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A Companion to Media Authorship

August 4th, 2013 | Jonathan Gray

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While my blog was sleeping, I’ve had not one but two edited collections come out. One’s kind of a cheat, so I’ll discuss the non-cheat one in this post, then return in a later post to the other one.

 

If you happened to be at the Society for Cinema and Media Studies conference in Chicago this past academic year, you might have seen a very orange, very new book on Wiley-Blackwell’s stand: A Companion to Media Authorship, which I edited alongside my superb colleague and friend Derek Johnson. I’m extremely proud of it: we set out to challenge how authorship is discussed in media studies, and the collection of 23 essays, 4 interviews, and introduction do so from a wide variety of angles. Individual chapters explore film, television, radio, the Internet, videogames, comics, social media, academic authorship, magazines, popular music, theater, video, DVDs, and transmedia. And these media are explored in multiple settings, from the local video store to Kinshasan teleserial sets, from Mexico to France, from the slums of Nairobi to Japanese executive board rooms, from Twitter feeds to the spaces behind the camera in Hollywood, from San Francisco startups to Skywalker Ranch, from India to the UK, from courtrooms to advertising agencies, from the US to Hong Kong.

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As some of those listed settings should suggest, the book breaks with a long tradition of seeing authorship as the sole provision of powerful white Western men writing in nicely air-conditioned offices. We are not interested in anointing genius; rather, we all set out to challenge notions of singular, all-powerful authorship. Some chapters do this by examining other authors, as with John Caldwell’s examination of authorship below-the-line, seasoned production designer David Brisbin’s study of the craft of production design, Derek’s interview with TV composer Bear McCreary, Megan Sapnar Ankerson’s interview with web design pioneer Molly Wright Steenson, Aswin Punathambekar’s study of Bollywood promotion companies, Daniel Herbert’s discussion of video store owners’ authorship, and Hector Amaya’s consideration of the state as author.

 

Others contest myths of singularity, as with Olefunmilayo Arewa’s study of borrowing and improvisation in musical history, Colin Burnett’s examination of Robert Bresson’s collaboration with cinematographer Léonce-Henri Burel, Louisa Stein’s exploration of Twitter’s authoring of Misha Collins, Brian Ekdale’s interrogation of the many people who can become involved in the telling of one person’s story, Ian Gordon’s wrangling with the legalities and actualities of who created Batman and Superman, Michele Hilmes’ study of early collaborative practices of radio serial authorship and the accompanying tensions with attribution logics, Stephen Teo’s look at Li Hanxiang’s collaboration with the Shaw Brothers studio, and my interview with Kathleen Fitzpatrick about academic authorship and how beholden each and every one of us is to others.

 

Getting away from individuals altogether, several chapters explore industrial authorship and cultures of production, as with Catherine Johnson’s history of US and UK television branding as authorship, Lindsay Hogan’s study of Disney’s creation of multimedia stars, my interview with Ivan Askwith about how transmedia works in and through industrial structures, and Mia Consalvo’s exploration of videogame company Square Enix’s corporate authorship. Or Katrien Pype’s chapter looks not only at industrial authorship, but also at divine authorship and attribution.

 

And studying varying authorship as contested and/or constantly revised are Derek’s study of the authorship of My Little Pony, my own theoretical exploration of when authorship occurs, Matt Hills’ detailed examination of who is said to have written Doctor Who and who actually wrote Doctor Who, John Hartley’s sweep through historical attitudes towards authorship, and Suzanne Scott’s analysis of the DVD reauthoring of fanboy author Zack Snyder and his films. Anamik Saha focuses specifically on how racial representations are constructed and contested (or not) in British-Asian theater, and Kristina Busse explores the ethics and ethos of authorship.

 

Of course, other cross-currents unite and separate these pieces in other ways.

 

Throughout, authorship is about more than just creation. Or, rather, since authorship is about creation, and about the stories we tell about creation, we acknowledge it as being a remarkably important site for all sorts of other processes, discourses, and powers. As Derek and I write in the introduction:

 

Authorship is […] about control, power, and the management of meaning and of people as much as it is about creativity and innovation. That makes authorship one of the more vital processes in modern media and culture. The author is a node through which discourses of beauty, truth, meaning, and value must travel, while also being a node through which money, power, labor, and the control of culture must travel, and while frequently serving as the mediating figure standing between large organizations […] and the audience. No wonder academics and citizens alike are all endlessly fascinated by authors. And no wonder we all discuss authors so frequently, since arguments about creation, beauty, the audience, production, the industralization of culture, labor, and flows of meaning and cash will often be couched in terms of authorship.

 

With the author performing so many actual and discursive roles in society, so much is thus at stake in understanding how authorship works, and authorship is a key entry point into examining much of how media culture works.

 

It was a really fun book to work on, since we were knocking academic heads together. It’s my contention that a lot of critical/cultural studies folk have simply given up on the figure of the author, feeling he (since it usually is a he) is too polluted with bullshit about Value, Art, Genius, and Beauty to be worth examining. And yet as media studies’ most prominent recent wave seems to be production studies and production culture work, we’re kind of returning to notions of authorship. Derek and I thought it would be productive to complete that connection, as a way of short-circuiting the bullshit inherent in many discussions of authorship to date, and of trying to redefine authorship as contested and multiple. Rather than ask who is a great author, we wanted to explore questions of ideology, power, privilege, and so forth that motivate attempts to attribute authorship.

 

It was also fun because our authors did such a spectacular job, and were such a joy to work with. Early on, Derek and I were faced with a hard decision: go with Blackwell, who were offering us 250,000 words and allowing full-sized chapters of 8000 or more words each, and fill the book with a wonderful range of perspectives, objects and media of analysis, and settings, while making it an expensive book, or cut the number of chapters and words substantially and go elsewhere. Obviously, we chose the former route, but that leaves it priced at a rate that only your library can likely afford. However, it’s due to come out in paperback next year, and hence will be more affordable then. We hope you think it’s worth the wait, or that you’ll consider getting your library to purchase it.

 

Finally, I feel compelled to note another down side of working with Blackwell: they insisted on changing the editor order on the cover and spine. I put a heck of a lot of work into this, but Derek Johnson put even more in. In all fairness, therefore, the book really should say Johnson and Gray, but Blackwell were unyielding in their insistence that it be Gray and Johnson. If you want more salacious details of this battle over authorship for a book about authorship (!), we discuss this negotiation on pp. 16-17 of our Introduction.

 

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  1. August 4th, 2013 at 21:29 | #1

    …But of course authorship is not only about attribution as an extratextual, cultural discourse, it *is* still about agency and innovation and the text, one level of why a film (or TV show, etc) is the way it is. Bridging the gap between textual and extratextual, rather than simply falling on the standard postmodern-authorship argument (a la Corrigan; authorship *only* as an extratextual discourse), is a valuable intervention. Really looking forward to getting this.

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