In his essay ‘What is an Author?’ Michael Foucault posits that the text always points to the figure of the author who as creator, both precedes and lurks outside the text. All well and good – especially if you are a grammarian detective. But how can the text point to the author online when the reader can watch the writer in flagrante ?
Matt Bell has recently finished a week-long writing experiment where he wrote and edited a story live online. Self anointed as the literary Jack Bauer, he took one paragraph, a piece of debris left over from a bout of writer’s block and through the medium of Meeting Words, software that allows collaborative editing, turned this paragraph into a short story.
Whilst I instantly see the features and benefits of this type of software in an organisational environment, collaborative projects and programme scheduling – I am not convinced that it is at all suitable for writing.
The gasp factor and sticking point for me of Matt’s experiment is that not only did he allow two guest editors full access to his work, he opened the editing floodgates to the entire online community. “Hello crazy! Come on in!” Anyone could add and edit, in fact some chap deleted most of it.
As a reader I felt as if I had been pushed into a rather seedy darkroom and I didn’t know where Matt started and ended. I am game for adventures in writing and story-telling but the author is my safety net and if he is in an open relationship with a bunch of crazies I am not sure I feel comfortable any more. At least not this form of ‘open’ collaboration. Hmm. It could be that I am just not keen on collaborative writing. I shall put that thought in my ‘to ponder’ pile.
The universally agreed rule of thumb states that if one wishes to retain any respect for laws or sausages, one should not watch them being made. I would like to add a third – stories, readers should not be at their making. It’s like seeing Penn and Teller roll up their sleeves. It’s like seeing a ballerina’s feet. It’s like watching surgery. Incidentally, I was once invited to watch a vasectomy operation but was so terrified it would ruin all future penis appeal that I immediately declined, albeit with grace and a faked look that I hoped conveyed both interest and regret.
I am not sure if watching a writer grub around in the innards of a story is appealing or interesting. Not only can it trample on any of the magic that surrounds stories, a magic that is already at risk of being garrotted by bad writing and shoddy editing but it positions the reader too closely to the writer. Familiarity as we know breeds contempt and even worse – boredom. I don’t want to know that Stephen King always misspells ‘beautiful’ or that his original construct of Roland was an overweight father of three. Knowing that Salley Vickers doesn’t know a comma from a coma would crush me and to discover that Cormac McCarthy writes suspiciously like Dan Brown and relies on an editor who worships at the feet of Gordon Lish could damage me beyond repair.
I support innovation and I believe in exploration. We should always try new things, we should always experiment but I worry that good writing and good story telling will be lost with us all tinkering around with cool technology and swapping roles. No writer and no reader is bigger than the story.