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Author, author

Little did I realize what I would stir up by including in the posting on The Sun’s test for copy desk applicants the question "Who wrote ‘The Iliad’?" (You can read the comments attached to "If I’m so smart …" from June 5.)

For the purposes of The Sun’s test, "Homer" is a satisfactory answer. That is the conventional shorthand for authorship of the epic poem, even among classicists. Writing "No one knows, but Homer is the name conventionally given to the author" or "Homer is the name conventionally given to the author or authors who reduced oral transmissions of the story to writing" would earn bonus points.

But the intention in posing the question is not to establish an applicant’s bona fides as a student of classics; it is to weed out applicants who would answer "Virgil" or "Dante" or leave the question blank. (Please, for mercy’s sake, don’t quibble with me about whether it’s "Virgil" or "Vergil.")

The discussion does, however, open up reflections on what authorship means. The answer to the question "Who wrote The Waste Land?" would be T.S. Eliot, of course. But it is conceivable that someone who has examined the facsimile of the manuscript that was published only about 30 years ago would answer, "T.S. Eliot, with the assistance of Ezra Pound, who marked whole sections of the original poem for deletion." Presumably that is one of the reasons that Eliot dedicated the poem to Pound, "il miglior fabbro," "the better craftsman."

Authorial questions grow even more complicated in journalism, because the article that you read in the paper under the byline of a reporter has been through the hands of, at minimum, an assigning editor, a copy editor and a slot editor (an antique term for the copy editor who oversees the work of a particular desk, or group of copy editors). Additional changes may be made as a consequence of proofreading. And a major article will likely have been through many other hands, undergoing extensive revision.

That byline represents the primacy of reporting and writing, but it would be a mistake to think that what lies beneath is the reporter’s unmediated work. Even columns and reviews are subject to some degree of editing. The primacy of reporting and writing explains why reporters, not editors, win the prizes. The nature of editing explains why newspapers take collective, institutional responsibility when something goes awry.

Posted by John McIntyre at 2:53 PM | | Comments (8)
        

Comments

Fun piece.
I believe the word author comes from the latin word meaning to create.

I wonder if there is a latin word for "edit."

Of course in today's world, nobody really cares who actually wrote a book-- especially not publishers. It's all about how famous you already are.

Mahesh Grossman
Author,
Write a Book Without Lifting a Finger:
How to Hire a Ghostwriter Even If You're on a Shoestring Budget

When I was in grad school, teaching one or the other of the first four semesters of Latin, I'd offer extra-credit questions at the end of big exams. The questions were based on material covered in class, though not strictly relevant. Yes, I digressed. At one point in the late 1970s or early 1980s, I asked the following question on a test: "Who wrote 'Pride and Prejudice'?"

The best student in that class offered up "Emily Dickinson." OK, he was a young male.

-- Alison, who now owns two copies, though pb, of the book with the "Wasteland" manuscript

I should be shot for screwing up the title "Waste Land." As a college freshman, I took a course in modern English literature from A. Walton Litz. Most of us have our off moments, and I more than most, but I doubt that Litz ever did.

I grow old.

Unfortunately not all newspapers take "collective, institutional responsibility when something goes awry"--at least not until they're forced to. Witness the New York Times and Jayson Blair.

As for Homer and the question of authorship of The Iliad and Odyssey, I believe a similar question might be raised regarding the authorship of Hamlet, King Lear, Romeo and Juliet, etc. etc. As everyone knows, of course, these works were written by Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford (a/k/a Willie Shakespeare).

Or was it Christopher Marlowe? who also wrote "Goethe's Faustus"! [I actually had a student years ago who referred to it exactly that way! (Or maybe he called it "Gounod's Faustus"? I can't remember.) Probably the same young genius who attributed Pride and Prejudice to Emily Dickinson.]

Btw, I also have "senior moments" Ms. Parker.... but do YOU also wear the bottoms of your trousers rolled?

For the truly persnickety about Homer, there is evidence that the Iliad and the Odyssey were traditional oral epic poems that Homer sang, perhaps with special talent, while somebody else transcribed his performances. Such an answer might earn triple-extra credit, though not hearing Virgil, Dante, Plato, etc. would be quite satisfactory.

Whut? I thought Marlowe wrote "The Tragicall History of Dr. Faustus" - gimme a break here, I haven't thought about that since I was in the 8th grade, so I may have spelled something wrong.

No problem, that's how I always spell tragicall. But who knows how Homer Simpson spells it!? (Homer would be the authority on that. Or maybe Bart.)

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About John McIntyre
John McIntyre, mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers’ work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun’s night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics. If you are inspired by a spirit of contradiction, comment on the posts or write to him at john.mcintyre@baltsun.com.
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