There is a deep-seated mystique around the “Author” in the literary field. This notion is cultivated and sustained by the marketplace, which includes publishers and consumers, making it difficult for authors to break out of that singular mold. Writers and readers alike tend to pour over lists such as “Top 40 Writers Under 40,” look at vanity presses with disdain, and declare a scandal if and when the Pulitzer Prize committee refuses to award said prize in a given year—what will we read then, if anything?
The digital age, however, has provided new avenues for publication, collaboration, and content curation that challenge more traditional models. There is a growing tension between the fruits of the standardized marketplace and that which can be accomplished when working amongst one’s peers. As prescribed methods of literary creation are interrogated, exciting work often comes to the forefront, paired with new questions of legitimacy.
Roxane Gay is part of the new wave of literary gatekeepers, as essays editor at The Rumpus and co-editor of PANK, a literary magazine that publishes both print and online editions. A frequent contributor to The Rumpus and Salon, she has become well-known for her thoughtful and revealing pieces on everything from social privilege to Fifty Shades of Grey. She brings her vast knowledge of the literary world to our questions on authorship and collaboration.
In what ways does the literary field propagate or dispel the notion of the singular “Author”? In what types of environments might co-authorship and collaboration thrive?
The cult of the writer is such that we very much want to know works of literary merit can be traced to a single source. We want to believe in the idea of literary genius as singular and we are, I think, a bit opposed to the idea that sometimes literary genius, however one chooses to define genius, can rise out of collaboration. Many writers are also, at least in terms of creating, loners, so I don’t know if collaboration comes easily to us.
Nonetheless, the Internet has made collaboration far more popular because it is so easy for writers to reach out to other writers and share ideas and try to come up with mutually generated work. Elisa Gabbert and Kathleen Rooney, two poets, collaborate regularly and I am always impressed by how they make collaboration appear seamless, and how their work evokes both a singular voice as well as their individual aesthetics. We’re also seeing writers and artists collaborating. A number of multimedia projects have risen out of Hint Fiction (Norton), an anthology edited by Robert Swarwood—art installations, short films, and more.
A lot of the walls protecting the singular author are coming down. It’s much easier to engage in back and forth with other writers and come to the realization that alone, we are great, but together, we might be able to come up with something greater.
How do formal marketplace structures influence perceptions of legitimacy? Is there something to be gained by convincing people that a work has passed through a gatekeeper?
We have these very arbitrary measures of excellence these days, mostly in the form of lists—you know, the best this, the best that, the best other. We start to see the same names on these lists and then we start to think the writers behind those names are excellent not only because of what they have written but because of the ubiquitous way in which they are touted by the tastemakers who make predictions and pronouncements that publishers hope will drive sales.
I am not necessarily opposed to gatekeepers. Nearly 300,000 books were published in 2011. That is a staggering number. With small presses proliferating and the barriers to self-publishing quickly eroding, that number will only grow. How do we know what to read? How do we find the books worth reading? Gatekeepers are essential for giving us critical measures to make reading decisions. The problem with gatekeepers is that all too often, they tend to favor certain kinds of books by certain kinds of writers. Gatekeepers, historically, have not been very open to women writers, queer writers, or writers of color. Gatekeepers have not been very open to experimental work or genre-blurring work. That’s a real problem. Gatekeepers shouldn’t always close the gates on writing that doesn’t fit narrow strictures of excellence. The best gatekeepers should be throwing those gates wide open for the most interesting work being produced, keeping in mind the importance of diversity—demographically in terms of writers and aesthetically in terms of writing.
Do trends in the field, such as Internet publishing, salons/readings, literary magazines, and small press culture, have an impact on traditional notions of authorship? If so, how and why?
There are so many new ways for writers to present their work. Traditional notions of authorship are evolving in really amazing ways right now. Authorship is becoming more democratic, more multimodal, and infinitely more interesting. Matchbook, an online literary magazine, allows writers to present their critical thoughts about their own writing alongside an original creative piece. Online magazines allow writers to be more responsive. Last year, Dark Sky Magazine featured a month where the editors assigned writers a date and the writer then had to write a story or poem or essay inspired by current events. In 2011, the editors of Longshot Magazine produced a magazine in 48 hours by giving writers, photographers, and artists a prompt—debt—and curating a magazine, culled from thousands of submissions received in only one day.
You also see interesting collaborations in literary websites where multiple contributors bring different perspectives. My favorite sites are those where you can see these different perspectives working together—The Millions, The Awl, HTMLGIANT, and so on. The Rumpus, where I am the essays editor, is a site that works as well as it does because all of its contributors are open to collaborating and sharing their creative work, and creating something we’re all invested in both individually and collaboratively.
Authorship no longer exists in a vacuum and the innovative projects rising out of these new ways to write and collaborate have a lot to offer the literary community.
Roxane Gay's writing appears or is forthcoming in Best American Short Stories 2012, Best Sex Writing 2012, New Stories From the Midwest 2011 and 2012, Salon, Oxford American, NOON, American Short Fiction, Indiana Review, Brevity, The Rumpus, and many others. She is the co-editor of PANK, the essays editor for The Rumpus, and an HTMLGIANT contributor. She is also the author of Ayiti, a collection of writing about the Haitian diaspora experience and can be found online at www.roxanegay.com.