Friday, October 6, 2017

What Makes an Author?

I'm teaching English 101, the freshman writing course, this semester. It's been fascinating. So many things have changed since I took my own freshman writing course over 10 years ago.

The textbook we are using in my course is title Everyone's an Author, and we spent our first day of class reading the introduction and discussing whether the title is a true statement. Is everyone an author?

The authors of the textbook put forward an argument in the introduction that anyone who participates in social media or interacts online (which is basically everyone these days) is an author because they compose, "publish," and create work that has an audience (namely, whichever friends and family follow them, but potentially the world, since anything these days can go viral).

But while my students "publish" writing all the time to social media, very few of them felt like they could legitimately call themselves "writers," let alone something so endowed with cultural meaning as the word "author." During our discussion, I was able to pull out some of my own research interest knowledge and talk about how the invention of the printing press changed the way we view authorship culturally. Before the printing press, when anyone wealthy or lucky enough to find themselves in possession of a quill and parchment could write, the word "author" held a different meaning than it does today. In point of fact, it was much more closely related to the word "authority" (and it's not terribly hard to see how those two words are etymologically connected). An author was simply anyone who had the skill, the knowledge, the ability to write with "authority." Chaucer was an author because of his mastery of the (middle) English language. He could write with skill, he could write with authority, therefore he was an author.

Then the printing press came along, and things changed. Over time, printing press owners and then publishers became gatekeepers of the term "author," awarding it only to those writers they selected and allowed to move into print. No matter your level of skill or mastery of a subject, you could not call yourself an author until someone else, someone with the "authority" of a publishing house behind them, bestowed that title upon you.

In today's world of technology and social media, however, that is changing. Now, anyone with a computer and an internet connection can "publish" almost anything they want, from tweets to novels, and find an audience who will read them. The publishing house's role as gate-keeper is becoming narrower and narrower (although, it still pretty firmly exists). The term "author" is being applied to blog writers, people who self-publish novels, or those who write fan-fic. Our definition of who is an author is loosening, expanding, reforming with our technology.

But the point I put forward to my classes in our discussion is that I believe, in our new age of online publishing, the term "author" will need to revert to it's root connection to "authority." Yes, anyone can write whatever they want and post it over every social media account they want, but you should only be able to call yourself an "author" if you write from a position of "authority," a position of mastery and skill over the English language. And my goal for each of them, by the end of the term, is to help them gain that mastery and skill over the English language so that they can feel comfortable with claiming that mantle of "authority," so that they can truly consider themselves "authors."

But do I even consider myself an author? I, who only write in this small corner of the blogosphere, with my small and limited audience (hi, mom!). Do I even consider myself a writer? It's hard to claim those terms for myself. It feels like someone else, someone with "authority" needs to award those terms to me with a publishing contract and a book in print.

But at the same time, I do feel like I write with some skill, with some level of mastery (if I didn't feel that way, I sure would feel uncomfortable in my role as writing instructor at a public university). I do feel like this little hobby of mine, this little blog thing, however small my audience may be, is actually for an audience! People read my words! Doesn't that make me an author, at least in some sense?

I believe it does, and so I just want to say thank you. Thank you for coming here, for reading my words (however unskilled and unpolished they sometimes are). Thank you for participating in this space that brings me so much satisfaction and joy. Thanks for making me feel like in some small way, I can claim the title of "author."


  1. Yes when we write blog posts we are writing them for an audience, regardless of size, and I know this makes me 'pick up my game', regardless of size

  2. This is such an interesting topic to think about. I guess I've always gone by the old-school definition in my head--i.e., I will be an author when I have a book published. I can see how the definition becomes malleable, though, with all the online offerings. What about people who start as bloggers, then publish a book based on their blog writings? Hmm...it's funny--I feel much more comfortable calling myself a writer than an author, but don't they essentially mean the same thing?