Writer and Author

Writer. From the Old English writere, Middle English writer. A person who can write; one who practices or performs writing. More specifically, one who writes, compiles, or produces a literary composition; the composer of a book or treatise; a literary man or author. In English, the word goes back to at least the 800s.

Author. From the Latin auctor, Anglo-Norman autour or auteur. The person who originates or gives existence to anything. One who gives rise to or causes an action, event, circumstance, state, or condition of things. An inventor, constructor, or founder. In a more specific sense, one who sets forth written statements; the composer or writer of a treatise or book. (In this specialized sense, the word goes back to the 1300s.) The Creator.

It’s a much grander thing to be an author, isn’t it?

The definitions above come from the Oxford English Dictionary. For me, the writer is the craftsman, the one who does the work. Who sits down in front of the computer every day and puts words on the screen. (Or in my case, words on paper, since I still write most of my first drafts out longhand.) The author is the one who goes to conventions and gives readings, who is a public presence. The one who is given credit for being the originator, the inventor, the constructor of worlds. There’s a reason God is identified as the author of our being.

I suspect the words also reflect the old distinction between the Anglo-Saxon and therefore low, and the Latinate and therefore elevated, like pig and pork, cow and beef. When it’s running around the farm, it’s pig and cow. When it’s served at the Lord’s table, it’s porc and beouf.

I was talking to a friend of mine about the proper behavior for a writer, when readers comment on a book. And we agreed that the proper behavior was to remain silent. Here’s what I mean: most writers track what is being said about a book. They check Amazon reviews, they check Goodreads, they Google. They just do. And when they do, they sometimes come across reviews they disagree with, opinions they might want to contest. What should they do? Remain silent. Here’s why.

Once you write the book and it’s published, it’s no longer yours. It belongs to the reader. The reader creates the book in his or her head, based on what’s on the page. He or she enters into a relationship with the book. And in that relationship, you have no place. Yes, you can certainly thank someone for a nice comment. But you must never respond to criticism. It’s like interrupting someone else’s date.

Because you see, once the book has been published, you as the writer no longer exist. Instead, what exists is the author, and you are not the author. (What? you say. Don’t I get to be God? And the answer is, no, you don’t.) The author is constructed by the reader based on the book itself. The author exists in the reader’s imagination, as the creator of the book he or she has read. The author is not you. Is, in fact, someone a lot cooler than you.

(I know, I’m using these terms in a slightly different way than the OED. But I get to do that, because I’m the writer.)

The writer is the craftsman, and by the time the book is published, the writer has already gone on to the next book. What remains is the author, who is a shadow that the book itself casts.

The writer can conspire to create the author, can create an image of himself or herself. Many writers do. But I suspect that effort only works if the image fits the writing, fits the book. That’s what we call branding, nowadays. I’ll show you an example from a hundred years ago.

Here is the writer Christina Rossetti (second from left):

And here is the author Christina Rossetti:

Can you see the different? The portrait (by her brother Dante Gabriel) is the pre-Raphaelite equivalent of a publicity photo.

So, the writer can participate in creating the author, but in the end, the author is created by the reader, based on the book. Because it’s the relationship between the reader and the book that matters. The author can, in fact, change the writer – turn him or her into a reflection of the reader’s expectations. But in this process, the writer, the real writer who gets up in the morning and has cereal for breakfast, and needs to get a haircut, and forgot to pay rent – that person should remain silent. His or her job is to write the next book.

It’s an intensely consoling thought, actually. I’m a writer, which means that I can sit in front of the computer in my pajamas, writing a mess of a first draft. The writer is the one who loves the craft, loves putting words on paper or screen. Every once in a while it’s nice to dress up and be the author, but I would rather let her wander around the internet, existing in people’s imaginations and on their blogs – when they talk about Theodora Goss. In the meantime, Dora can sit cross-legged in her chair, in pjs and warm socks, writing.

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6 Responses to Writer and Author

  1. John Barnes says:

    Nicely made distinction — you might also direct a hat tip toward Wayne Booth’s The Rhetoric of Fiction, which brought up the idea of the “implied author” (what you’re calling the author) and the “implied reader”, who is also pretty different from the real reader. (My implied reader tends to be sitting in a comfortable armchair, but leans forward eagerly poring over each page, muttering “yes!yes!yes!” but my actual reader is probably on an airplane with a screaming baby in the row behind, desperately hoping this book will distract from the upcoming unpleasant meeting).

    Or then again there’s the distinction from MacNelly’s newspaper strip Shoe: Writers sit at desks and write; authors stare out windows and contemplate.

  2. As a writer, artist (working in many mediums), and gardener, I really appreciate this reminder that all we do and all we create, once made public, is, ultimately, no longer about us. It all belongs to the beholders, whoever they may be.

  3. “Or then again there’s the distinction from MacNelly’s newspaper strip Shoe: Writers sit at desks and write; authors stare out windows and contemplate.” I love this! 🙂

    Michelle, I think that’s true, certainly of any artistic creation. Once we make it public, it belongs to its audience, and it in part created by that audience. Art is always participatory.

  4. Or there’s this distinction I’ve always been fond of (though I can’t remember who said it): “Writers write. Authors have written.”

    This is one of the things that beginning writers have to understand; so many of them want to be authors straight out of the gate, doing glamorous things like signing books and going on book tours, but many don’t want to take the time to work on their craft, to produce something worth reading.

  5. Thank you Theodora for the discussion, and John for the contribution.
    Writer, Author, Implied Writer, Implied Reader…
    The words we choose may create different perceptions.
    Would it be too mechanical to try making the definition through the final product?
    Author, implied or creative writer will have much more than a number of words, sentences, paragraphs and chapters.

  6. The author is constructed by the reader. How true. I never really thought about it that way, but absolutely.

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