The February 2007 issue of Harper’s has a great series of essays on the theme of collective authorship that make it well worth picking up if you see it on the newsstand.
First is a complaint from Ian Jack about the trend among American writers toward thanking (in print) ever wider circles of friends and acquaintances. While acknowledging the mythical status of the popular image of the writer in solitude, and admitting that writing is often a cooperative act, he worries that this indicates a deeper trend toward the “industrialization” of the production of literature.
Such industrialization is the central vision of a manifesto by Sergei Tret’iakov, a Russian avant-garde writer who died in Stalin’s purges, calling for the “deindividualization and deprofessionalization of the writer.” Tret’iakov argues that small cliques of professional writers are no longer adequate “to keep up with the tempo of the present” and envisions a kind of literary assembly line, on the model of the newspaper, where specialized teams focus on first collecting, then processing, then testing the literary object being produced. I was struck by how this three-tier system echoed some other triads I’ve heard lately: Collect, Curate, Consume, or Create, Synthesize, Consume. “Testing” may at first seem to be quite different from “consuming,” but when you consider that contemporary digital media companies often use their consumers as testers, you see that they are just two sides of the same coin, as are “collecting” and “creating.”
Collecting as creating is illuminated beautifully by “The Ecstasy of Influence,” a remarkable collage text by Jonathan Lethem. As someone who has read a lot of writings on “free culture,” and not knowing the nature of what Lethem had created, I found myself wondering why Lethem was repeating so much tired rhetoric. Yet it flowed beautifully, and I enjoyed reading it. I was truly surprised when I reached the “key” to the piece at the end and realized what a virtuoso performance I had been experiencing.