From Boston's #TheMuse: Whatever happened to 'author-ity'?

Image - iStockphoto: 7maru
Image – iStockphoto: 7maru

When Everybody Publishes, Is Anybody An Authority?

The Muse and The Marketplace has opened on Friday, 1st May, with of authority in digital times was followed Friday (1st May) by our weekly #FutureChat from The Bookseller’s The FutureBook.

The Muse annually draws some 800 attendees and is produced by the highly respected Grub Street creative writing center, and is headed by Eve Bridburg, Chris Castellani, Sonya Larson and Grant Patch.

As The Bookseller’s Philip Jones wrote here in his column, A tiny bit uncertain:

We are all aware that the digital disruption impacting the book publishing business remains unfinished, and yet it seems that we still need to keep reminding ourselves of this fact.

Philip Jones
Philip Jones

While Jones was referencing the impact that the digital dynamic is having on publishers, per commentary at Berlin’s Publishers’ Forum, another instance of this is a perceived change in stance for authors in our culture.

In our material for the Town Hall session today (a large-panel session in which the audience engages in questioning the panelists), we wrote:

As an author, how do you find and establish your own authority and understand your professionalism in a world in which both expertise and the authority that goes with it are being challenged by amateurs and hobbyists? Writers are being pushed to produce more and more at a faster and faster clip. Can a writer find and build market traction when the demands of a digitally powered industry and audience are for more and more, faster and faster?

In many instances, our discussions about authors and their positions in the industry are just that — inside-industry debates about the relationship between authors and publishers, readers, and other authors.

In this case, the question is taken from a slightly higher viewpoint, that of the societal and cultural perspective: once, an author was accorded a level of respect and position that seems to be rapidly eroding.

Our panel in Boston today is an impressive one.

Steven Pinker
Steven Pinker

Steven Pinker, Johnstone Family Professor in the Department of Psychology at Harvard, is the author most recently of The Better Angels of Our Nature — which may ring a bell for you, as it was the second book chosen for Mark Zuckerberg’s A Year of Books programme. He’s been dubbed by Time Magazine as one of the 100 most influential people in the world today. And, of course, one of the things I want to ask Pinker is whether authority isn’t conferred in a case like the Zuckerberg selection by a “new” source — new in literary historical terms. When social media executives can name one an authority, has anything changed?

Rebecca Newberger Goldstein
Rebecca Newberger Goldstein

Rebecca Newberger Goldstein is the author of 10 books, and a recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship, sometimes called the “genius prize.” Goldstein’s most recent book is Plato at The Googleplex: Why Philosophy Won’t Go Away. A professor of philosophy at New College of the Humanities in London, she also is a research assistant at Harvard and sits on the World Economic Forum’s Global Council on Values. She joins the New York University faculty in English and philosophy next year.

Josh Weil
Josh Weil

Josh Weil is the author of The Great Glass Sea, which has won the National Book Prize. He’ll be giving a reading from the book this evening here at The Muse — one of its donors anonymously funds the $5,000 award that comes with the prize. Weil’s book — it’s his first novel, though he has a collection of novellas, The New Valley, out as well — has been named an Editor’s Choice by the New York Times Books staff and he has written non-fiction for the New York Times, The Sun, and Poets & Writers.

Janet Silver
Janet Silver

Janet Silver is literary director with the Zachary Schuster Harmsworth Agency, and has put more than 30 years of her career into editing and publishing, a former vice-president and publisher at Houghton Mifflin. As an agent, Silver’s client list includes Cheryl Strayed, Anthony Marra, Michael Byers, Monique Truong, and Hanna Pylväinen. And while at Houghton, she worked with Philip Roth, Cynthia Ozick, Jonathan Safran Foer, and Jhumpa Lahiri.

Benjamin Samuel
Benjamin Samuel

Benjamin Samuel, the editor-at-large with Electric Literature and he’s the co-founder of itsRecommended Reading magazine, a weekly focused on fiction. He also serves as program manager for the National Book Foundation, which annually gives the National Book Awards. His own writings have been published by McSweeney’s, Atticus Books, The Rumpus, the LA Review of Books, Flavorwire, Publishers Weekly and in more venues.

Neal Thompson
Neal Thompson

Neal Thompson is the manager of author and publisher relations with Amazon, and, as such, is becoming a familiar face on the author-conference circuit. He’s an author, himself, as well as a journalist, and among his published titles are A Curious Man: The Strange & Brilliant Life of Robert ‘Believe It or Not’ Ripley (a PEN Center USA Literary Award finalist in nonfiction) and Driving with the Devil: Southern Moonshine, Detroit Wheels and the Birth of NASCAR.

A few more thoughts as we prepare for our panel and #FutureChat to follow:

  • Needless to say, even in past eras, authorial gravitas differed in cases of fiction vs. nonfiction, comedy vs. serious work, genre fiction vs. literary, and any number of other variants.
  • The idea of celebrity in general has adjusted considerably in the last couple of decades, as social media outlets have made key figures sometimes reachable, generally more approachable. The pedestal is not so tall now.
  • Authors, themselves, were once difficult to engage. “Drop a letter to her agent or publisher” was your best hope. Now, of course, many authors are determinedly available to readers.
  • The self-publishing world has created a community of writers who all but live or die by their interaction with readers and with each other, and it’s interesting to consider how that might be affecting perceptions of “author-ity.”
  • And the world of ideas, itself, is changing, isn’t it? As Andrew Keen writes in his books (I’m thinking of The Cult of the Amateur and The Internet Is Not the Answer), the concept of expertise — its value, who has it, how to get it — has come under unprecedented pressure. (For more on Keen’s perspective, see Jones fine interview with him, Andrew Keen’s dark web.)

So we hope you’ll join us today on the half-hour instead of the usual hour — 4:30 p.m. London / 11:30 a.m. New York — and give us your thoughts on the “author-ity” that writers once held. What’s happened to it, and what’s the best way for an author today to think about it?

See you in #FutureChat.

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By Porter Ander­son

The FutureBook:  From Boston’s #TheMuse: Whatever happened to ‘author-ity’?

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