Thursday, September 3, 2009

Creation and collaboration

At least since the late eighteenth century, Western culture has tended to imagine the writing of literature as a solitary process. The creative vision is an individual one, and the writer toils alone. Nowadays when writers are found to have deviated from that pattern it tends in an often obscure way to be held against them. To the extent that authors have collaborated with others, their achievement is likely to be taken as diminished—and the works themselves to be sullied, somehow less pure.

I’ve recently run across discussions of three cases in point. One is Laura Ingalls Wilder; it now seems that the wonderfully affecting spare prose of the Little House books may have been the product not of a pure imaginative vision but of collaboration between the rough hewn memories and stories of Laura Ingalls Wilder herself and the very different artistic sensibility of her daughter (whose imagination may have been more limited but whose language skills were less coarse). The second is Raymond Carver; the elliptical sparseness of his early work has now been shown to be substantially the product of collaborative work with his editor, Gordon Lish. The third is Mary Shelley. No one now claims (as some did in the nineteenth century) that Percy rather than Mary Shelley “wrote” Frankenstein. But a new edition suggests that as many as 5,000 words (out of a 72,000 word novel) were contributed by Percy Shelley. Again, collaboration to a very significant extent.

Should we see the work of these authors as in any way diminished by such collaboration? Absolutely not, I would argue. If an author is able to collaborate with others in ways that result in an imaginative vision being better realized, surely that should be to everyone’s credit. Credit to those who provided real help, certainly—but also to the author who was willing to accept the help, and to see that it was help.

I should here confess that I am far from disinterested in making this argument. When I first tried to write fiction in my teens and twenties I accepted without question that a novel was, almost by definition, the product of someone working entirely on their own. In my fifties, on the other hand, I have been lucky in knowing a number of people who have been able and willing to provide wonderfully good advice on how to shape Animals in all sorts of ways, big and little. And I have been lucky in being old enough to want to seek their advice and to take it, rather than insisting (as I surely would have in my twenties) that the work would be better if it were entirely my work. Animals isn’t entirely my work; in a number of important ways it is the product of collaboration. And I’m sure it’s much the better for it.

Interestingly, much as Rose Wilder Lane, Gordon Lish, and Percy Shelley each seem to have made great contributions to the fiction of others, none was able to write first-rate fiction on their own—though all three certainly tried. Perhaps if they had themselves been willing to accept help in the same way as they were willing and able to give it …

1 comment:

  1. Got your book; going to read it soon. Maybe try and review it, as you ask! It looks beautiful.
    Frankenstein's monster is vegetarian, btw. And his messed creator a vivisectionist.