship has shown that writers were intervening in the commercial production of their works from the earliest years of the printing press. The question is then less about the appearance of opportunities for professionalization through the sale of works, than about the ways in which writers availed themselves of opportunities that had long existed. Decisive for the English case was the willingness of established figures to become directly involved in the commercial publication of their writings, and moreover, to incorporate—rather than conceal—this involvement into their self-justifying authorial discourse as a clear sign of their independence, bringing their accumulated symbolic capital to bear on the rhetorical move. When his translations of Homer's epics proved to be a tremendous financial success in the 1720s, earning him an unprecedented payday, Alexander Pope (1688—1744) did not play down his earnings from the enterprise but highlighted them as linchpins of a newfound intellectual liberty, “Indebted to no Prince or Peer alive,” as he wrote (Imitations of Horace, Epistle 2:2).
Correlatively, if the situation in France has, in the eyes of scholars, always seemed to lag behind Britain, it is to some extent because we must wait until the late eighteenth and even the nineteenth century before we find well-known writers ready to build their identities on the basis of their engagements with the print trade, as income earners and holders of intellectual property rights. Until then, such contacts were stridently negated, surfacing in authorial discourse only insofar as they were repudiated in “anti-professional” gestures—refusing payments and affecting disinterest before the possibilities offered by the commercial press—which conveyed the elite honorability of the writer. Even those figures that we normally associate in France with the “autonomy” of the modern intellectual, namely Enlightenment-era philosophes such as Voltaire(1694—1778) or Jean le Rond d'Alembert (1717—83), remained faithful to older prejudices against the involvement of the writer in literary commerce. Only when the iconic playwright Pierre Beaumarchais (1732—99) rallied in favor of better pay for the dramatic authors producing for the Comédie française in the 1770s by organizing the Société des auteurs dramatiques (society of writers of drama), is the “revolution of authors” thought to have arrived in France.
Authorship as Work
Such an assessment construes Beaumarchais's engagement with the authorial condition to be spurred primarily by the ideal of the independent professional, although, as Brown argues, his polemics suggest that it was in fact driven by a desire not to liberate writers from an Old Regime political and social hierarchy in which he had an enormous amount at stake (as a financier and sometime agent of the French monarchy), but to renegotiate their status within that system. It also sidesteps the fact that, if the strongest claims to proprietary authorship in eighteenth-century France did not come from the Gallic equivalents of Pope, Samuel Johnson, or Daniel Defoe, they do exist in two other sources, both of which highlight key problems for historical accounts of the author. For one, we find them in the pamphleteering of second-tier writers who decried the “tyranny” of profiteering publishers in forceful, angry claims. Insofar, though, as they emanated not from the reasoned engagement of heavyweights but from the brute survival struggles of obscure figures and, in particular, out of their failures and hopelessness rather than their triumphs, these interventions have not captured the imaginations of scholars loath to elevate unheralded and often bitter writers—the lawyer and polemicist Simon-Nicolas-Henri Linguet (1736—94) is one of the better known—as heroes in the fight for authorial rights.
More significantly, perhaps, we also find early reflections of the proprietary author in the legal arguments of the Printers' and Booksellers' Guild of Paris, which, from the 1720s, increasingly questioned the privilège system by which the book trade had long been regulated. Bestowing on publishers short-term monopolies to print and sell particular works, privileges had been issued since the early sixteenth century to help publishers recoup their investments in an industry characterized by high upfront costs (in the Old typographical Regime, paper accounted for the largest production expense; see PAPER AND PRINT). Moreover, as the word suggests, privileges offered exemptions from a general rule, granted by the liberality of the King. The Guild maintained, however, that the “rights” conveyed by privileges were not rooted in monarchical goodwill but were based in natural law which stipulated that publishers buying works in free transactions from their writers properly owned these works, since those who had applied their labor and originality in creating them had a basic prerogative to transfer possession to whomever they chose. As such, the rights of publishers could not be limited, as were traditionally the protections offered by the privilege. In this framework, the author takes shape as a philosophical construct serving the Guild's Lockean arguments in favor of permanent rather than temporary property rights. The concept functioned, moreover, as a rhetorical device infusing the publishers' cause with moral urgency. For, they claimed, at stake was not merely the profitability of merchants but more saliently the intellectual health of the nation, since without permanent rights, great thinkers could not be adequately paid and would therefore not produce the works that brought glory to the kingdom.
Such rhetoric was central as well to the petitions of English printers, who mobilized after the lapse in 1694 of the Licensing Act that had granted the London Stationers Company a virtual monopoly on printing in England (it had been regularly renewed throughout the seventeenth century), formulating some of the clearest depictions of the independent professional writer to be encountered in eighteenth-century Europe. These images were, of course, opportunistic and fictitious, bearing little relation to any recognizable reality experienced by writers living off eclectic sources of income and protection. Nonetheless, it formed the basis for powerful mythologies of the author as a new type of intellectual, which marked a sharp break with earlier models of the writer, whose identity was more likely to be articulated in and through integration into an aristocratic world of leisure. Construed now in terms of their position within a commercial production system, authors were valorized by their work, which ought to command the compensation paid for other forms of industry: “The most common artisan ... in his trade lives from the labors of his own hands. Why do the labors of intelligence, works of genius, not provide the same advantages ...?” asked one French pamphleteer in 1770 (Charles-Joseph Fenouillot de Falbaire, Avis aux gens de lettres, 37—38). In the new mode, writers ceased to downplay their creations as trivialities thrown together in haste for the sole purpose of elite entertainment and instead emphasized their efforts, struggles, and sacrifice.
Authorship, Economic Struggles, and Moral Transcendence
Images of writers' tireless labors and economic hardships were fundamental to the property argument. They were also central to the paradoxical nature of authorial professionalism. In the pro-author polemics, “literary property” was often presented as, in a way, more proprietary than other forms of ownership, that is, a zero-degree form, which if denied called into question all rights, including to land and to the products of physical labor. In a complex 1763 text written for the Parisian Guild in their legal battles against the royal administration, Denis Diderot wrote:
What is the good that a man can possess, if a work of intellect, the unique fruit of his education, of his studies, of his sleepless nights, of his time, of his research, of his observations, if the most precious hours, the most beautiful moments of his life, if his own thoughts, the feelings in his heart, that part of him which is the most cherished, which never perishes, and which immortalizes him, does not belong to him? (Lettre sur le commerce de la librairie)
He went on to ask: “Who has a greater right than the author to transfer his work by gift or sale?” Ostensibly advancing the Parisian publishers' case for permanent rights to intellectual property, Diderot was in truth demonstrating the unsaleability of a “good” that embodied not just labor and raw materials but the thought and soul of its creator. While certainly no government could contemplate curtailing the individual's proprietary claim to his or her own mind, imagination, and being, by the same token, what writer could contemplate selling these “most cherished” parts of him or herself?
As one of the more powerful figurations of the modern intellectual, the proprietary author has always been traversed by the contradiction of being defined by an autonomy that rested on what was, at the end of the day, an impossible act—selling his or her work—which freed the writer from dependency on nobility, yet instantly discredited him or her as a crass mercenary. The paradox invites us to rethink the proprietary claims on which modern authorial independence has been based. We assume that they were advanced in good faith, seeking validation in legal rights and payments from publishers. But the claims were always far more equivocal, because ultimately the last thing that the writer wanted was for them to be granted and to receive a decent return commensurate with his or her evolution as a full-fledged “professional.” If the modern author's birth can be discovered in the claims of writers to the same rights and entitlements enjoyed by anyone who has to work for a living, it is only to the extent that, unlike with “normal” workers, these claims are inevitably rebuffed, most of all by greedy publishers who refuse to pay a fair price. The pursuit of intellectual autonomy through the profitable sale of literary works thereby elevates the writer as the voice of a new authority to speak the truth only so long as the effort ends in failure. The author thus emerges not in legal or economic victories, but as the outcome of a more complex conceptual development whereby an expectation of rights and income becomes established, widespread, and accepted as just, whereas the reality of such remuneration does not. The author is defined by the tension, manifest in the inequity of his or her situation.
Images of the writer's “exploitation,” which articulate both the rising expectations and the disappointing reality, and in particular the sharp discrepancy between the two, proliferate as key figurations of the ambiguity of the authorial condition. They reflect various themes, including the notion that the author was born of a demographic crisis in the eighteenth century caused by a spike in the desirability of the vocation. Samuel Johnson's 1753 reference to the “Age of Authors” describes the glut in terms of an “epidemical conspiracy for the destruction of paper” (Adventurer 115, 11 Dec. 1753). At the same time, the images point to the singularity of the individual whose dedication in such adverse circumstances manifests an extraordinary nature, characterized by disinterest and painful sacrifice. Exemplified by Alfred de Vigny's romantic portrayal of Thomas Chatterton in his successful 1834 play, the writer suffers for a greater cause, choosing deprivation, poverty, and in a supreme gesture of sacrifice, his or her own death in order to ensure the integrity and truth of the work. The author stands as a transcendent figure, as described by Paul Bénichou, who explores the “consecration of the writer” in the Romantic period. With the decline of the Church's power in the late eighteenth century, Bénichou argues, it was the writer who filled the vacuum, taking on a secular priestly function by tending to the spiritual wellbeing of the people.
In this view, authorship describes not just a specific activity—writing books—but also the moral qualities of the person engaged in it. We might propose that authorship imbues the activity of writing books with a moral disposition, and conversely links an ethical outlook with an intellectual practice construed as especially apt for its articulation. One becomes an author to the extent that, in putting pen to paper (and publishing the resulting text), one stakes a claim to righteousness and takes responsibility, for instance, by standing behind the work rather than cowering behind a veil of anonymity. By the same token, the rise of the author reflects the appropriation of writing—and the book—as the most suitable media for expressing basic truths about the self. It might be added that, in a modern authorial regime, these truths are assumed to be generally positive ones—writing books is a privileged means for communicating an individual's intelligence, depth, honesty, goodness, and insight. Yet this was not always the case in the early modern era. Montaigne's modernity in so identifying himself with his own book contrasts starkly with another tradition, according to which a published book casts suspicion on its writer, in as much as it reflects the pride or self-importance of the person who, believing it deserves such monumentalization, wants to see his or her writing in print. Nicolas Boileau advised aspiring poets, in his Art poétique (1674): “Rid yourself ... of authorial arrogance.”
Either way, the association of book writing with a certain temperament and character highlights the way in which authorial discourse isolates the individual, as Foucault noted. This authorial individualism has been critiqued in recent scholarship from a number of angles. Adrian Johns and Robert Darnton have contested the status of the “author” as the sole source of a text's meaning by exploring the larger social and commercial dynamics in the context of which the author stands as merely one agent within a diverse group of artisans, merchants, and businesspeople as well as censors, patrons, and bureaucrats. Pierre Bourdieu's theory of the “cultural field” similarly maintains that the value associated with authors (as well as with artists) does not emanate “charismatically” from their peculiar genius, but is constructed in an extended network of agents, dealers, publicists, and critics (we might add entertainment and media corporations, advertisers, and so on), all of whom contribute to the “production of belief” in this value (1993).
In fact, Voltaire anticipated such analyses in a 1733 letter to a government official, a text that has been celebrated as an early call for press freedom in France. Voltaire attacks censorship by focusing on the economic costs of banning books, which are then published abroad to the benefit of Dutch, Swiss, or English printers. To illustrate the point, he enumerates the potential beneficiaries of press freedom in France who lose out, including the author (he is speaking particularly about the authors of “bad novels”), but only as one among many sustained by the book trade, along with the foundry worker, the printer, the papermaker, the binder, and the wine merchant, “to whom all of these bring their money” (“Lettre à un premier commis,” 20 June 1733). Such contextualization demystifies the ideal of the singular author; but it does miss a key aspect of the latter's logic (pursuing a different agenda, Voltaire was of course not attempting to characterize this ideal). Namely, the singularity of the figure is not the result of ignoring the reality of the broader cultural market but manifests instead an intensifying awareness of the commercialization of literary life. As an articulation of modernity, the transcendent view of the author is from the beginning an engagement with the writer's immersion within a larger industrial operation, one that plays out, however, in a staunch resistance to this immersion which, in opposition to it, upholds the author as the sole possible source of the work's value, while in the process subordinating all the other agents and mechanisms of the book trade before the primacy of this source, to the point where these agents and mechanisms are called upon to disappear.
“[I]n a right order, the Publisher is made for the author and not the author for the Publisher,” wrote Pierre-Jacques Blondel in a 1725 pamphlet, “Mémoire sur les vexations qu'exercent les libraires et imprimeurs de Paris.” In a 1785 article appearing in the Berlinische Monatsschrift, Immanuel Kant (1724—1804) downscaled the role of publishers to that of a “silent instrument” that merely allows the writer's discourse to reach the public (“Von der Unrechtmässigkeit des Büchernachdrucks”). Their function is defined negatively not positively, with their most essential contribution being to stay out of the way and not impede, obstruct, or distort the author's discourse. Authorship, in this respect, amounts to a constant effort of pushback. For a writer becomes an author to the extent that he or she engages the publication process through a tremendous anxiety about how his or her work might be altered in the course of its transformation from manuscript into printed edition and assumes throughout a defensive posture of vigilance and resistance to potential changes. Authorship in turn reconfigures the book trade by narrowly identifying it in terms of the production of a writer's work. In other words, the fundamental unity of the publishing industry will, in the authorial framework, be tied to its effectiveness in disseminating not “books”—whether this term refers to material objects (say, books as luxury items) or to vessels of information and knowledge—but the words, ideas, feelings, and moral outlook of a particular, culturally esteemed category of person. The portraits of James Joyce, Toni Morrison, Edith Wharton, and others that adorn the walls of Barnes and Noble bookstores reaffirm such a vision of the book trade (illustrating as well the degree to which, like the “proprietary author,” it can be co-opted for commercial interests), even as these larger-than-life images can be associated with only the tiniest fraction of the merchandise sold in the stores.
Another critique of authorial individualism, what Martha Woodmansee has called “the author effect,” focuses not on the diverse agents engaged in the production of a book but on the multiplicity of contributors who might be involved in the composition of a single work. The modern notion of authorship resists collaboration, a practice that, in its various forms (co-writing, compiling, ghostwriting), has not only played a crucial role in the history of writing and print, but which, again, accounts for a far greater proportion of publications than those to which a transcendent concept of authorship might be attached. Nonetheless, the “singular relationship” between writer and work at the core of the definition of authorship is construed as a necessary and exclusive one. An author is not just someone “who writes a book,” to recall Furetière's phrase, but one who, in being named on the title page, advances a claim to being the one and only individual who could have written it.
Authorship, Gender, and the Novel
The focus on authorial singularity and collaboration has particular implications for GENDER effects. Joan DeJean has explored how the sociable, interactive ambiance of the seventeenth-century salon was conducive to women's writing. The modern authorial regime, conversely, built on individual legal and economic rights that historically women could not unproblematically claim, was certainly less amenable. Rousseau's affirmations of his authorship play out in combative letters with his publishers; but writers such as Françoise de Graffigny and Isabelle de Charrière had less access to such media, having to rely on male intermediaries in dealing with their editors (see EDITING). They could not as a result assert themselves in the same ways. Inasmuch as it articulated a shift from private to public sphere, from interactive to solitary intellectual practices, and from social to commercial circulation, authorship, in the framework of the eighteenth and nineteenth century, defined an a priori male identity, more so in any case than various earlier models of the writer, such as that exemplified by the salon-based “novelists” (referring to the Old Regime prose-fictional forms romans and nouvelles) Madeleine de Scudéry, Lafayette, and the Duchesse de Montpensier. And if, ultimately, more and more women sought to make a life in literature as the Old Regime cultural establishment collapsed with the Revolution of 1789, as Carla Hesse (2001) has shown, they did so in the face of new kinds of obstacles which, while perhaps less CLASS-determined (clearly, some type of elite social integration was a precondition for female writing in the seventeenth century), were more specifically gendered.
What is the author of a novel? The issue of gender opens onto this question since long and short prose narrative forms were privileged GENREs for women's writing in the early modern literary field. The novel would also become a privileged mode for the author. Indeed, by the nineteenth century in Europe, it was the unrivalled instrument for communicating the profound insights and moral vision of an individual. How prose fiction evolved from a non-canonical form tied to the intimate, exclusive conversations of an aristocratic clique to the dominant medium through which an intellectual and a secular spiritual leader spoke to a broad public is well beyond the purview of this entry. It is notable, however, that the “rise of the novel” and the “birth of the author” in the seventeenth through the nineteenth century always remain in close parallel.
See also: Copyright/Libel, History of the Novel, Religion, Reprints, Reviewing
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