A New Book and its Many ‘Authors’

Pliny the Younger, Letters 1.2

“Clearly, something must be published – ah, it would be best if I could just publish what I have already finished! (You may hear in this the wish of laziness)”

Est enim plane aliquid edendum — atque utinam hoc potissimum quod paratum est! Audis desidiae votum

Amid all the uncertainty and chaos of current events, it seems strange to celebrate something like the paper publication of a book, but I did want to write a little bit about Homer’s Thebes, a book I wrote with Elton Barker, on the occasion of its official print publication date.

Homer's Thebes_LI

The book was born digitally in December and Elton and I have already written about the long history of its writing for the SCS blog. Books are strange creations: some people are tortured by them, some handle them with the loving care due infants. Many fall somewhere in between. I have a deep affection for this book because of how much time we spent working on it, because we finally got it done, and because it has, in the introduction, the most fully worked-out presentation of how Elton and I conceive of Homeric poetry as functioning in the world.

Michael Apostol 4.95

“My book is drunk: [a proverb] applied to those who ruin certain works; or to philologists.”

Βιβλίον τοὐμὸν μέθυ: πρὸς τοὺς διαφθείροντάς τινα ἔργα· ἢ ἐπὶ τῶν φιλολόγων

Our view of the aesthetics and poetics of early Greek poetry draws on much as what we know about orality and performance culture in the ancient world as it does on post-modern literary theory. One of the things I personally find frustrating about continuing conversations about authorship in Classical Studies is the tireless emphasis we put on individual geniuses to the detriment of the people who made their work possible.

This is both about the actual labor of the writing context and the intellectual frameworks that make ideas possible. People don’t write alone: they write while others cook, clean, edit, and care for them. They write in conversation with other people, in response to them, adding, subtracting, and changing as they mull over ideas.

Gnomologium Vaticanum 518

“Sophokles the tragic poet, after he heard that Euripides died in Macedonia, said “The whetstone of my poems is gone.”

Σοφοκλῆς, ὁ τῶν τραγῳδιῶν ποιητής, ἀκούσας Εὐριπίδην ἐν Μακεδονίᾳ τεθνηκέναι εἶπεν· „ἀπώλετο ἡ τῶν ἐμῶν ποιημάτων ἀκόνη.”

The view that an individual creates something wholly on their own is the application of a heroic pattern to intellectual life—it is a willful interpretation of reality and history which ignores the evidence for multiple discovery (see Merton’s 1963 study of this and this New Yorker Article where I first encountered the idea.) I think a missing piece to strengthen this hypothesis is the understanding that human cognition and creativity happens as the work of group minds, as explored by Andy Clark and David Chalmers.

We are all recipients of similar intellectual and creative traditions mediated by time, place, and shared languages. Why is it so surprising that as we surf the same currents of history we have similar ideas at the same time? Now imagine this doubled and trebled in intensity; imagine groups of singers over time engaging with audiences in special language, performance, and ritual. Who is responsible for the outcome of this process? Why do we feel so strongly the pull to impose upon such works the name and idea of a single person?

Our conviction that Homeric poetry in the ancient world achieved its form because of not despite the lack of an individual author is rooted in aesthetics and a political understanding which goes hand-in-glove with it. Near the end of our SCS Blog entry it, we write:

In all likelihood, there is a relationship between how we research and what we research, between our collaboration and the model(s) of composition and reception we explore for Homeric poetry. In both cases, we value the contribution of the unseen and the hard to recover: that is to say, the generations of singers whose own poems formed the basis of the two that have survived; the audiences whose responses to each performance helped shape and give meaning to them; and the successive generations of writers who have edited, altered, and handed them down. Similarly, we see scholarship as an activity performed by many different people. Ideally, it is not owned or monetized for individual profit, but is presented in competition with each other for a greater good.

We don’t see the contributions others make to our own work because we are conditioned not to see it. We see ourselves as heroically creating on our own because we are trained to see the world in that way and to see others as instruments. The only way to see the world differently is to start by acknowledging that our models for creation are based on will more than reality. (And that this reality can be harmful.)

My experience of writing articles and books over the past decade has only strengthened by belief that I am less an “author” in a modern sense of the word and more a conduit, a voice that brings ideas together. Indeed, I think it is no accident that part of my growth as a reader and a writer over the years is connected to this blog: I am, at the core, an aggregator and a synthesist:

HT Front 1

HT Front 2

And all I need to do to remind myself that this book, like all others, is the product of a group over time is to look at our list of acknowledgements at the front and the bibliography at the end. The ideas of each chapter developed from conversations with our friends and scholars over the years; they were sharpened and improved in presentations in person and online; they were honed by editors in different journals; and they were brought into a presentable shape by the work of editors who saved us much embarrassment.

It is hard to honor these contributions any more fully without documentation that would fill pages of a book as long and dependent on others as this one. If anything, publishing in the time of coronavirus should remind us how heavily we rely on one another, how much we enrich each other’s lives, and how much we need our social, linguistic, and political networks to make our world possible.Take some time to think about the people who shape your life and make your work possible, to evaluate the boundaries between where you end and others begin.

We don’t receive any money from the purchase of this book. If you can order it, the money will go to supporting open access publication and the work of the editors and programmers who make it possible.

For more on this book see my video conversation with the Center for Hellenic Studies’ Kosmos Society:


“Let it stand as the singular fate of the monuments of Homer and his peers that in some sense they forced philology to be born—and that they did so even before the word for Critic or Grammarian was commonly spoken.”

Maneat igitur, singularem fortunam Homericorum et supparum monumentorum extudisse quodammodo philologam criticen, idque etiam antea, quam nomen Critici aut Grammatici vulgo auditum esset.

F. A. Wolf, Prolegomena ad Homerum

3 thoughts on “A New Book and its Many ‘Authors’

  1. No book is a better poster child for the cult of the individual genius author than Joyce’s Ulysses, but there’s no way that he did any domestic work at home, and everything in it is clearly the product of and response to Joyce’s old Dublin life and his deep reading of literature. Surely, the genius is just an expert assembler.

  2. Thank you for this. And for all your blog/twitter contributions.
    Ruth McKimmie Mob: (+61) 0408 234925

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