:: Article

Ambiguous Authorship: throwing in with chance

By Kirsten Irving.

Ambiguous Authorship

In Graham Rawle’s retro novel Woman’s World, something strange is going on, and not just with his protagonist, the terminally camp Stepford singleton Norma Fontaine. Rawle’s novel was drafted in his own words, and then overwritten with clippings from an immense archive of women’s magazines from the sixties. None of the words in Rawle’s book come from him. As a result of the source material, Norma narrates the novel as though she is inhaling pure Good Housekeeping, obsessing over screen idols, ladylike looks and etiquette. In a review of Woman’s World, Hyperallergic.com notes that “the assembled found text could only be an ‘approximation’ (to use Rawle’s own term) of what he had in mind, and the noticeable and frequent slippages between the intentionally planned and the availably possible gives Woman’s World its most attractive and entertaining stylistic feature”.

For centuries, poets and other artists have been viewed as alchemists or shamans. They supposedly channel matter inaccessible to the average person to make works “normal” people could not dream of making. When an artist works to muddy the waters of authorship, it is a voluntary abdication from the conceptual podium. They are handing back the laurels and trying on a disguise instead.

So what is Rawle’s role in Woman’s World? Is he the collage artist, curator or author behind this book? We could ask the same of poet and artist Ladislav Nowak in his surrealist collection The Transformations of Mr Hadliz; bringing to mind the costumed adventures of Mr Benn, the book is a collection of visual and poetic portraits featuring the eponymous hero in different guises. Each portrait was created first through “froissage”, with Nowak crumpling up a piece of paper, then smoothing it back out and using the creases to guide his pen towards a form of Mr Hadliz. The ekphrastic poem on the facing page would translate the highlighted creases and build a story around the figure within them.

The Transformations of Mr Hadliz represents an authorial tug-of-war. The character for each poem is formed initially by the author’s actions (crumpling), but the resulting crumples are out of his control, since he does not crease purposefully. He then follows the lines he is given in a way of his choosing, anthropomorphising the cracks. Then, like Frankenstein, he must work with the figure he has made to shape a partner poem to the image. Nowak’s publisher writes of the book: “The text to the art was written in the spirit of automatism virtually overnight, and some sixteen years later in 1992. The volume is completed by poems from Novák’s alter ego, Mr. Hadlíz, as well as a conversation between the author and his subject.” It seems even Mr Hadliz wants in on the mantle of authorship.

Book of Bugs

The Chinese artist Zhu Yingchun takes authorial abdication one step further with his Book of Bugs. Named as one of the “most beautiful books in China” in 2016, Book of Bugs is presented like a traditional volume of calligraphy. Each character appears shakily drawn, in black ink, and Westerners like me, who do not speak Chinese, assume from Zhu’s nationality that these are Mandarin glyphs. But Chinese people have equal trouble deciphering the code, because the writers behind Zhu’s book are insects, moving through ink and across the page. It is a delight to realise that all languages (and language barriers) are lost here: everyone and no-one can read this book. The bug calligraphy could be classed as asemic poetry, but it could also be a visual artwork. While the book comes from Zhu’s inspiration, and his presentation of its contents, he has stepped aside as author. Instead, he has elevated insects, normally ignored, crushed underfoot or exterminated, to the authorial role. 

What is the appeal of handing over authorial agency, whether to roaches, lifestyle columnists or dead poets? One answer is the relief from writer’s block, an anxious response to having to make decisions. In the novel Dice Man, Luke Rhinehart’s eponymous, dice-dependant antihero advises the indecisive, uncertain and worried to “let the rolling ivory tumble your burdens away. $2.50 per pair”. Just as a form can define a poem’s rhythm, sound or shape, games or gambles can do the same, pushing the writer head-first down the slide. 

But is a writer who uses such spur techniques a creative coward for putting off decisions or brave for testing their ability to adapt? If the words didn’t come straight from the depths of their brain as “original” ingredients, are they somehow cutting corners, and in doing so, erasing their creative contribution? Or are they falsely claiming authorship when the true act of creation comes from the spur itself?

The Beast

The Beast – © Aleksandra Sontowska and Kamil Węgrzynowicz

I felt this anxiety myself when working on Love Carcass, a sequence of diary entries thematically determined by Polish game The Beast. The game is described as “an unsettling erotic card game for one”. As a player, you are given the overall scenario (you are having sex with a Beast – it is a secret) and minimal control via a short “Beastionnaire” which you complete, before being launched into a month of beastly banging, prompted each day by a card demanding a reaction to a new question. There’s no rule that says your response must be written (I’d love to see a visual art or dance sequence prompted by the game) but I wondered whether simply playing a game, albeit an open-ended one, was “cheating”, or somehow less valid as “my” artwork – was I an author, a player or a pawn?

Say if we decide the person presenting a composite or text-dependent work is the true owner; what does this mean, philosophically and practically? Is a twitterbot creator the author of the resulting art, for programming them with the phrases to employ, or does the art only emerge with the bot’s random combinations? We could argue that without the source material, the new text would not exist, but the same is true in reverse; reimagining or butchering that source text can be a form of sublimation or reincarnation, updating it, subverting it, refreshing it. The new version’s success depends on the kinetics of the two texts; there must be conflict and contrast as well as points of familiarity, with no temptation to resolve the tension. Stepping back and letting the work lead is as important and active a role for the author as torturing the texts into a certain shape or brand voice.

Even a form as classical as a sestina or pantoum involves sacrificing some element of control. The poem begins in the hands of the poet and wriggles away, as the writer finds themselves forced to insert lines and end words regardless of their will, watching these gatecrashing lines either shape or tank the poem they were creating. It brings to mind Kurt Vonnegut’s novel Timequake, in which the Earth and its inhabitants are thrown back in time by a decade. From here, they must consciously relive the exact events of the last ten years, as if on a chronological monorail. Free will is suspended until they have completed their reparative voyage. Similarly, as a poet reaches the end of their sestina, the last lines are all but decided for them. Far from restricting the poem, this device can free up the work to stray away from the author’s usual phrasing or tone, making something both familiar and alien.

In relaxing our hold on authorship to allow part of the process to be decided for us, we allow our own output to surprise and wrong-foot us. Sometimes it will work, and sometimes it will be embarrassingly bad, but we must continue to play, in order to avoid stagnation. It’s not about us, after all, but the pleasure of the text.

Pale Fire

The futility of trying to hold on to a text is a key feature of Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire, a book which gleefully lampoons authorship and authorial vanity. Nabokov takes on the voice not only of embittered academic Charles Kinbote, but also of his former colleague and the subject of his research, deceased poet John Shade. The book presents itself as a new annotated version of Shade’s poem, ‘Pale Fire’, but two thirds of the book is given over to Kinbote’s vainglorious ramblings about his relationship with Shade and the poverty of his rival’s achievements in the same field. When we finally reach the poem (a Nabokov original, presented as Shade’s work), it is infiltrated and bombarded by footnotes, anecdotes and general buttings-in from Kinbote. The suffocating tango of these two voices hides Nabokov completely, and the resulting chaos is a joyous carnival. Pale Fire is neither poem, nor critical text, nor novel – it sits in a literary no man’s land, asking question after question, while the author, like Quilty in Lolita, hides in the shadows, observing.

This is all very well for a writer of Nabokov’s standing, but ambiguous authorship is not a route many emerging artists can afford to take. For one thing, as soulless as it might sound, every writer has to build their brand; in this age of SEO, the more mentions of a name in relevant places online, the easier it is to find an author in search results, or link them to their genre, style or titles. And while we’re talking brass tacks, there’s the question of copyright. It could weaken the argument for ownership of intellectual property if an author asserts no such claim, and it could dilute the concept of the authorless artwork to then stick a copyright page in the front of the book.

Where there is deliberate ambiguity in copyright, is there less of a case for an artist crying plagiarism? In recent years, the poetry world has seen several high-profile instances of work being appropriated. The offenders were roundly condemned, though plagiarism has always gone on in art; indeed certain forgeries of classic paintings are now highly collectable in their own right. In a 2013 Guardian article, Toby Fitch was keen to stress that the poetry baby not be thrown out with the bathwater when it came to plagiarism v genuine collage:

I don’t condone plagiarism, but it would be a great shame if, in our rush to lynch a couple of plagiarists and their misguided ideas of “patchwork”, “sampling” and “remixing”, we forget to remember why poetry needs experimentation. One of the reasons poets have been compelled to use collage has been to subvert the myth and tired conceit of the all-seeing Poet at the centre of the Poem. It’s a political stance, not a narcissistic one.

Indeed, when his plagiarism emerged, Australian poet Andrew Slattery claimed to have been acting legitimately, writing mash-ups and centos. On close examination, this was patently not the case, and therein lies the distinction and the offence: it is the lack of artistry in simply cutting and pasting text (in the MS Word sense, at least) and sticking a new name at the bottom. The work has not undergone some form of translation and creative development in another person’s hands; it has simply been stolen for material gain. Far from embracing an authorless ideal, the plagiarist is explicitly claiming authorship of the work.

Fuzzy authorship is a balance beam, but if we can negotiate the logistics, the artistic possibilities are exciting. There is a freedom to disentangling author and text, to letting games, materials, characters and chance lead the way, even if they drown their creators. There is, as Fitch points out, a political comment to be made in subverting ideas of ownership; the text gains an agency of its own, away from ideas of hierarchy and a controlling figure of authority. It can live on beyond its first published iteration, in the hands of a community, of anyone who wants to adapt or remix it. In ‘The Death of the Author’, Barthes describes literature (though this could apply to any art form) as “that neuter, that composite, that oblique into which every subject escapes, the trap where all identity is lost, beginning with the very identity of the body that writes”.

Or, as Vonnegut quips in Timequake: “All persons, living and dead, are purely coincidental.”


Kirsten Irving

Kirsten Irving is a poet, copywriter and voiceover living and working in London. She co-runs collaborative poetry press Sidekick Books with Jon Stone, and is the editor of more than ten anthologies, on subjects ranging from video games to animals in cinema. Her writing has been published by Salt and Happenstance, featured in Bizarre magazine, New Statesman and various anthologies, and thrown out of a helicopter. Her latest projects include a collaboration on post-apocalyptic Japanese demons, a one-person poetry show about the movie Battle Royale, and the online project, Love Carcass, a blog about one woman’s secret sex life with a beast. Follow Kirsten @KoftheTriffids.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Thursday, May 18th, 2017.