Before I pass along my dissertation proposal to the entirety of my committee, I have been tasked with delivering a final round of edits to see if it hits the mark before other people tell me to change it again. Such is the process of dissertating. Anyways, here is what I got.
Authorial Functions and Performances:
Exploring Notions of Authorship in Contemporary Serial Fiction across
Print and Digital Media.
Who is the author and why is that important? In one way or another, this question has arisen throughout the history of analyzing literary works. Different fields of literary criticism have diverse levels of emphasis towards answering this question in order to obtain information like historical context, authorial intention, and/or some degree of insight into the creation of narratives. While many critics and theorists have analyzed the concept of authorship throughout the years, the study of the author tends to revolve around “The Death of the Author” and “What is an Author?” by Roland Barthes and Michel Foucault, respectively. These essays serve as the benchmark towards defining the author at the human level and how his/her work can be outlined through various author functions. This dissertation expands the analysis of authorial identity and functions in contemporary texts in order to explore different notions of authorship in diverse literary incarnations.
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 the readers’ reception, to be segmented as combining all the different parts over time to complete the story is a complex task for authors and readers alike. To paraphrase Dante Gabriel Rossetti, if every literary work is a moment’s monument, then every installment adds to the collection of moment’s monuments over the serialization of a given narrative. Each of the individual pieces are narratively linked, which makes the study of authorship far more dynamic over the writing/publication process than analyzing an author’s single literary work or collection of unconnected works. I contextualize my research within the realms of serial fiction because it permits one to witness the changing nature of authorship throughout a single developing story in ways that traditional forms of storytelling/publishing do not allow.
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 analytical models provide a familiarity and insight into author functions and that is why I choose 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 which 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 N. Katherine Hayles. I base much of my analysis on each medium on her writings and several other new media critics. 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 began publication 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. While authorial performances can be done by the singular writer/artist/author, they can easily be shared, passed on, or even delegated to others without much trouble. Ownership, on the other hand, is based on the complexities of copyright law and is normally ascribed to a very specific person, group of people, or entity, regardless of how many others helped with carrying the authorial burden. The general belief that being the creator of a particular work of literature or other field automatically provides ownership through copyright laws is mired in many legal intricacies. Original authorship is an almost permanent point of identity but ownership can be purchased through buying the rights for use and reproduction of a particular story or character by 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. Because the majority of the works that I am analyzing for this study are done by American authors and the cases of corporate authorship I focus on are in the US, my work with copyright law will revolve around the American version of it, though I will include international laws when appropriate. While the complexities of copyright law go beyond the critique of this dissertation, it is important to note how such legal issues appear to complicate and challenge author functions in specific cases, which will be discussed accordingly throughout this study.
Another element of authorship that bears inclusion is the economic impact of serialization. While the story may be far from its completion, low sales have the potential to make the narrative endeavor of continuing the publication of installments delay or even cease as the point of it no longer being financially feasible looms. From a publishing perspective, the author has the choice to continue even as the numbers are not coming in his/her favor but other entities like publishing houses, or even the owners of a narrative property, are the ones that make the decision to cease publication based on business, not storytelling. Sales are often used to determine the apparent “success” of a particular narrative, and while these figures do not denote an objective quality for the story, they do indicate an initial response by the readership towards supporting the publication of present and future installments. The potential for profit, not a creative endeavor, is what motivates serialization to continue for all but the most stalwart of self-publishing authors. Because of the importance of this economic dimension, I incorporate sales and other financial figures into my analysis in each of the chapters of this study to show the real life author functions of those whose narratives are the primary basis of their incomes.
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. This format contained a myriad of different topics like current events, advertisements, poems, drawings, short stories, and various installments of different serials throughout each issue. 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.
Victorian era authorship evokes the image of the sole writer, carefully crafting his/her story to fit into the designated length of one installment. However, the idea of narrative carving into appropriate lengths disregards many additional author functions that were undertaken by others. Editors of literary magazines went far beyond policing word and page counts as they ensured proper narrative quality and overall consistency. Illustrators had many conversations with the writer as they decided how to best draw important scenes and characters for the image that would be included in each installment. Other writers would serve to incite interest in a potential readership by producing previews of an upcoming work that will soon be serialized in that literary magazine. In short, while the identity of a sole authorship is found since the cradle of print serialization, several author functions are the responsibility of others and this model continues to exist in contemporary narrative production of serial fiction.
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. JK Rowling’s seven books cover seven years of the life of the eponymous protagonist as he and his friends battle the evil Voldemort. With over 450 million copies of her books sold across the world in multiple languages, this series is the most recognizable form of contemporary serial fiction, especially if one takes into account the film adaptations as well. Rowling provides a unique example of sole authorship of a serialized narrative wherein her authorial performances expand with each installment and even beyond the publication of the final book in the series.
Rowling’s authorial identity is cemented with the fact that she is the sole writer of these books and exerts control over many facets of her work. Rowling demonstrates her control of the medium and publishing practices when she increased the page count of the texts, something easily visible when comparing the widths of each title, in order to fit the story that needed to be told in each installment. She also instituted global release dates with the final three books to ensure that the fans would have a more synchronous reading and to minimize parts of the story being leaked beforehand and spoiling the narrative. Editors, publishing houses, illustrators, and even translators take their own brunt of their allocated authorial functions but Rowling is still the one who gets top billing for each publication, even for the adaptations.
Rowling’s role as an author extends to far beyond the narrative production of each installment. She defends the ownership of her work from copyright infringement claims, including one from the creator of a character named Larry Potter, but all of these cases have been successfully defended. In addition, Rowling and her legal team stopped the publication of the Harry Potter Lexicon book, which was already online and she had even admitted to using as a resource before, with the pretense that she was going to publish such a book in the near future. My analysis of these authorial functions shows the role of the author extends beyond creating and continuing the story. Rowling serves as an example of sole authorship whose responsibilities and power expands with each installment. While others take on their own authorial performances, it is she who still gets the acclamation.
One other authorial performance worth noting that JK Rowling does is that of interacting with her readership. Long after completing the serialization of her work, 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 Harry Potter series. Her identity as author and almost celebrity are further enforced with websites like http://www.accio-quote.org/, which serves as an archive for anything she has ever said or written about the Harry Potter series or any of her other writing endeavors. This sense of popularity translates to sales outside of fantasy and young adult works as is evident when almost all copies of Robert Galbraith’s crime novel The Cuckoo’s Calling sold out once it was revealed that this was Rowling’s pen name sometime after the original publication.
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 to be 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. The transition from a shared authorship between writer and artist to a corporate authorship where the parent company (in this case Time-Warner) owns the rights to the character and employs others to carry on the narrative and take on various authorial performances shows how the concept of the author has drastically changed in this medium.
The character of Superman has appeared in multiple storylines across various titles throughout the course of over eighty years of publication, the majority of which were not done by the original authors of Siegel and Shuster. 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.
Since comics are often considered to be synonymous with superhero comics and mostly published by DC or Marvel, I wish to use another text that falls outside of this genre and the publication of these two business magnates. Atomic Robo, was created by Brian Clevinger and Scott Wegna in 2007 and has been in publication ever since. Their work blends fantasy and historical fiction as the eponymous protagonist is the greatest creation by scientist Nikolai Tesla and his adventures intersect with real places, people, and events. While authorship is normally attributed to the writers of graphic narratives, Clevinger and Wegna as writer and artist respectively, publicly acknowledge that their storytelling is a joint venture; thus, it is only fair that they share the titles of creators and authors of Atomic Robo. In addition, both take on additional author functions like maintaining an official timeline of their nonchronologically told narrative so far and adding a geographical element through the Google Maps version of said timeline.
One of the authorial performances worth studying is their narrative production which can be witnessed through Clevinger’s and Wegna’s public conversations on Twitter. The back and forth banter between the two mostly ranges between jokes, complaints, and fleshing out ideas. They even have their Twitter avatars as Robo from different sides so that it looks like they are facing each other during their digital conversations. They expand their authorial performances through social media by openly running forms of public relations. Both announce when new installments are ready for purchase, advertise when sales of particular titles are being offered, provide links towards reviews of their work, and even answer individual queries from their readers. In fact, Clevinger himself answered back a tweet of mine when I mentioned that I was using Atomic Robo as one of the selected readings for this dissertation. Their work as joint authors demonstrates that the serialization of graphic narratives does not have to follow the corporate model of authorship.
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 mostly 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 expanding 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. This model goes beyond the traditional business exchange of goods and services for capital as readers take on a role closer to producers or investors.
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. The authorial function of keeping his readership informed is specific and deliberate when it comes to the online publication. However, the print compilations contain in depth behind the scenes information from Burlew about his narrative process in between each “chapter”. These self-professed moments of narrative insight have a twofold authorial function. First, Burlew provides his readership with further information into his narrative process, often clarifying misconceptions about the story that are voiced through the webcomic’s forum. Second, this additional material serves as an added incentive for readers to purchase these books, as Burlew’s primary income from his webcomic is done through the sale of merchandise.
The second webcomic cartoonist I analyze is 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). His authorial performance to keep his readership informed on many aspects of his life, ranging from the trivial to the deeply personal, foments a sense of community and emotional investment that goes beyond the narrative.
In the case of both authors and for many other webcomic cartoonists, their expanding roles as their readership and narrative grows do not necessarily equate into taking on more authorial functions. Many of the veterans of webcomic publishing advise that building a sense of community amongst your readership allows for some tasks to be taken on by them. Passionate readers will take on the authorial performance of trying to convince their friends and family to join the rank and file of the readership with little to no prompting from the author. Some readers readily volunteer to defend ownership of the webcomic when other websites have installments on their site without giving royalties or even credit to the original webcomic cartoonist. In other cases, the author can promote readers to take on more roles, like an attentive forumite that can become a moderator for the website’s forum or a talented artist that does fan art that can take over as guest illustrator if your official artist needs a break. In short, webcomic publication shows the evolution from a sole authorship on almost every level to a shared one with the readership wherein they take on more authorial responsibilities. The rise of the reader does not have to come at the expense of the death of the author but rather through a connectivity/familiarity that the immediacy of digital publishing facilitates.