Web Exclusive Essay

The Use Value of Authors

Jonathan Gray
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A key dilemma for both media consumers and producers in today’s media environment is discoverability: with so much media spreading, and even more desperately wanting to be spread, how do we choose what to consume? Consequently, consumers need highly effective filters to direct them to the media they are most likely to enjoy and away from that which they are unlikely to enjoy; producers, meanwhile, need to develop techniques to ensure that their content enjoys safe passage through such filters and finds the audiences most likely to enjoy their work. Herein lies the importance of, and the use for, authors.

As compared to creative figures—producers, writers, artists, designers, and a wealth of other terms in common parlance to describe those who make media—an “author” is someone to whom we attribute a heightened level of authority and autonomy over the item of media in question. Most consumers operate on the assumption that a vast amount of media isn’t worth personally consuming, either because it is corporate hackery written by committee just to make a fast buck, because it is amateurish and incompetent, or simply because it doesn’t appeal to any of their interests. An author, though, is a totem of sorts that signifies a certain level of skill and singularity of vision. To talk of authors for professionally produced content is to assert creativity and self-expression in what can too often be characterized as a faceless, paint-by-numbers industry, while to talk of authors for amateur-produced content is to attribute artistry in what can too often be characterized as a world full of everyone’s uploaded cat videos. Discussing authors can be a way to validate the product of said authors, and hence to allow ourselves to discuss art, meaning, and depth in some popular media without attributing artistry or depth to all popular media.

At the same time, precisely who the author is can be hotly contested and variable, as the content industries may pose one author, while fans may look to others, sometimes working to uncover who the “real” author is. For instance, while The Simpsons is often popularly spoken of as Matt Groening’s, many fans have nominated other individuals in the show’s production as the true source(s) of the show’s perceived brilliance, and hence as its author(s). The fact that people would bother to argue over who the author is should signify how much the title of author matters, and it offers an initial sign of the importance of authors.

A prime function that authors serve is classificatory. To say that something is the work of a particular author is (a) to offer a certain guarantee of quality predicated on the name value of that author and (b) to frame one’s understanding of the current work within the context of meanings and themes from other works to which the author’s name is attached. In this regard, authors become genres and brands. Just as one might wish to watch, for instance, a romantic comedy because one likes the genre, themes, and style of romcoms and is looking for some sense of continuity between previously enjoyed romcoms and the new one at hand, one will immediately start to evaluate an author’s product based on one’s knowledge of his or her prior work and will expect a certain level of continuity of theme and style. As such, saying that a movie, for instance, is by Steven Spielberg means a lot to most people (even if what it means will differ from person to person, community to community). Though we tend to think of the processes of reading, understanding, and interpretation as reactive and as taking place during or after exposure to an item of media, in fact a great deal of reading, understanding, and interpretation occurs before exposure, when we are deciding, for instance, whether to watch something, who to watch it with, what to expect, what it will do for us, and so forth. As do genres, authors work as a shorthand, a tag, an abstract, and a primer for any item of media. They help us to make decisions about what to consume and how to consume it.

Content industries have thus frequently turned to the author as a vital method of selling and spreading media. “From the writer of” and “From the director of” pronunciations on film posters and in trailers abound, and we even see the more tenuous “From the people who brought you.” Witness how anything involving Judd Apatow or J. J. Abrams in any capacity sports these authors’ names prominently. However, since authors are brands or genres, content industries must also invest significant energy into developing them. Thus, as much as a whole army of tie-ins, tell-alls, interviews, and other extratextual elements work to hype a media product, often they will also work to fashion notions of the author. The DVD bonus materials for The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Rings and The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, for instance, went to great lengths to depict Peter Jackson as a masterful author, conveniently in time for the cinematic release of the third film in the trilogy.

However, as mentioned earlier, authorship is often hotly contested, and, thus, fans will frequently discuss who the hidden, “real” talents behind shows are. Their discussions and creations will at times produce rival brands for particular authors. For example, fans of Buffy the Vampire Slayer were often at cross-purposes when debating the role of Marti Noxon (the eventual showrunner) vis-à-vis Joss Whedon (the show’s creator and previous showrunner) in ways that position Noxon’s and Whedon’s brands in starkly different ways. Here, we see that authors are also important as means of communication among fans, nonfans, and content producers. Authors regularly become particularly rich sites for the discussion not only of what fans like or dislike about individual items of media but also of what they like and dislike about media culture or society in general. Authors can easily become projections of ideals that fans hold dear to them or that they revile. To some people, for example, Star Trek’s Gene Roddenberry became a projection of a desire for tolerance in a world full of difference, while, to others, Michael Moore became an embodiment either of a smug, unpatriotic, liberal attention seeker or of the little guy fighting The Man, depending on the audience member. Consequently, it is often through listening to audience constructions and discussion of authors that we can learn precisely what is valued or disliked in certain media, as authors can become virtual anthropomorphizations of their associated items of media.

Thus, authorship is valued because it lets us distinguish between content we discount and content we care about; because it helps us to classify particular media texts and to better discern whether material might be worth our time, attention, and money; and because authors become a means by which we can discuss and debate popular culture.


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