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The Book as Author Work: 20th-21st Century

The 20th and 21th centuries marked changes in the types of authors who became published, their backgrounds, and their relationships with others.

Young Authors and Writing Programs

In the early 20th century, Marius Hentea (2011) points out that there was "an unprecedented surge of aspiring young writers". However this new generation of young novelists weren't embraced by the existing literary community. The assumption was that young writers lacked the experience to create meaningful works. However after World War I possibly because so many young soldiers fought in the war, young novelists were given the chance to publish. Hentea (2011, 168) notes that "publishers targeted and advertised youth, and they made a whole series of efforts to encourage young authors."

In Mark McGurl's The Program Era (2009), McGurl notes that the rise of mass higher education and creative writing programs after World War II transformed American fiction. Authors like Flannery O'Connor to Vladimir Nabokov, Philip Roth, Raymond Carver, Joyce Carol Oates, and Toni Morrison emerged from these creative writing programs.

Collaborative Authorship

When you think of an author, most people think about a single person creating a work. However particularly in the 20th century, the idea of authorship is changing. For instance, scientific works often involve dozens of people working collaboratively.

During the 1960s, some scholars began questioning the whole concept of authorship. In 1968's Death of the Author, Roland Barthes challenges the idea of original works and single authorship. He states that "it is language which speaks, not the author." He suggests that all author creations are simply an accumulation of traditions and information.

Michel Foucault's What is an Author? (1969) differentiates between a writer and author. He stresses that an author only exists as a function of his or her written work. He states

"The coming into being of the notion of 'author' constitutes the privileged moment of individualization in the history of ideas, knowledge, literature, philosophy, and the sciences."

Mary Nicholas (2008, 221) notes that

"collectively authored projects were a staple of creative life in the 1930s, part of the literary and historical landscape in this decade of broad strokes and communal gestures. Jointly authored projects captured the imagination of writers and historians in the United States, England, and the European continent, but nowhere was the concept more compelling than in Stalinist Russia."

Prewar Stalinism supported large scale government-sponsored systems including writer groups known as brigades. The government hoped that these "literary laborers" would produce "genuine Soviet literature." Established authors were expected to produce individual works as well as train a new generation of writers. Writer who failed to "add their voice to the Stalinist choir" were viewed with suspicion.

Mary Nicholas (2008, 221) described two kinds of collective authorship developed. In some cases, authors were involved in "melding the narratives of individual authors into a hypothetically seamless whole." In another approach "professional writers and worked joined forces to construct a text that highlighted the collaborative nature of the enterprise while maintaining and applauding individual participation."

In the United States, the Works Progress Administration (WPA) took a different approach to collective writing. They sent out hundreds of writers and photographers to collect individual stories of the "common man" to build a collective history of the period.

Nicholas (2008, 239) notes that

"recent discussions concerning the reliability and objectivity of collectively authored material on Wikipedia only serve to remind us that such questions are not confined to one culture or a single time period. The idea that greater authenticity and truth will be the result of jointly constructed history continues to beguile us."

Dwight Jon Zimmerman is an example of an author who works collaboratively with others to develop some works. He's know for taking works written for adults and repurposing them as young adult adaptations. He transformed Simon Winchester's Krakatoa into the Day the World Exploded: The Earthshaking Catastrophe at Krakatoa, Dee Brown's Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee (1970) into Saga of the Sioux (2011) (see below) and Bill O'Reilly's Killing Lincoln into Lincoln's Last Days.

Bury my heart and wounded kneesaga of the Sioux

In some cases, publishers have played with authorship. For instance, Charlotte Yonge was a well-known English author who wrote family stories during the 19th century. Yonge's book titled Aunt Charlotte's Stories of Bible History was published in London in 1875. Although copyright protections existed in England, international laws didn't grant protections of foreign authors in the United States. However in 1948 an American edition of this book titled Child's Bible Reader was published. It included a fictionalized biography of the author and rewrote the book as a first person narrative placed in America. According to Leslee Thorne-Murphy (2010, 81-82),

"changing Yonge's identity, then, was not merely a matter of making a text of an unknown author more accessible to an American audience; it was a conscious, calculated decision to recraft the authorial identity of an author who remained a presence in the transatlantic book trade... Eventually, their changes became substantial enough that it is difficult to see them as mere "editors" of Yonge's text; they functioned as coauthors, though their names and identities were never put into print."

This example shows the fine line between authorship, co-authorship, and editing.

Read Thorne-Murphy, Leslee (2010). Re-authorship: authoring, editing, and coauthoring the transatlantic publications of Charlotte M. Yonge's Aunt Charlotte's Stories of Bible History. Book History, 13, 80-103. IUPUI students can view the article online. This about the role of the author, editor, and copyright.

C.S. Lewis

During the 20th century, authors came to the profession for a wide range of reasons.

C.S. Lewis (1898-1963) was an author who grew up around books. His family had a large personal library. Like many Christian writers, he felt strongly that writing was his calling. He stated that

"The intellectual life is not the only road to God, nor the safest, but we find it to be a road, and it may be the appointed road for us. Of course, it will be so only so long as we keep the impulse pure and disinterested."

Author Travel

Books often reflect the experiences of the writers. Exploring the places where authors lived often provides insights into their works. For instance, Willa Cather was constantly on-the-move. Mapping a Writer's World: A Geographic Chronology of Willa Cather's Life provides insights into the impact travel had on Cather's writing.

try itTry It!
Go to the Willa Cather Geographic Chronology. Search for maps of other authors. For instance, do a Google search for a people such as Mark Twain Google Maps and you'll find Mark Twain's America and others. Another example is Dicken's London. What map could you create?

Stephen King

Stephen King's On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft is part memoir, part writing class. Providing wonderful insights into the author's experiences and craft, it provides a glimpse into the life of a 21st century author.

Read the preview of On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft (2000) by Stephen King available at

Electronic Tools for Writing

For much of the 20th century, authors continued to use typewriters for writing. In The Iron Whim: A Fragmented History of Typewriting, Wershler-Henry (2005, 2) states that "what's remarkable is not that typewriting continues to haunt us, but that typewriting itself was always haunting."

The last quarter of the 20th century, authors began using the word processor as a tool for writing. Science fiction author Frank Herbert may have been one of the first to submit work to his publisher on floppy disk in the late 1970s. Tom Claney's 1984 novel The Hunt for Red October was written on an Apple IIe using WordStar software (Schuessler, 2011).

American author Stephen King is well-known for his use of the Macintosh computer. King was one of the first to incorporate the word processor as a theme in his writing in the short story Word Processor of the Gods.

In the past several decades, Internet has made communication among authors must easier. Today it's possible for authors to work simultaneously on the same documents. In some cases, authors use blogs and wikis to ask readers for their views and suggestions in expanding, editing, or revising a transcript.

For a great background on 20th century authorship, browse West, James L. (2010). American Authors and the Literary Marketplace Since 1900. University of Pennsylvania Press. Available to IUPUI students.


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