An Exercise in Identity
December 19, 2002 7:45 PM   Subscribe

An Exercise in Identity A group of writers seeks to collaborate under a single pseudonym, not for fear of scorn or ridicule, but presumably because they think it makes for better business. Do readers have a right to know who a work's author really is, or can identity just be another aspect of the fictional work? (via Kuro5hin queue)
posted by Erasmus (27 comments total)
dodgy. anytime you have to resort to the web to do something like this -- instant crap. just add weblog -- i mean water.
posted by donkeyschlong at 8:14 PM on December 19, 2002

If I wanted to improve my chances of being published, the absolute last thing I would do is collaborate with an unpublished writer I met through a web page.

I don't think the reading public has any right to know who a work's author is, unless the author is claiming some kind of special expertise.
posted by kewms at 9:21 PM on December 19, 2002

Do readers have a right to know who a work's author really is, or can identity just be another aspect of the fictional work?

Well, would a really excellent novel you had previously cherished and love suddenly suck if you found out it had been written by a conglomeration of miscellaneous webloggers? Writers have hidden their names, genders, and other traits secret for ages. As far as I'm concerned, we as readers are entitled to whatever information the writer wants to provide.

I'd like to see if this gets off the ground and if any writing comes from it. I have no idea if it would be good or bad, but I have always viewed writing as a very personal thing, especially in terms of fiction, so the idea of seeking to form a group of virtual strangers to write fiction seems a little doubtful to me. And maybe it's cheesy, but isn't it sad that their first priority is publication? Sure, everyone wants to be published, but should that truly be the ultimate goal?
posted by catfood at 9:31 PM on December 19, 2002

"If you're stuck thinking of authors as 'writers,' you're never going to [understand branding]," says Gottlieb

::: shudders :::
posted by rushmc at 9:41 PM on December 19, 2002

From the page: Almost all great works of fiction have been written for the masses (and more specifically, for money).

Ugh. Too concerned with commerce.

Might be interesting for a group of unknown writers to collaborate and release work under a common pseudonym, but the fact that they're using Tom Clancy and Nancy Drew as models gives me the impression that this is doomed.
posted by bobo123 at 9:50 PM on December 19, 2002

...the fact that they're using Tom Clancy and Nancy Drew as models gives me the impression that this is doomed.

They're forgetting the key element of any creative endeavor -- it's only "art" if nobody understands it, nobody likes it, and the artist dies poor, miserable, and penniless. :-)
posted by Erasmus at 10:05 PM on December 19, 2002

This reminds me of the eminent mathematician N. Bourbaki. Of course, Bourbaki strikes me as romantic - scholars doing serious work with a playful wink and no regard for personal recognition. As time passed the endeavor became a sly inside joke and a colorful part of the history of mathematics.

I'm more cynical about this other thing. It seems like he's being clever for the sake of being clever.

Incidentally, there's not nearly as much on the web about Bourbaki as I feel that there should be. In English, at least...
posted by stuart_s at 10:07 PM on December 19, 2002

It's just tacky to set out with absolutely no goal or concept except making money. It's not that popular works can't be art, it's just that it's sad when there is no actual soul behind the work. and the authors don't care what their novel/story is about as long as it will sell. How can something be worth anything if there is no integrity to it?

People suck.
posted by catfood at 10:22 PM on December 19, 2002

I don't think I'd go that far, catfood (about art vs. making money...I'd definitely agree that people suck). How can one blame someone for providing a service for which there is an existing demand? There is an audience for both types of work (to slash them violently into two camps, which is certainly a very rough generalization), and I have no problem whatsoever with writers providing for both groups.

I just want each type to be clearly identified so as not to accidently purchase the wrong one (a sentiment I'm sure would be shared by most, of whatever persuasion).
posted by rushmc at 10:30 PM on December 19, 2002

I'm not blaming him for wanting to make money, who doesn't? I'm not even blaming him for having being published as a goal. I'm blaming him for having (or acting as if he has) being published and making lots of money as the only goal.

I think if you don't have anything you need to say in your writing and you could care less what the topic agreed on by the group is, that is
posted by catfood at 10:40 PM on December 19, 2002

...oops...just tacky. Not morally wrong or anything, just tacky and kind of sad.
posted by catfood at 10:42 PM on December 19, 2002

Being 'not published' means making no money, so catfood, the point you are trying to make is unclear.
posted by mischief at 11:07 PM on December 19, 2002

Give me a break - I am just saying that a writer whose sole goal is to be published/make money rather than to say something meaningful to them strikes me as sad and tacky. How is that unclear?

Maybe my last post was garbled, but I didn't mean to hit "post" when I did -- I was halfway through trying to rewrite it. So sorry for the confusion.
posted by catfood at 11:24 PM on December 19, 2002

Well, hopefully the entire writing team will all die in a horrible plane crash that had millions of American dollars on it.
Why not? They deserve that kind of coverage.
posted by Kodel at 11:29 PM on December 19, 2002

Hmm... it strikes me that if one's goal is making lots of money, going into writing is about the last thing you'd want to do. Most writers have a life on the breadline ahead of them, working crappy jobs to support their writing habit.
But on the original topic of multiple authorship; fair enough if the writer wants to use a pseudonym to hide his or her true identity, but when one buys a book on the basis of an author, one has a right to expect it's written by the same person. It's like, if someone started ghosting for [insert your personal favourite author] and publishing books in his/her name, that would be fraudulent.
You can fall back on a wanky post-modernist death-of-the-author defence, but that's so obviously gimmicky that it condemns the fiction itself to a piece of performance art. The whole thing sounds like it'll be as crappy as hell, in my humblest of humble opinions. But that's because I'm in my 'inauspicious beginnings' phase of my writing career.
posted by RokkitNite at 4:11 AM on December 20, 2002

Who the author is doesn't matter as long as it isn't misrepresented. I used to read Tom Clancy's novels whenever I was travelling, he had a writing style that I enjoyed and I was also interested in the subject matter. On one trip I picked up his latest novel. The writing seemed off and the usual depth of research seemed to be missing. It felt as if a gloss had been written with a few character sketches.

I didn't think much of it until I read in the papers a few weeks later that this wasn't in fact a Tom Clancy novel, it was a "Tom Clancy's" novel, which means that he had in fact done what I described above. This is fraud or at least misrepresentation, pure and simple.

Now if Tom Clancy decided that he wanted to branch into a genre which he isn't usually associated with, say romance novels, and wanted to create a pseudonym that would be fair game. The romance novel in question would be written by, albeit without peoples knowledge for at least a while, Tom Clancy.

It isn't fair to your customers to start a "Dread Pirate Robert's" type franchise around your name when you've decided you're fat and content.
posted by substrate at 5:33 AM on December 20, 2002

A writer's name is nothing more than branding. That's always been true. That isn't the problem with publishing. The problem is that the number of brands is being whittled down to a precious few.

There are books written for love and published by bored press operators for $1000 down and $5 a copy. They are great works of art written by angst filled modern Edgar Allen Poe wannabes.

You'll probably never read them or even hear of them. That's because a very few people in the publishing and bookstore industries decide what you'll see at your local WalBarnes.

If you're a writer...get published any way you can. Write weekly installments for cash. That can be art. Write a novel under a house name to get the cash to write your own novel.

I applaud anyone who gets their word out any way they can, but I'll stand up for anyone who can get recognized for work they published themselves.

And, RokkitNite: you do know that ghosting is a publishing tradition, right? They consider it a "feature."
posted by ?! at 5:49 AM on December 20, 2002

Well, they're short-sighted to reference Tom Clancy.

Of commercial writings that get taught in schools today, the foremost example is Dickens; serialized soap operas that appeared in the newspapers of the day. "Literature" as we think of it wasn't always bifurcated with our high art/low art blinders.

What they're proposing is really how many screenwriters write now: in pairs or teams, fast, and with an eye to product.

The big question is probably: where do these writers live? How much access do they have to the publishing industry? How acquainted are they with agents who are willing to work it for them? It's the publishing industry itself that is most of the problem. In a world where purchased manuscripts are still submitted on printed paper, and then actually retyped by assistants, and slated for publication in 18 months or 2 years time, how in touch with popular culture can this industry be?

Writing can be a job and nothing more. Why not? Not everyone wants to write a lasting contribution to literature, and not everyone disdains the plotty, thrilling mystery.
posted by RJ Reynolds at 6:47 AM on December 20, 2002

Any of you guys ever heard of Luther Blisset? It was a They published an awesome historical thriller titles Q. It was presumably written by a group of 4 writers, as well as an unknown number of contributors over the web. Incidentally, the book is awesome.
posted by frog at 7:09 AM on December 20, 2002

So here's what I think they should do. They should pick someone based entirely on their looks as a front person. That way they have someone who can travel around and do book signings and "Fresh Air" interviews, and they can concentrate on doing all the writing. Heck it worked for Milli Vanilli. They should also include a good publicist and marketing team.

The way I look at it is, so what? If they are successful, great. If people feel like they have been fooled, they better open their eyes because our corporate and political world is fooling them every waking second.
posted by Eekacat at 7:30 AM on December 20, 2002

re the "ghosting" of novels, it's hardly new. Look at how much work Anne McCaffrey now produces "with [name]".

Do people who buy Lemony Snicket books feel betrayed when they discover he is actually this man?
posted by anyanka at 11:43 AM on December 20, 2002

Do readers have a right to know who a work's author really is, or can identity just be another aspect of the fictional work?
Identity can be an aspect of the fictional work. Think Neal Pollack's vision of Neal Pollack. Recently I've begun to wonder if Thomas Pynchon even exists. Hakim Bey or Peter Lambert Wilson also come to mind. These are all pseudonyms, not groups, but the idea of identity branding is similar.
posted by elwoodwiles at 12:15 PM on December 20, 2002

rushmc posted:

How can one blame someone for providing a service for which there is an existing demand?

Although this article suggests they may have mistimed their run a little:

'Crichton is down. Clancy is down. Turow is not making its numbers. All the big ticket-fiction has been suffering...'

A writer's name is nothing more than branding. That's always been true

I don't know, !?. My take on this is that the writer's name has only been a 'brand' since the nineteenth century. There's been a lot of scholarly effort lately to relate 'the birth of the author' to the rise of consumer capitalism in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries in the UK. For instance, the fact that previously anonymous verse plays published in Elizabethan London start to acquire authors from about 1598 onward has been taken as indicating that playwrights' names were starting to become valuable as brands at around this time. The problem with this is that there are other reasons why a book or play might have needed an author appended to it -- if the work was deemed politically dangerous, for instance, the Crown would want to know who to hunt down and imprison. There may have been pressure on publishers to identify an author so as to avoid criminal liability if it all went horribly wrong.

So much that's wrong in recent literary history stems from theorists who extend contemporary concerns or economic systems into the past, and use them to explain (quite anachronistically) why events occurred as they did.
posted by Sonny Jim at 1:31 PM on December 20, 2002

So much that's wrong in recent literary history stems from theorists who extend contemporary concerns or economic systems into the past, and use them to explain (quite anachronistically) why events occurred as they did.

That's a problem that extends well beyond just literary history...
posted by rushmc at 4:45 PM on December 20, 2002

Well, yeah. Good point. Although I do have to say that literary history done badly is about the worst form of bad history I've come across. Most social, political or economic historians at least have some self-consciousness about what they're doing. With literary historians, it's like 'can the text bear this reading? Good. Context? Historicity? What the hell's that?'
posted by Sonny Jim at 5:46 PM on December 20, 2002

There was a group of about 20 journalists in 1969 who pulled off the joint literary hoax, Naked Came the Stranger under the pseudonym Penelope Ashe. A group of Floridian writers, including Dave Barry and Carl Hiaasen, later paid homage by writing Naked Came the Manatee.
posted by jonp72 at 6:40 PM on December 20, 2002

During the pulp years many writers used various pennames to (1) give the impression multiple authors filled the issue and (2) write under different styles. Their major concern was often audience loyalty. A reader had certain expectations of the works of Erle Stanley Gardner, so he had to write his "hip" books under the brand of A.A. Fair.

Sonny Jim...true. I should have said "When they signed their work the author's name was a brand." I understood that Greek playwrights signed their work and audiences held certain expectations based on the name of the author.

Some authors use various names to help readers know what kind of work to expect. And as such, I'm ?!, not !?. I only sign that name for political consulting work and other pornography.
posted by ?! at 7:20 PM on December 20, 2002

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