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July 28, 2005

Sole Creators?

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

One of the biggest surprises I experienced on settling into the culture/media life was how messy questions of attribution often turn out to be. Teachers (as well as our own romantic fantasies) sometimes lead us to think of artworks as being the products of unique individuals. In fact, coaches, friends, technicians, spouses, editors, producers, and even corporations often play immense roles in the creation of cultural works we think of as having been created by one person.

A quick handful of examples: Katharine Hepburn was a great actress, but she didn't write her own lines or block her own scenes. George Lucas' movies were certainly better when he was married to Marcia. The editor Michael Korda elicited, shaped, and published the novels of Jacqueline Susann. The British mystery writer Dick Francis stopped writing when his wife died; although the mysteries had always been marketed as being "by Dick Francis," he and his wife had in fact been a creative team.

(Small personal note: To my mind, one of the bigger puzzles of the reading-and-writing game is the question, Why do so many readers enjoy imagining that the book they're reading was created by only one person? Why should this matter? Weird.)

But perhaps the existence of the blogosphere is blowing some doors open. DesignObserver's Michael Bierut writes a good-natured posting confessing that he hasn't always been the sole creator of his own work, and spelling out how it is that the design process often works.



posted by Michael at July 28, 2005


Thanks for pointing to these - they are really interesting.

Sometimes it works the other way as well - Dashiell Hammett stopped writing once he was living with Lillian Hellman - except for the probably considerable influence he had on works under her name. Long friendships & close marriages seldom leave written records and biographers have trouble teasing out these connections.

Posted by: Ginny on July 28, 2005 10:27 AM

Don't forget F. Scott Fitzgerald, who plagiarized a lot of his wife's diary and short story work for his own novels, without crediting her.

Posted by: Isaac B2 on July 28, 2005 11:25 AM

Taking a stab at the question of why so many readers invest so much in single authorship: the reader's self-regard is at stake.
If a reader finds a writer who "speaks to him," whose words set him vibrating like a tuning fork, it would come as an affront to his amour propre to admit that he has been responding to the words of a committee (even if only a committee of two).

Posted by: ricpic on July 28, 2005 12:10 PM

With respect to books, it's not always easy to determine when editing ends and co-writing begins. One example is the Korda/Susann editor/author relationship as noted above. A more extreme case, so I've heard, was Alex Hailey's famous book Roots. According to industry gossip, the manuscript was so completely unpublishable that the editor had to rewrite the whole thing from the ground up.

Posted by: Peter on July 28, 2005 1:24 PM

The idea of authorship is most apparent in collaboritive endeavors such as filmmaking. When I went to film school, I always thought it odd that my film production classes and my "critical studies" classes were sending the students completely opposite messages. The academics were sold on the "auteur" theory, and talked about the unifying vision of the director. In the production classes, howevever, you could easily see how a clever editor or cinematographer could save the day for a crappy director. And few directors could do anything good without a good screenwriter (who are always the low man on the totem pole -- even in school). When talking about art, there seems to a natural inclination to say it was one person's vision. I know I never thank my blog's large writing staff enough.

Posted by: Neil on July 28, 2005 2:06 PM

Neil: I want to thank God, my editor and my always reliable super Peppo (man, I lov'ya, please come - that sink's a disaster) - I'm nothing without you, you were all crucial!

Posted by: Tatyana on July 28, 2005 2:28 PM

The question works the other way, too. Many books are billed as being written by [Famous Author] and [Unknown Author]. I often wonder how many of these should be billed as "Written by [Unknown Author] from an outline by, and with half the royalties to, [Famous Author]".

That said, I still see this as generally positive. The famous author has an incentive to not dilute the value of his name (so is likely to maintain some quality control) and an unknown author that the famous author respects (and that is likely to be respected by the famous author's audience) gets to be better known. Sometimes the process breaks down, of course, but that can happen for many other reasons as well.

Posted by: Doug Sundseth on July 28, 2005 2:30 PM

Cities are a fantastic example of what you speak. Despite what mainstream architecture journalism would have us believe, the best urban landscapes are those created by hundreds, if not thousands of people over decades and centuries. Yet where's the contemporary lauding of those who play small roles in developing a handful of triplexes and a couple of commercial buildings? All we get to hear about is the genius behind one or two 'signature' towers, stadia, or complexes.

Not only are all works of urban architecture most likely the product of collaboration behind the scenes (as with your literary examples above), but they're also the result of explicit interaction with the environment around them- adjacent buildings, the streets, the allotment pattern. And this is true whether they like it or not- better to accept it gracefully, than deny it and have it slip into the design regardless. Even the most 'tabula rasa' modernist housing projects usually still betray the underlying allotment system.

My hunch is that it is not all sinister- we haven't devolved into a society of egomaniacal self-promoters (though starchitecture can come close). It's just a lot easier for the critics and magazines to handle, for the foundations to support, and for the paperwork to get done. That said, our blindness to the fact that urban environments are the product of countless minor interventions over many years, and our tendency to crane our necks at the next big paradigm-shifting megatainment complex denies us a lot.


Posted by: Desmond Bliek on July 28, 2005 2:53 PM

A great example of the committee approach is, of course, the vast armies of studio assistants assembled by Raphael and Rubens. It's odd how often this leads to snide remarks by modern day journalists who point out that not all of Rubens' canvases were actually painted by Rubens as if they're confiding a dirty, little-known secret. The truth, of course, is that Rubens made no secret at all of the input of his studio in various works: a letter to a patron survives in which he lays out the prices for three categories of painting: (1) a work entirely by a member of his studio, with mere supervision by Rubens; (2) a work designed by Rubens, painted by a studio assistant and then 'touched up' by Rubens himself; or (3) a work entirely by Rubens' himself. Work in category (3), of course, was significantly more expensive than in categories (1) or (2).

I suspect that Rubens would have found this entire discussion verging on the unintelligible as well as the impractical. How else, he might ask, other than with studio assistance, would such large quantities of artwork (crucial for the Counter Reformation's efforts to win back believers from the evils of Protestantism)be produced? What's important here?

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on July 28, 2005 4:50 PM

I've started a blog. I'm new to all this and I'd love to know what you think to it

cheers pal

Posted by: anonymous on July 28, 2005 5:05 PM

Reminds me of a picture I once saw, about a screenwriter who found out the hard way how valuable screenwriters are in hollywood.
You think you're the only writer who can give me that Barton Fink feeling?! I got twenty writers under contract that I can ask for a Fink-type thing from.

Posted by: arnie on July 28, 2005 5:58 PM

If you folks haven't done so yet, it might be worth your while to read the Michael Bierut post that Michael links to. And read the comments, too.

The subject is graphic arts, and comments get into the distinction between Design (the concept or selection amongst alternative possibilities) and Craft (the realization of the design). The consensus seemed to be that without the Design leader (the "auteur"?), the final result would have been different and likely inferior if left solely in the hands of the folks in the Craft end of the shop.

I have no personal experience in this, but the commenter consensus seems reasonable. In Industrial Design, a well-known instance is Raymond Loewy who took credit (or blame) for whatever products emerged from his studios. Although it might well have been ego-related, a solid business case can also be made -- Loewy himself was a self-created, shrewdly-marketed product and this was critical to bringing in new business, offering the cachet of having a Loewy design.

Somewhat different was the case of Harley Earl at General Motors 1928-58. He took the credit though he never attempted to sketch anything -- literally never raised a pencil. Yet via cryptic critiques and vague pronouncements to his staff, he most definitely was the most influential car stylist of his era. Most accounts I've read by his (very talented) former employees attest to his overwhelming presence and influence.

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on July 28, 2005 8:32 PM

There's an article about just this issue over at Is Owen Wilson the secret sauce in Wes Anderson's films? I suspect, yeah.

Posted by: lindenen on July 28, 2005 9:59 PM

I feel split in more than a few ways about all this. On the one hand, as far as practicality goes, it's a convenient shorthand to be able to talk about designs "by" Raymond Loewy, or a novel "by" Jacqueline Susann. It would be really awkward to have to explain all the ins and outs and to cite the entire credit list every time you wanted to talk about a chair, a car, a movie, or a novel. Convenience can be a good thing!

On the other hand, there's simply being uninformed -- not a sin, and usually easily remedied. But there's also romantic self-delusion. That's a harder case to deal with. I sometimes wonder if there's any upside to romantic self-delusion. Lots of people would say yes, I suppose, but I do wonder anyway.

Come to think of it, there's also the case of people who flip entirely the other way, and give no credit whatsoever to the usually-recognized auteurs. In this hyper-post-modern view, the system is expressing itself, and the individuals it expresses itself through are pretty much irrelevant. Historical/social determinism returns!

Hey, another example is the early plays of Sam Shepard, many of which were evidently cooked up in pretty-intense improv-y sessions with actors and directors. Didn't I hear that some of his early actors are pretty bitter that Sam hasn't been a little more open about their participation? And certainly his later plays have nothing like the zing his early ones do. That might have to do with drugs too, of course ...

More examples: Duke Ellington and Count Basie, both of whom used their band instrumentalists not as passive vessels but as active collaborators.

Balance, respect, recognition of how it's actually done, generosity -- hard to hit the right tone sometimes. I thought Thomas Schatz' book about Hollywood movies, called "The Genius of the System," hit a pretty good balance -- the system itself is the major creator, but the individuals pitched in and had their influence ...

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on July 29, 2005 2:11 AM

Click on Jessica Simpson Video.

Posted by: john massengale on July 31, 2005 5:19 PM

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