An author and his work

This week’s readings on the development of the concept of intellectual property, of a written work as a “unique” (a word repeatedly used in several essays) creation by a “unique” mind and therefore the author’s property, was fascinating to me solely because I would never think to contradict this concept because it is now so culturally accepted.  However, reading about how this concept developed did cause me to think more pointedly about the relationship between the author as an individual and his work/text/book as public “property” (in the sense that it is accessible to all).  In particular, the circumstances surrounding the Oscar Wilde trials in 1895 and the performance of his play, The Importance of Being Earnest, seem to suggest an extreme view of the relationship between the author and his work.

While the essays this week focus on the author’s fight to obtain property rights to his works and therefore to be acknowledge as the creator and/or originator of the texts, Wilde’s conviction for “gross [sexual] indecency” and the abrupt ending to the performance of his play would suggest that the 1895 English public has taken this author/text relationship to its extreme.  In this case, a successful, well-received work is practically rejected because of the author’s personal actions and destroyed reputation, and it isn’t until long after his death that the play is revived.  In some ways, this could be seen as a kind of censorship similar to that of Joan Whitrowe (as detailed in Paula McDowell’s essay), yet the play itself is not overly transgressive or dangerous; it is the author, Oscar Wilde, who has been found to be indecent and therefore a danger to society.  Such censorship seems to indicate that the concept of intellectual property has been fully accepted in Great Britain by the end of the 19th century.

Yet this makes me wonder if this same perception of the relationship between author and work (where the author’s personal indecency is grounds for the censoring of his work) is still true today.  I can’t think of an author/book example of this type of public judgement and censorship, but in terms of actors, Mel Gibson’s personal reputation has affected his ability to obtain public work.  Can the same be said today concerning authors and their works?  Do we still judge and censor past works because of issues relating to the personal lives of their authors?  Basically, how closely do we link a work to its author today?  Furthermore, is a text/work transgressive merely because its author is transgressive?  And does or should it matter?

Now, to change speeds (admittedly, rather abruptly), I came across this fascinating little snippet of information concerning Lewis Carroll’s Alice books and their origin.  Although I’m a little sad that this manuscript is at the British Library, and therefore currently out of reach to me personally, it is interesting to see the evolution of the Alice tales, as well as the evolution of the illustrations.  Furthermore, as the page of text shaped like a puff of smoke survives to be printed, I can only assume that the printers (especially the unfortunate man responsible for setting the type) were cursing Carroll and his authorial whimsy.




3 thoughts on “An author and his work

  1. I would say that we link a work to its author as closely today as was done in the time of Oscar Wilde. The success or failure of a text today is based more in terms of marketability and the use value of texts. While one would be less likely to see a book banned based on the personal life of the author, the interplay is alive and well. Authors still retain, among the reading public, a position of some celebrity. I can think of several examples of how the character of the author has contributed to the success or failure of their publication. Salmun Rushdie remains under a fatwah (death sentence) for his publication of “The Satanic Verses,” despite its almost kid-glove approach to Islam. Anger at James Frey when it was revealed that his text “A Million Little Pieces” was not based on actual experiences may fall into this category. The reclusive lifestyle of J.D. Salinger built incredible anticipation for any publication of his work (“Nine Stories” and “Franny and Zooey”). The same can be said for Thomas Pynchon. David Foster Wallace’s texts experienced an incredible boom in sales after his suicide, a sad interplay where the tragedy of the real life seemed to validate his work. John Kennedy Toole won a Pulitzer Prize after his book, “Confederacy of Dunces” was published 11 years after his suicide. Readers seem to certainly cling to this relationship between an author’s life and the text.

    • Though this is starting to get off topic a bit, I think that in some ways this idea is taken up by Don DeLillo in “Mao II” with the character of Bill Gray, an author turned recluse whose fame and persona only grow as he becomes less prolific.

  2. I was going to mention “A Million Little Pieces” and less relevant (but really no different when comes to a life of creative hard work) the life of the late Chris Benoit – a professional wrestler who murdered his wife and son and took his own life. After the incident, the WWE did everything in their power to eliminate Chris Benoit from their history – even going so far as to eliminate his matches from reprints of their dvds and to mute his name at various moments. While Benoit wasn’t an author, he did have a creative body of work that was unrelated to his personal life especially considering that professional wrestlers have a “personality” and a “character” that they play, often times not even using their own real names. In this case, Benoit used his real name throughout the majority of his professional career, but it was always known within professional wrestling that one’s persona in the ring is not the same outside of it (or at least it’s not supposed to be) and I am inclined to believe that the WWE would’ve censored him even if he wrestled under a pseudonym.

    A suggestion for further reading on Lewis Carrol and the *real* Alice (and other biographical tidbits) see Bryan Talbot’s Alice in Sunderland. I own it if anyone would like to borrow it – you’d likely get through it in an afternoon despite its size and complexity.

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