Episode 92: Dissertation Proposal (New and Improved)

Still needs some editing and I need to add some critical sources but I have to say that this one is looking better than the old one by far. Any and all feedback is welcomed as I put the finishing touches before I send it out to my committee. And yes, it is supposed to be incredibly dense and filled with academic heavy language. My apologies if this is barely understandable.

Authorial Functions and Performances:

Exploring Notions of Authorship in Contemporary Serial Fiction across Print and Digital Media.

The term author often evokes outdated notions of literary reverence and just another facet for determining historical context. Literary criticism from every field has at least one of its tenets focused on the figure of the author, ranging from an outright dismissal to the cornerstone of their analytical methodology. The author as a person was diminished with the works of Roland Barthes and Michel Foucault alongside many other critics but the focus had shifted to authorial functions. These essays helped to highlight the notion of identity over any single individual. This dissertation expands the analysis of authorial functions to contemporary texts in order to outline how these have changed for modern writers and artists.

The purpose of this study is to analyze current forms of authorial functions within the context of contemporary serial fiction. This publishing format allows for narrative production, as well as readers’ reception, to be segmented; which makes the author a dynamic entity, rather than the static and almost frozen perception that one finds in more traditional storytelling. Linda Hughes and Michael Lund define the serial as “a continuing story over an extended period of time with enforced interruptions” (1). It is that enforced interruption that divides installments at the temporal level which allows readers to reflect and react to the narrative. One of the author functions that serialization allows is for a response to these critical and fan reactions to alter narrative production. Editorial theorists and textual critics already analyze this form of recursive feedback in the context of tracing different editions and the process of writing a manuscript and transforming it into a book for publication. These forms provide a familiarity and insight into author functions that I use these theories to construct my own methodology for this study.

The main theorists from textual criticism and editorial theory that I utilize for this study are George Thomas Tanselle and Peter Shillingsburg. The first of these two provides a central terminology that will serve as a base for my analysis of various works of serial fiction. The latter works directly through Tanselle’s terminology and focuses on, what he calls the different performances that take place while constructing a text. For the purposes of my analysis, I equate Shillingsburg’s authorial performances with Foucault’s author functions in order to fully explore the different notions of authorship. In addition, I draw on John Bryant’s The Fluid Text and his findings on the different stages a work goes through in its publication process; specifically, his concept of a “circulating draft”, and adapt them to the context of serial fiction. These theorists provide a strong base for my methodology for the analysis of authors as they are constructing their works, through the different stages of drafting as well as the publication of different installments, until the utmost conclusion of the text that other theoretical paradigms do not provide.

In order to further study different forms of authorship, this analysis will not limit itself to equating authors with writers. People create narratives outside of the traditional print format and their authorial performances provide further insight that is largely absent from these kinds of studies. To help fill this gap in the literature, I juxtapose traditional novels with those that fall under graphic narratives; which are defined by legendary cartoonist Will Eisner as “any story that employs image to transmit an idea” (Introduction to Graphic Storytelling and Visual Narrative). The most common forms of graphic narratives include films, television programs, and comics (which is the umbrella term for comic strips, comic books, and graphic novels). The first two contain a complexity in its author functions that make it almost impossible to distinguish who is responsible for the final narrative product. Even with a clear demarcation of roles such as writers, directors, actors, and editors (to name only a few), outside of having complete access to backstage production there is no definitive way to isolate individual authorial performances in these graphic narratives. Hence, film and television fall out of the purview of this study, though they are prominent features of my additional research endeavors.

The graphic narratives of comics consist of what Scott McCloud famously defined as “juxtaposed pictorial and other images in deliberate sequence, intended to convey information and/or an aesthetic response in the viewer” (Understanding Comics 9). The author functions of the cartoonists, writers, and artists of those responsible for composing these comics follow the same format as those of traditional print. I extend my analysis of authorship to include the creators of serialized comic strips, comic books, and graphic novels because these men and women have helped to create some of the most iconic characters in literature and have extended their narratives for many years and even decades. In short, a proper analysis of author functions in serial fiction requires the inclusion of the writers and artists that produce comics.

Perhaps the most significant change to authorship that has come in recent years is the advent of the digital medium. The replacement of pens and typewriters for computers as the standard tool for writing, in addition to the later inclusion of the Internet as a method of publication, has readily altered our notions of author functions. Rather than adding a digital dimension to the study of contemporary serials, I analyze this medium on its own merits through authors whose work is primarily developed and distributed in this format. I focus on digital storytelling done primarily through webcomics, in addition to blogs and other narrative centered programs.

This dissertation will be divided into four chapters, each of which will be focused on a different medium of publication. Chapter one will serve as an overall introduction and literature review for my critical methodology. In order to properly analyze the differences between each medium, I utilize media specific analysis and comparative media studies, both of which were pioneered by new media critic N. Katherine Hayles. These different media contain their own limits and expectations for authorial performances, which serve as logical borders to separate this study.

This study focuses primarily on the authors of contemporary serials but this chronological category is difficult to objectively qualify. Since the cornerstone of this analysis is that of author functions, it seems fitting that the cutoff point should be the year 1969, when Foucault first outlined his ideas in his essay, “What is an Author?” This space of approximately 45 years allows for many works of serial fiction that have been published since then to be analyzed. I also include works that started before this temporal window but continued to be serialized beyond it, especially with works that maintained their production by passing on the author mantle and/or through a dynamic succession of authorship.

One particular author function that is worth discussing throughout each of the chapters of this study is that of ownership. The author is considered to be the owner of his/her literary work and contemporary copyright law generally makes this the case. However, ownership can be purchased through buying the rights for use and reproduction of a particular story or character through major publishing houses and other companies. The acquisition of specific characters is most commonly found within works of serial fiction or those that will become serialized in the near future. While the complexities of copyright law go beyond the critique of this dissertation, it is important to note how such legal issues appear to challenge author functions in specific cases which will be discussed accordingly in the next chapters.

Chapter 2: From Cover to Cover: Analyzing Traditional Print Publications

The model of serialization can be traced back to 19th century England when literary magazines were a popular source for distributing a variety of materials. These magazines are considered to be book length by today’s standards and would normally contain hundreds of pages. These magazines contained everything news about current events, advertisements, poems, drawings, short stories, and various installments of different serials throughout each of their issues. I draw on these historical molds through the writings of Victorian historians, especially Linda Hughes’s and Michael Lund’s excellent study of this area in their book The Victorian Serial. This historical context provides a base for all forms of serial storytelling that applies to all media but is incredibly helpful when understanding those found in traditional print.

The main author that I analyze in this chapter is a woman who recently reintroduced serialization at the global scale with the Harry Potter series of books. She continues to exercise her authorial functions through for this particular narrative through Pottermore, the digital fanbase where Rowling herself provides additional insight into the writing process of the Boy Who Lived.

Chapter 3: When Writer and Artist Collide: Reading Graphic Narratives

While serialization stemmed from the literary magazines that once featured Charles Dickens and Wilkie Collins, some of the most ongoing stories started and continue being published through graphic narratives. One of the first comic strips to appear in newspapers, The Katzenjammer Kids, has been published regularly for more than a century. Iconic super heroes have saved the day for decades in comic books with no end in sight. One of the most critically acclaimed graphic novels, Maus and its sequel by Art Spiegelman, are used in classrooms all over the country as a required reading for better understanding the events of the holocaust. In short, while graphic narratives in comics technically fall under the purview of the print medium, this format’s combination of images and dialogue is one that easily fits the serialization model.

Out of the many titles and characters portrayed in graphic narratives, I focus my analysis on the Man of Steel, better known as Superman. Originally created by writer Jerry Siegel and artist Joe Shuster, the iconic caped superhero first hit the stands in 1938. The concept of authorship in all works regarding this character is fairly complex and one that I will explore in detail in this chapter. Not only have multiple writers and artists been tasked by DC Comics to continue the tales of Superman for decades, but several lawsuits by the original creators, Siegel and Shuster, have challenged ownership and authorship of the multiple titles and adaptations. While there are many story arcs that span the decades of its serialization, I focus my analysis on what fans now refer to as “The Death and Return of Superman”. This event was recently anthologized in a recent omnibus edition (collection of relevant installments) that contains all pertinent issues which include multiple Superman and non-Superman titles and serves as my primary source. This story arc provides excellent examples of corporate authorship in the form of DC Comics Headquarters changing the narrative trajectory of Superman and then the collective authorship of many writers and artists that came together to collaborate on what would become a groundbreaking story. The significance of this story arc can be seen by the fact that the installment containing the actual death of the Man of Steel made national headlines as it came to print and the author function of reacting to controversy came to fruition.

Chapter 4: Of Bits and Code: Digital Authorship and Webcomics

The advent of digital technology facilitated would be artists and writers to become full fledged authors by bypassing many of the gatekeepers of traditional publishing. One no longer needed a network of editors, publishers, distributors, and many other personnel in order to reach your potential audience. However, these author functions that were handled by others are now just one of the many additional tasks that one person operations must take on in order to achieve a modicum of success. Authorship goes beyond narrative production as one is now required to have basic knowledge of website design and maintenance, business management, and marketing.  Several portals and services are currently not uncommon to assist in these endeavors but many of the early pioneers in these digital ventures were navigating uncharted waters, mostly alone. However, this sole authorship provides a level of accessibility to the material and the person creating it that was once unimaginable. Authors are now available through email and social networking and often provide insight into their narrative production and/or their everyday lives.

Digital storytelling can be done in many ways, but for the purposes of this study I will focus on webcomics, again because graphic narratives of this form are more commonly serialized for long periods of time. With very few outside sources existing on the analysis of digital authorship and webcomics, I focus on analyzing the direct comments that webcomic cartoonists provide about their craft. Such information can be found in the print compilations of their work, in addition to blog posts, podcasts, and interviews (some of which I have personally done over years of research in this area).

One of the more interesting aspects of webcomics is the fairly unique business model that involves building a readership for months or even years (while providing your narrative material in most instances for free) before any semblance of a profit can be made. However, once one has built a strong enough community, then you can pass along certain author functions to your readership. One such task is the ability to obtain starting capital before expansion or providing a new merchandise selection. Originally, such funds were obtained through pre-orders but crowd funding websites like Indiegogo or Kickstarter simplify the process and clearly show what one obtains for certain levels of pledging.

The webcomics I am focusing are two fantasy adventure stories with very contrasting levels of how vocal their authors are. In the first case, we have Rich Burlew, aka the Giant, and his webcomic The Order of the Stick (OOTS) which he has been producing for over a decade. Burlew rarely participates in the forums, only recently started using Twitter (mostly for announcing new installments), and only communicates directly to the majority of his readers for big announcements pertaining directly to the webcomic. One such communique occurred when he informed his readership that a car accident had injured his writing/drawing hand and that the already chaotic publishing schedule would be on indefinite hold. On the other hand, we have Tarol Hunt, aka Thunt, of Goblins. Tarol is very vocal through social media like Twitter and the blog of his webcomic about many topics. In the process of reading his work, I have come to learn many aspects of Thunt’s personal life, to the point that I and many of his readers feel a connection with him that author-reader relationships ten or twenty years could never imagine possible. He is aware of this connectivity and the very literal lifelines that the readership has given him in various manners. Thunt even goes so far as to call his readers his “E-maginary” friends and has a standing invitation for any fan to spend the night on the couch of his house (which Goblins fans helped pay for directly during a donation campaign).


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