A brief history of literature as a team effort

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The Independent Culture
Last week's allegations in the New York Times that Raymond Carver's stories might not have been all his own work (see story, page 4) will dismay those (like me) who regard him as one of the most significant and likeable authors in recent literature. He is both celebrated and cherished by his admirers for the singular and confiding tilt of his prose. His specialty was lovely titles (What We Talk About When We Talk About Love) and laconic first lines ("Fact was the car had to go in a hurry") which let the reader into the story with one quick spin of a revolving door. By saying little he hinted at much, and his style - a minimalist one that became known as "dirty realist", though it was neither dirty nor realistic - was resonant and much imitated.

Essentially, Carver stands accused of nothing more than that he was heartily edited - and we ought not to be astonished by that. Didn't Boswell write Johnson? Wasn't Ezra Pound in part the author of TS Eliot's The Waste Land? And haven't a series of contemporary editors had a more than passing hand in the success of their authors? It is comon knowledge that Jeffrey Archer is a team effort, and it is questionable whether the distinctive voices of Brian Keenan, Simon Armitage and Irvine Welsh would have been quite so distinctive were it not for the steady poetic impositions of their editors, Neil Belton, Christopher Reid and Robin Robertson. Some modern writers have stood firm against such interference (Nabokov once wrote that he responded to even their most timid annotations with "a thunderous stet"); and some, such as Iris Murdoch, are widely felt to have done themselves few favours in the process.

But still. The idea that so characteristic a voice, one that seemed so singular and personal, could belong to more than one master remains an awkward one. At a time when authors are promoted more for their loves than for their texts (and clearly, the stories themselves are not remotely diminished by this news), it will come as something of a blow for people to learn that the voice was not, after all, inviolable and perfectly tuned. Perhaps the best outcome would be a more widespread and relaxed recognition of the role played by editors in the creation of literature. This would generate a helpful acknowledgement that even great writers stumble, and need a hand occasionally.

When film directors call themselves "authors", they are claiming the kind of omnipotence felt to accrue naturally to writers; but everybody laughs, because films are so obviously a collaborative enterprise. In most cases, the one important thing the film director didn't do was write the thing. But the romantic image of the lone writer, going down the mean or lofty streets rarely visited by less sensitive souls, dies hard. Revelations such as the one about Carver stub our toes painfully on the notion that poetry could perhaps be imposed, not just produced.

In one of the most beguiling scams of this century, two Australian soldiers invented a fashionable poet called Ern Malley by blending random and meaningless bits of bureacratic prose into pseudo-lyrical chunks. They were intending to satirise the follies of modernism, but literature had the last laugh. This was the best poetry these men produced: their more serious efforts were limp in comparison. Contemporary art is full of works that rely squarely on the ironic mixing and matching that these soldiers though of as a jest. In attempting to josh culture, all they did was give it new ideas.

Talking of culture, that is the name of this new section of the Independent on Sunday. It seems a simple term - we hope, at any rate, that you know what we mean by it - but actually it is a word with a long and slippery history. As a metaphor for civilisation, it takes its cue from agriculture, horticulture, viticulture and so on, and reminds us that culture is a process, not a fixed state. Human growth is energetic and diverse; people, like plants, require the intellectual equivalents of water and sunlight. But no sooner had Voltaire's Candide urged us to cultivate our own gardens - to become, in short, cultivated - than the word took on elite class associations which came close to uprooting it. Previously cultured pursuits became merely upper-class hobbies. To be "cultured" meant little more than to be expensively educated; and to be a culture-vulture was to be so obviously pretentious that invisible quotation marks were required around the words. Inevitably, rival "cultures" grew up alongside the dominant one. Culture ceased to one thing - if it had ever been a thing in the first place - and around its fringes grew cults.

The term has been given a fresh twist this week by the argument surrounding the development of genetically-engineered vegetables, which has introduced a new dimension to the idea of growing your own. It is a nice irony that, at a time when mean schoolboys still refer to the mentally retarded as "vegetables", it becomes increasingly possible to modify or enhance tomatoes and potatoes. One of the weirdest of the weird-science factoids about genetic tailoring is that it is now possible to grow leaves that shed plastic. In theory, at some point in the future, to eat a lettuce leaf could well be the rough equivalent of sucking your Biro. Though of course in the exciting digital culture of the future - one of many attractive new cultures we are promised - the ballpoint pen will long since have been rendered unnecessary.

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