Does authorship matter?

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Ten or so years ago, a student I know wrote an essay on Wikipedia in which he coined the phrase “authorless prose.” He argued that the “people’s dictionary is written, rewritten, edited, and re-edited by so many hands that authorship is no longer a salient feature." Hence, authorless prose.

I’ve thought a lot about this concept, and of course questions of authorship have preoccupied me ever since Lisa Ede and I did the research that led to Singular Texts / Plural Authors, where we—in the 1980s—assailed the concept of radical, individual, originary authorship.

And I thought of it again during the Republican National Convention, after Melania Trump’s keynote and the subsequent revelations of its use, sometimes word-for-word, of a speech Michelle Obama gave at the Democratic National Convention in 2008.

Leave aside the exquisite irony of the Trump campaign declaring Obama and his administration of every social ill imaginable while simultaneously approving a speech that “borrowed” from his wife’s language. And leave aside the debacle that followed: Melania Trump saying she wrote the speech herself, campaign operatives saying it was the work of speech writers, and campaign manager Manafort and Trump doubling down on their insistence that the words Melania Trump used were “common” words used by many. “No big deal,” they seemed to say, when the speechwriter eventually stepped forward and admitted the “mistake.” No need to resign: “innocent mistakes happen.”

It would be fascinating to follow the development of that speech from beginning to end—and news agencies have been at work to track that history down. The speech was probably “authored” by several people, including Melania Trump. Again, authorless prose. What interests me is not the ownership of the words, the “authorship,” per se, but the veracity of them. Were the words in Melania Trump’s speech true and accurate? We may never know, since she is not likely to be giving more speeches any time soon, much less interviews.

But what of her husband’s words—and the words of the larger campaign? Trump tweets almost daily—if not hourly—about “lyin’ Hillary,” and his entire campaign so far has been made up of a thin tissue of un-truths: about his “huge” business success, about his so-called university, even about his own background.

In the meantime, “lyin’ Hillary” faced three investigations and something like 13 hours of often hostile grilling by a Congressional Committee that could find no proof of wrongdoing on her part. In fact, Clinton has been the subject of numerous investigations, some of them clearly political vendettas, yet none of which has found her guilty of breaking laws. Nevertheless, Trump and his followers—loudly and insistently—claim that she is guilty of murder and that she should be jailed—or even executed.

Saying something over and over again doesn’t make it true. But it does make its way into public consciousness as if it were true.

Plato famously said that a speaker needed not only to tell the truth but to appear to tell the truth. In this campaign, we are witnessing the nominee of a major political party doing neither. And still being supported—rapturously—by millions.

It’s a sad day for truth, for veracity, for credibility. In such a time, writing about authorship and arguing over plagiarism seems a lot like trying to lock the barn door after the wildly irresponsible horse is already out.

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About the Author
Andrea A. Lunsford is the former director of the Program in Writing and Rhetoric at Stanford University and teaches at the Bread Loaf School of English. A past chair of CCCC, she has won the major publication awards in both the CCCC and MLA. For Bedford/St. Martin's, she is the author of The St. Martin's Handbook, The Everyday Writer and EasyWriter; The Presence of Others and Everything's an Argument with John Ruszkiewicz; and Everything's an Argument with Readings with John Ruszkiewicz and Keith Walters. She has never met a student she didn’t like—and she is excited about the possibilities for writers in the “literacy revolution” brought about by today’s technology. In addition to Andrea’s regular blog posts inspired by her teaching, reading, and traveling, her “Multimodal Mondays” posts offer ideas for introducing low-stakes multimodal assignments to the composition classroom.