The Anti-Collaboration Alliance

Three factors have colluded to extinguish the value of collaboration in text production:

  • copyright
  • romanticism
  • marketing

These factors work towards preserving the idea of an ‘author’ as a solitary, elite constructor of literature.

There are a bunch of people that have written about the myth of the solitary author-genius. Most notable are Jack Stillinger (Multiple Authorship and the Myth of Solitary Genius) and Martha Woodmansee and Peter Jaszi (The Construction of Authorship). The second work is an edited anthology and much more readable than the first, however both are worth checking out.

Reading these texts, it is easy to picture the perfect alliance of forces designed to promote a simplified attribution and at the same time diminish the idea of collaborative production with all its sticky complexities and apparent contradictions.

The creation of copyright was not only a significant moment of establishing the results of intellectual endeavours as property, it was also a moment of penning into statutes the notion of the single Author.

So dominant is the belief in solitary authorship, there is little chance anyone will listen to a deconstruction of the myth. Any protests against notions of authorship will be shouted down or met with lots of arm crossing and ankle locking. Personally, that kind of response energises me – it suggests there is something very valuable to explore.

And that is the real shame of all this arm crossing – not that the myth of authorship is somehow ‘evil’ in any sense of the word. I don’t agree with IP as it has been constructed, sure, I also don’t believe in solitary author-genius, but nothing about that myth is inherently ‘bad’…in fact, it is quite enticing to believe in these super-human genius authors, here to shed light on our otherwise murky human experience. What is a shame, however, is that this myth has obscured and denigrated the value of collaboration. That is the real loss. We are immature collaborators – we do not possess a vocabulary for about talking the thing we do every day – collaborate. We do not have nuanced understandings of the value of different forms of collaboration around a text. We also do not understand why certain forms of collaboration work in one context and fail in another. We blunder through collaborations, missing huge opportunities to put collaboration under the lens and scrutinize it.

That is what this perfect storm of copyright, romanticism and marketing has done to us. We cannot harness effective collaboration because we are blind to it – we literally do not see it where it occurs and without seeing it we cannot understand it or leverage it.

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