The romantic myth of the artist as lone genius is an enduring one. Writers such as Boltanski & Chiapello and Brouillette have written persuasively about the way that this ideal has merged with the individualistic culture of capitalism to produce the contemporary model of the worker as autonomous creative individual, embracing the values of flexibility, innovation and self-sufficiency.
However, this myth actually erases much of the process and social context that characterise the act of writing. In fact, writers have always depended on the collaboration of others in a multitude of ways. They have depended morally, creatively and financially on family, friends and lovers to support them in their endeavours (famous examples include William & Dorothy Wordsworth; Percy Bysshe Shelley & Mary Shelley; Anais Nin, her husband Hugo Guiler & her lover Henry Miller). They have frequently developed their work as part of a collective movement of mutual inspiration (the Bloomsbury group, the Surrealists, the beat poets). Writers also regularly collaborate with agents and editors; screenwriters collaborate with producers, script editors, directors, actors, distributors, financers. And of course writers need readers. Dickens was acutely aware of his readers, writing for them in installments, and going on frequent public reading tours.
So it did not take digital culture to make writing an interactive and collaborative phenomenon. However, it has made such collaborative processes more visible and more scaleable. As Henry Jenkins points out, contemporary cultural practices, such as social media and fan fiction, have made online writing and reading feel more like a back and forth conversation than a one way process of production (by the writer) and reception (by the reader). On social network writing sites, such as Wattpad, writers actively engage readers in the development of their work. Many writers engage extensively with their reader community via social media and new business models, such as crowdfunding, also bring many active collaborators besides the writer into the writing process.
Our recent panel on The Writer as Catalyst & Collaborator featured five writers, whose work has explicitly involved the contribution of others: raising questions about how such processes might characterize writing in general. Four main themes emerged:
the changing role of the reader: readers are becoming more actively involved with texts and engaged with writers. Sarah Haynes, creator of internet collaborative fiction, The Button Jar discussed her particular interest in creating work that involves alternating between writing and reading. Visitors to the site can both read the stories of others and upload their own stories. Novelist Jean-Paul Flintoff crowd funded his book through the publisher Unbound. He worked with an improvisation group to develop the story and, later in the process, his funders provided feedback on drafts, which resulted in some important changes to the final work. These examples from new media storytelling and new funding models are part of a wider groundswell in the importance of reader communities. Across the publishing landscape, the relationship between readers and writers is becoming more interactive and collaborative.
the writer as conductor/editor: the role of the writer is also expanding. In her work, Haynes recasts the writer as editor/conductor and sees her role as being to devise a narrative frame for the interaction of other writers and readers that will facilitate ‘organized serendipity’. Olumide Popoola and Annie Holmes, who together researched and wrote the short story collection breach – which tells the story of the refugee crisis through six voices based on interviews with refugees in Calais – join Flintoff in rejecting the idea of the writer as ‘sole presiding genius of a work of art.’
Maya Chowdhry, poet and transmedia artist, sees the writer as ‘a sign-writer illuminating the way, or a compass showing that there are many directions’. She explained how pro-active she needed to be in going out to find her audience and facilitating ways for them to get involved in the location based narrative Tales from the Towpath. Flintoff says he has followed the example of the editor of a newspaper he used to work for, who saw his job as editor as being like ‘creating a party that people want to come to’.
As they develop more interactive, collaborative relationships with readers and other partners, writers need to develop a clear conception of what their role is within the collective. There are a range of metaphors to choose from: catalyst, compass, sign-writer, conductor, editor, party convenor… each project may require a different label, but a guiding metaphor can provide an important direction for a project.
ethics of collaboration: our panel’s experiences suggest that, although these are crucial, there may not be a one size fits all approach. The ethics will be determined to a certain extent by the nature of the project. Transparency about the aims of the project may be one guiding principle. Popoola and Holmes felt it important to make their aims absolutely clear to the people they spoke to at the refugee camp in Calais. They explained that they wanted to produce a fictional work, to provide a different perspective on the refugee crisis, and that they would not be telling the refugees’ individual stories in any direct way. Instead their intention was to draw on them more loosely as material. The writers found that most people at Calais were happy to talk, because they were bored and frustrated and keen to make connections with others. This human connection was as, if not more, important to them than getting their stories told to a wider audience. Nor did those refugees who had now made it to the UK have any great desire to be identified with the book or to be involved in its promotion. They were happy that it had been written and hoped that it would interest and move readers, but it was more important to them to get on with rebuilding their lives than to be identified as collaborators in the book.
Flintoff stated that, quite simply, ‘everyone needs to get something out of it.’ What ‘it’ is, however, may not always be fully defineable in advance. There are many different reasons why people might get involved in a project. Some may have a story to tell. Someone else might want to contribute in a small way to a big project they think is worthwhile. People might want to learn new skills, have new experiences, meet people. They might have a life goal they want to achieve or simply to take part in something fun. Furthermore the answer may develop and change as the project itself develops through the collaborative process. Therefore, although the writer as conductor needs to provide a clear framework for engagement, there also needs to be flexibility. As Chowdhry points out, rather than assign a role to collaborators in advance, it may be necessary to allow them to find it through their participation of the project.
A collaborative approach to writing has much in common with collective ventures such as performance, co-design and community activism and can draw on insights from these fields. The ethics of collaboration also depend on an acknowledgement of the process as productive of more than a work of art or a commercial product, as discussed below.
writing and reading as social practice: the informality, relationality and embeddedness of the writing practices discussed by our panel remind us that writing and reading are not aesthetic activities bracketed off from the rest of life and society. Popoola and Holmes said that they had made some lasting connections with the people they met in Calais and were still in touch. This was partly related to the book, but also to the friendship that had developed between them. The process of researching refugee experiences had thus led to two distinct outcomes: to new relationships and understandings of the world on the one hand and to a book of short stories on the other. They were equally important. Haynes and Flintoff also commented on the way that the structures within which they were writing led to and indeed were dependent on the development of human relationships.
Forms of writing and reading, which blur the boundaries between professional and social activities (social media, blogs, life writing, crowd funded works, interactive fiction, fan fiction) remind us, among other things, that professional writers draw on and develop personal relationships through their writing; non-professional writers can have huge public influence, and that both writing and reading can be variously and also simultaneously professional, political and leisure activities.
Watch all video clips from this and other creative conversations here