Single Voice

version 1.0 ‘not as raw’

During a Book Sprint, or when talking about Book Sprints, the question very quickly arises – ‘what about the author’s single voice?’

The fear is that collaboratively produced books will lose that personal, individual voice that we know so well from all the books we have read and loved.

Wouldn’t Frankenstein be a little lumpy if it was written by a collective? Same goes for any Tom Clancy book (he famously said that “Collaboration on a book is the ultimate unnatural act”). Clancy’s books are not high art, but they do seem to contain a particular ‘Clancy’ style. What about good contemporary literature? Could, for example, the wonderful The Art of Fielding be as wonderful if written by anyone other than Chad Harbach? And what about poetry by the father of English literature – Chaucer? It’s unimaginable that his works could be produced by anyone other than Chaucer.

We believe that both high and low literature would suffer if the works weren’t produced by a single author. There is only one Chaucer, one Clancy (thankfully), one Harbach, one Mary Shelley. We can tell their works apart because each contains a distinctive authorial voice. We know these writers. We know those voices.

We can only imagine what a mess would be created if books were written by more than one person. They would lose the single point of view. That special perspective. That special voice.

Well… first of all, it might be worth knowing that each of these examples actually had more than one contributing author, and each in its own interesting way. From Erick Kelemen’s work in the forensic field of textual criticism, there is good evidence that both Byron and Percy Shelly had a hand in at least some of Frankenstein. According to Kelemen, the extent of the collaboration is not exactly known, and we need to be aware that the discussion is also tainted by a good ole sexist lens. However, there is good evidence of collaboration, not just in the Preface (which some say is written entirely by Percy Shelly), but also in the content of the rest of the story.

Tom Clancy, in his own mind the enemy of collaborative book production, actually collaborated with others on many of his books. Some of the books he has credit for were actually written mostly by others, a common practice amongst authors of best-selling thriller and mystery series for at least the past twenty years.

And in fact, manuscripts produced at the time Chaucer was writing were shared documents, and it is extremely likely the exact words that we now consider to be Chaucer’s were not his at all. As Lawrence Liang has noted, in his discussion of the process of Chaucer’s canonisation, the process was essentially a gathering of manuscripts after Chaucer’s death by experts who decided which words were, and which were not, Chaucer’s, for all time.

In the disclaimer before the Miller’s Tale for instance, Chaucer states that he is merely repeating tales told by others, and that the Tales are designed to be the written record of a lively exchange of stories between multiple tellers, each with different, sometimes opposing, intents.

Interestingly, Chaucer seems not only to recognize the importance of retelling stories, but also a mode of reading that incorporates the ability to edit and write.

If you want to understand the role of collaboration in single-author-culture right now, there is no better story to read than The Book on Publishing which provides a great tale about the publishing of Harbach’s The Art of Fielding and acknowledges the huge value an editor can play in re-writing and restructuring a book.

There are two points here to keep in mind.

Firstly, we don’t know much about how books are written, nor how models of the writing process have changed over time. Paper is not a good medium for preserving versioning, and we lack an on-paper-process mechanism like git blame that can backtrack to show how the text was created. A great pity. The lack of this kind of tool for the vast majority of publishing history means publishing has been able to propagate the very marketable myth of the single author. Collaboration has been obscured and de-valued. Worse, the extent and value of collaboration is not understood. We don’t even have a good language for talking about it.

Secondly, we are left believing claims such as “books have a single voice because they are written by a single author” when this is demonstrably false. Almost every published book has had at least two authorial contributors – the author and the editor; and most books will have been improved during the drafting process by the contributions of test readers.

Collaboration exists to improve works. It is why there are editors in publishing. Editors give feedback and shape the work to, amongst other things, strengthen the impression of the single authorial voice. It is very probably true that an effective single voice can only be achieved by 2 or more people collaborating.

So next time you find yourself asking “how can an authoritative singular voice be preserved in collaborative book production?” it might be better to take a deep breath and ask yourself “how could a single voice ever be effectively realised without collaborating?” That is the real question at play.

Colophon: version 1.0 Written in an hour by Adam Hyde. Raewyn Whyte then improved it (‘made it stronger’). Also, some references still need to be checked as the needed books are in storage in NZ somewhere! Written with Ghost Blog free software (MIT)