October 13, 2010

What's the right number of writers?

The question of Who Really Wrote Shakespeare's Plays? got me thinking about the optimal number of writers for different types of writing. 

For example, the recent scientific paper asserting that modern humans had some Neanderthal genes had 56 authors. In other genres, however, one or two people (a writer and an editor, say) does most of the work. In the more show-bizzy types of writing (e.g., movies and musical comedies), writing teams are fairly common, and everybody and his brother chips in bits of business.

For example, my wife was in a dinner theatre production of a Neil Simon play once, so I made up a half dozen new jokes for her, which got just as big laughs as Simon's did. (But this can change over time in a genre: for example, New York playwrights won a lot of legal control away from producers and directors in a 1919 strike. Contractually, I'm not positive we were allowed to alter lines, but I can't imagine an old showman like Neil Simon objecting.)

Thus, it's plausible that quite a few lines in the Shakespearean canon weren't envisioned solely by Shakespeare or Oxford or Bacon or whomever, but were made up by various actors, investors, script doctors, and miscellaneous hangers-on. (We're pretty sure that various minor Shakespearean plays were co-written, but I would guess that even the masterpieces have material invented by others during rehearsals and performances.)

There's some quantitative data available for comparisons across different genres of the amount of teamwork. The Pulitzer Prizes are a good source for comparisons. The Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, first awarded in 1918, has always been won by a lone individual. In contrast, the Pulitzer Prize for Drama has been won by teams of more than one individual 13 times, typically for musicals or comedies (e.g., George S. Kaufman won twice with varying partners). So, Pulitzers for Drama go mostly to individuals, but there are enough exceptions to notice the difference between Drama and Fiction

Pulitzer Prizes won by teams: 
Letters and Drama:
Fiction: 0
Drama: 13
Poetry: 0
General Nonfiction: 2
History: 5 (or 6, if you count one book finished posthumously by another historian)
Biography / Autobiography: 4 (all biographies, I presume)

Journalism:
Commentary: 0
Criticism: 0
Feature Writing: 0
Investigative Reporting: 31 (with the award switching from mostly individuals to mostly teams around 1972, the year of Woodward and Bernstein)

Oscars:
Best Original Screenplay: 23
Best Adapted Screenplay: 21

Emmys
Comedy: From 1955 to 1978, the award was for an entire series: 19 of 24 times it was won by teams (Carl Reiner won twice as an individual for the Dick Van Dyke Show). In the last 31 years, the award has been for a single episode, with 13 of 31 going to teams.

Drama: 16 of the last 31 (for single episodes) have gone to teams.

A few observations:

- Who knows who really contributed what behind the scenes? For example, it recently emerged that the stripped-down style of the hugely influential short story writer Raymond Carver was more or less invented by his editor Gordon Lish by crossing out most of the sentences in his manuscripts. For the Oscars, the Writers Guild offers a credit-dispute resolution process, in which they'll go through different drafts line-by-line to figure out who gets a statue. Of course, nonwriters can have a huge impact on screenplays. For example, Annie Hall (which won the Best Original Screenplay Oscar for Woodie Allen and Marshall Brickman) was filmed as a murder mystery. Allen's film editor eventually convinced him to cut out most of the plot and patch with  voiceover to turn it into the romantic comedy we know today.

- Dialogue-dominated genres seem to tend toward teams more than prose-dominated genres

- Older genres (e.g., poetry) seem more individualistic than newer genres (e.g., TV writing)

44 comments:

Edward said...

Obvious comparisons can be made with scientific achievement. The more advanced the field of entertainment (like you need to make millions happy rather than a small crowd) more writers. More advanced the science, like attempting to discover SUSY or making accurate weather forecasts, more you require huge teams pitching in their own expertise to work on the problem.

Sid said...

The portfolios from which we receive Shakespeare's plays were written years after they were performed, and different portfolios are at variance with each other. A play we read in any given edition is almost assuredly different from what Shakespeare wrote.

Anonymous said...

In theory, I could live with Oxford being the ideas guy, and Stratford being the hack writer.

With maybe the Sonnets being written "on commission" [a la Christian de Neuvillette & Cyrano de Bergerac].

But that theory still wouldn't explain why the greatest wordsmith in the English language had illiterate daughters.

A possible explanation there would be that, as Sobran himself often argued, Shakespeare was a closet Papist [a Protestant would never have allowed his daughter to have been illiterate].

Although, then again, HBD-ers would have a hard time explaining why any issue of the English language's greatest wordsmith wouldn't have had a sufficiently high verbal IQ to have taught herself how to read and write.

Anonymous said...

Annie Hall filmed as a murder mystery?!

Jim O said...

OK Steve, you want another round of Stratfordians versus Oxfordians in your comment section? I'm ready.

C'mon Stratfordians! You wanna piece o' me? Or Moldbug?

But try to do better than you did on the last couple of threads, OK? Make it interesting.

Dutch Boy said...

What's in a name (I'm in a Shakesperean mood)? Plenty. Pharmaceutical companies pay prestigious scientists to add their names to studies in which they had no part. This allows Big Pharma to add bogus credibility to their own shoddy work.

Luke Lea said...

Don't forget: Ezra Pound crossed out half the lines in Eliot's "The Waste Land." Benjamin Franklin crossed out "sacred and eternal" in Jefferson's draft of the Declaration of Independence and substituted "self-evident." Most fiction is edited in-house by publishers, sometimes to the point you don't know who really wrote it. Then, of course, there's the question of to what extent Obama's "Dreams from my Fathers" was edited for style by one or more persons.

Chief Seattle said...

Interesting question! Like genes and software the chances of a change working are inversely related to the number of dependencies. So comedy may be especially easy to have large teams, since most jokes don't depend much on the larger plot or surrounding jokes. Likewise, a tightly coupled genre, say a spy novel, would be much harder to write by a team.

Thursday said...

One of the genuinely exciting discoveries in mainstream Shakespearean studies is just how much Shakespeare collaborated with other writers, including especially Thomas Middleton and John Fletcher.

Ray Sawhill said...

"Who knows?" is the right answer here, as you say. There's really no way of knowing how a given art/entertainment work (of any kind, really) came into being unless you have personal knowledge of the backstage story.

In my own adventures in the arts 'n' media worlds, I've often been amazed by how many people get involved in -- and contribute to -- work that goes out under a single name: editors, wives, hubbies, friends, techies, performers, coaches, teachers, directors, producers, etc.

It's a convenience for everyone to think of an article, novel or a play as being by a single writer, and of course in some cases that's also an accurate depiction. But in many cases, and maybe especially (as you say) in the case of theater works, it isn't. For instance: Don't I remember that the actors and directors who worked early on with Sam Shepard are said to have made a lot of contributions to those plays?

There's a lot of collaboration going on in the arts, even in those arts that are usually depicted as solitary-individual-type arts.

Peter A said...

"Thus, it's plausible that quite a few lines in the Shakespearean canon weren't envisioned solely by Shakespeare or Oxford or Bacon or whomever, but were made up by various actors, investors, script doctors, and miscellaneous hangers-on"

It's more than plausible. It's almost certainly the case. People didn't have much pride of authorship in the 16th century theatre world - it was low brow entertainment.

Thursday said...

Macbeth is apparently up to 10% Thomas Middleton.

Kylie said...

Steve Sailer said..."Who knows who really contributed what behind the scenes?...For the Oscars, the Writers Guild offers a credit-dispute resolution process, in which they'll go through different drafts line-by-line to figure out who gets a statue. Of course, nonwriters can have a huge impact on screenplays."

Did any nonwriter have more of an impact on screenplays than John Ford? Legend has it that when a studio exec complained Ford was behind in his shooting schedule, Ford (no doubt gleefully) tore a few pages out of the script and said, "There. Now we're caught up." The famous scene in The Informers in which Gypo collects his pay for betraying his friend to the British originally featured a long speech about betrayal. Ford eliminated all that and instead had the British officer toss the money down and tell Gypo to take it and go, which he does. Brief, nearly wordless and very effective.

Ford could do this successfully because he depended on images, not dialogue, to tell his stories and because he knew just what to show the actors doing so the audience didn't have to hear them saying a whole lot.

And yet, despite or maybe because of that, quotations from Ford's films are instantly recognizable to film buffs, even now.

"That'll be the day."

"Let's go home, Debbie."

"How green was my valley then!"

"When the legend becomes fact, print the legend."

Thursday said...

Alexandre Dumas pere had collaborators, particularly Auguste Maquet.

Ezra Pound famously edited T.S. Eliot's Waste Land.

Samuel Johnson provided lines for Oliver Goldsmith's poems.

Addison and Steele wrote essays together.

Beaumont and Fletcher were a famous Elizabethan playwrighting team.

Anything dramatic, plays, movies, operas, seem to involve the most collaboration.

Translators, even the very greatest, often work in teams.

Editors seem to have fair amount of influence over fiction and poetry, but its usually more about what to leave out than what to put in.

Mike said...

Giambattista Vico showed in the early eighteenth century that the Homeric epics had no single author. Multiple contributors - some of whom may have been courtiers, others lawyers, men of letters, scholars, etc., may similarly have had a hand in the Shakespeare plays.

Hollywood and Broadway scripts exhibit parallels. Although it was based on Margaret Mitchell's novel, "Gone With the Wind" had no one screenwriter; improbable as it may seem, F. Scott Fitzgerald worked on part of its script. William Faulkner similarly contributed to the script of "The Big Sleep." P.G. Wodehouse was employed extensively as a script doctor on musical comedies, the best known of which are Cole Porter's "Anything Goes" and Jerome Kern's "Showboat."

Some Shakespeare plays show similar patchwork. In "Twelfth Night," for example, was the clown's song "O Mistress Mine" originally written as part of the play, or was it an already popular lyric and tune incorporated in it? Thomas Morley certainly set it for voice and consort, and the Fitzwilliam Virginal Book contains William Byrd's masterly variations on the tune.

How can the variations in the plays be accounted for as the work of one author? Is "Titus Andronicus," which has all the subtlety and finesse of the cinematic Ĺ“uvre of Charles Bronson, really by the same hand as "The Tempest"? Whether William of Stratford, Edward of Oxford, or Francis of Verulam, it is hard to imagine such diverse output originating from the sole effort of one man.

Svigor said...

Maybe a function of how important writing is to the product? Writing's important in movies, but not as important as it is in fiction, where it's the only thing. Drama falls somewhere in between the two.

adfadsfasdf said...

The book of PC seems to have a million authors droning on with a shared collective brain.

asdfasdfas said...

Are there any surviving manuscripts of original shakespeare plays? Can't they do like a fingerpint analysis or find traces of his dna on papers and stuff he may have touched.

Old Rebel said...

You forgot to mention that a typical Southern Poverty Law Center fatwa, I mean, press release, requires zero writers, since they're all recycled boilerplate.

Wanderer said...

An old tradition was for academics to sometimes publish their findings under generic names, like "Student". Not even on controversial subjects, just run-of-the-mill stuff.

I've always thought this was a tribute to the unspoken greatness of these men. They wanted the glory of the work to stand alone, and felt personal glory would detract from that. If the work was true, then it was true. No possibility of the ad-hominem.

Perhaps another old tradition, of publishing as (e.g.) "S.E.Sailer" instead of "Steve Sailer", is loosely in the same spirit.

And perhaps the Shakespeare Authorship Question is in that spirit, too. The real author(s) -- most likely Oxford -- used as pseudonym an unknown, illiterate Statford man in the way that an academic a century ago published as "Student": Not necessarily out of embarrassment, but out of humbleness.

Steve Sailer said...

From Wikipedia:

"The film was originally intended to be a drama centered on a murder mystery with a comic and romantic subplot, and was filmed that way. According to Allen, the murder occurred after a scene that remains in the film, the sequence in which Annie and Alvy miss the Ingmar Bergman film Face to Face.[2] After shooting had completed, the film's editor persuaded Woody Allen to cut the mystery plot and make the film a romantic comedy."

The rough cut of Annie Hall as a murder mystery drama was 140 minutes. What we know as Annie Hall the romantic comedy is 93 minutes.

Anonymous said...

Honestly, any film editor who can turn a mystery into an Oscar winning romantic comedy deserves at least equal billing as a creative contributor to both the writer and the director.

Talk about vision!

Anonymous said...

A possible explanation there would be that, as Sobran himself often argued, Shakespeare was a closet Papist [a Protestant would never have allowed his daughter to have been illiterate].

I would use words such as kabbalistic, masonic, pagan, nihilistic, or platonic to describe his works before I used catholic or protestant.

Anonymous said...

Are there any surviving manuscripts of original shakespeare plays? Can't they do like a fingerpint analysis or find traces of his dna on papers and stuff he may have touched.

The problem is that there is NO surviving evidence that the Stratford man led an intellectual life.

No letters [to or from].

No volumes from a personal library [or any evidence that a personal library existed].

No manuscripts.

No public statements or declarations [of the sort that we might nowadays call "editorials" or "letters to the editor" or "blog entries"].

No assertion in the will of any right to the intellectual property of the remaining [as yet unpublished] 18 plays.

Just nothing at all.

Which is why, since James Wilmot first raised the matter in 1785, people have been searching for an alternate explanation.

James Kabala said...

Anonymous: It's hard to say for sure whether Shakespeare's daughters were illiterate.

Susanna definitely could sign her name, although Oxfordians have claimed to see the same lack of skill in the signature that they see in her father's. Despite the signature, a confusing anecdote in which she and a visitor argued about whether some documents belonging to her late husband (a doctor) were in his handwriting or not has been interpreted by anti-Stratfordians as proving she was illiterate, although it hardly demands such an explanation.

Judith did sign her name with a mark on two recorded instances. There are documented cases of literate people signing with marks, so nothing is proved, but I concese that it does at least indicate probable illiteracy. This seems shocking today, but only 10 percent of Elizabethan-era women are recorded as being able to sign their names, so it not the trump card as anti-Stratfordians treat it as being. (Does anyone have information on the literacy of Oxford's daughters?)

Anonymous said...

How many authors are in on legal opinions? A majority USSC must be signed by 5. 1 clerk each? 10 authors? Maybe only a few take a hands on role. But there is probably more fighting about word choice there than in most writing.

James Kabala said...

Anonymous: Most SCOTUS decisions have only one official author. Doubtless in most cases the other justices in the majority play a part in writing the opinion, but they often have separate concurring opinions. It is said clerks do most of the work regardless.

Anonymous said...

This seems shocking today, but only 10 percent of Elizabethan-era women are recorded as being able to sign their names

To an HBD-er, the idea that the biological issue of the English language's greatest wordsmith would herself be illiterate is akin to, say, the idea that any female in the J.S. Bach family would be unable to read music or play a musical instrument.

Instead, what we see in the J.S. Bach family is a wife [Anna Magdelena] who preserved some of the most famous tunes known to mankind.

Stratford-as-England's-greatest-wordsmith would have to have been just a monstrously egomaniacally narcissistic nihilist to have neglected his daughter's education like that.

PS: Accepting the "10%" figure at face value, I can pretty much guaran-dadgum-tee you that EVERYONE on iSteve is descended from that "10%" [or the equivalent "10%" in their ancestors' countries of origin].

The more you learn about genealogy, the more you realize that it is NOT a coincidence that Barry Dunham Soetoro Hussein Obama, George Walker Bush, Dick Cheney, Sarah Palin, and Rush Limbaugh are no more than 7th- to 10th-cousins removed from one another.

This stuff simply is NOT random.

[Which, of course, if you really felt HBD-theory to have some underlying truth to it, wouldn't surprise you in the least.]

PPS: On the other hand, absent something like Hank Whittemore's explanation of the corpus, I would not be at all averse to the proposition that the author of the corpus was indeed that malignantly narcissistic [as they say over at AoSHQ].

PPPS: Of course, yet another possible explanation would be that she wasn't his biological issue - that instead Stratford was cuckholded - but that's really going out on a limb.

PPPPS: And you sure wouldn't see such a monstrous nihilist taking his daughter skeet shooting...

Jim O said...

James Kabala:

I don't know if they were literate or not, but your question brings to mind another curious point. The Earl of Southampton, thought by many, including Stratfordians, to be the "fair youth" described in the sonnets, was engaged to one of De Vere's three daughters.

But wait, there's more. The First Folio, cited by Stratfordians as the most compelling evidece in their favor, was dedicated to two men. One, Phillip Herbert, Earl of Montgomery, was De Vere's son-in-law. The other was Phillip's brother, William, Earl of Pembroke, who had been engaged to DeVere's third daughter.

Coincidence?

Mike said...

On the subject of Shakespeare's personal library, or lack thereof - it should be borne in mind that books were very scarce and valuable in the 16th/17th centuries, even though the advent of printing had made them cheaper than they were before it.

Oxford University in the sixteenth century had fewer than 1000 books in all its libraries. Among the reasons for this literary poverty were the discarding and destruction of many works thought to be "Popish." The largest book collection in England belonged to Dr. John Dee, today remembered mainly as an astrologer and occultist, but in his time one of England's greatest scholars and mathematicians. He had a collection of about 4000 volumes, many of which he had saved from destruction during the Protestant purge of pre-Reformation literature just mentioned. Dee's library was dispersed, partly because his penury in old age forced him to sell books, and partly because his house at Mortlake was looted of them.

How many personal book collections from this period survive? How many authors' autograph manuscripts survive? Let's take the example of an author slightly later than Shakespeare's time, one who was well known to his contemporaries and whose authorship of his works is undisputed - Izaak Walton. How many original documents written or signed by him still exist? Are there autograph mss of the "Compleat Angler" or "Lives of the Poets"? Such things simply didn't survive the printer's composing room at that period. They were not thought to have particular value once a work was set in type and printed. The paucity of Shakespeare autograph documents cannot be viewed in isolation. Rather, the question is - how scarce are they relative to those of his contemporaries?

Anonymous said...

How many personal book collections from this period survive?

De Vere's bible managed to survive, and came to rest in, of all places, the Folger Shakespeare Library.

it should be borne in mind that books were very scarce and valuable in the 16th/17th centuries...

Which only makes the infamous last will & testament of the [notoriously penurious] Stratford man all the more puzzling: No mention of these "very scarce and valuable" items [nor any assertions concerning the intellectual property rights to about 18 yet-to-be-published plays].

David said...

Is this your gentle way of telling us "Steve Sailer" is not one person?

syon said...

Regarding Shakespeare's daughters' literacy:

It should be borne in mind that many women in the 16th and 17th centuries were "passively literate," capable of reading but not writing.Hence, their incapacity to sign their names is not proof that they could not read.

Thursday said...

The absence of books from Shakespeare's will is not mysterious at all. The will of Richard Hooker, one of the most learned men in Elizabethan England, didn't mention books either. Books weren't mentioned in the wills of Francis Bacon, Samuel Daniel, Thomas Campion, or John Marston either.

It is this kind of silliness, which is a reoccurring theme among Oxfordians and others who dispute Shakespearean authorship, that makes me wonder why anyone could ever take them seriously.

Thursday said...

Also, the intellectual property rights to Shakespeare's plays would have belonged to the theatre, not the author.

Anonymous said...

What are the carte blanche means
by which, say, the CIA determines
who wrote what? Are there not specific high tech means for determining this--e.g., personal language patterns, vowel habits, graphology analysis.etc?

James Kabala said...

"nor any assertions concerning the intellectual property rights to about 18 yet-to-be-published plays"

Of all the assertions made in these threads by anyone on either side, this is the one that has the least relation to the reality of the period. There was barely such a thing as copyright law then, let alone intellectual property or control of unpublished manuscripts.

Thursday said...

There was barely such a thing as copyright law then

Right, I should have written "intellectual property rights, such as they were."

Anonymous said...

"nor any assertions concerning the intellectual property rights to about 18 yet-to-be-published plays"

Digital forensic technicians have also found absolutely no trace of any of the plays on either the Shakespeare family's desktop or William Shakespeare's MacBook Pro.

On the other hand, the hard drive of a Dell Dimension that once belonged to de Vere contains a file called HamletDraft.doc. It's been corrupted and cannot be opened, but we do know that it was last modified on November 14, 1598, at 7:46 AM.

Stratfordians point out that men in de Vere's tax bracket often donated old electronics to theatre companies so they could claim the tax write-off, and that the Dell may have ended up in Shakespere's hands that way, but that would be quite a coincidence. We have copies of de Vere's Schedule A's from 1572 through 1590, and he never gave away any computers for a tax write-off during that time. Unfortunately we don't have records post-dating 1590, because the IRS office in Kansas City that was storing those documents was burned down in 1642 by forces loyal to Oliver Cromwell (responsibility for that arson was in dispute until 1849, when Thomas Bagington Macaulay found an email from Cromwell to "Earl2@manchester.com" that read, in part, "sry 4 letting my guys burn down most of Kansas City, it was kind of a crazy nite, ok, hope ur not 2 mad, lol").

Jim O said...

Thursday take a small, insignificant piece of the evidence (no books or writings of any kind mentioned in Shaksper's will), responds with the usual Stratfordian argument, and yells "QED"! As if that's a devastating rejoinder.

No, it's small point. It no more makes the case than it disproves it. Stratfordians never address the big point - the uncanny coincidences between the life of DeVere and the author's works.

No, just say that it means nothing that a will that specified who would get his clothes, his dishes and his 'second best bed' did not mention his writings, because other notable from that era (including the penniless Francis Bacon)didn't mention books either,and then start dumping the ad hominim.

Many, it not most, Stratfordians seem to love the nasty snark; the dismissive insult.

David said...

>One of the genuinely exciting discoveries in mainstream Shakespearean studies is just how much Shakespeare collaborated with other writers, including especially Thomas Middleton and John Fletcher.<

I presume the discoveries are that Middleton et al. were collaborating with Shakespeare, NOT with De Vere, Bacon, or Oxford.

Thursday said...

Thursday take a small, insignificant piece of the evidence (no books or writings of any kind mentioned in Shaksper's will), responds with the usual Stratfordian argument, and yells "QED"! As if that's a devastating rejoinder.

It is the Oxfordians who bring this stuff up in order to denigrate Shakespeare's education and learning etc. At every turn, they trot out objections like this that turn out to be incredibly silly.

No, it's small point. It no more makes the case than it disproves it. Stratfordians never address the big point - the uncanny coincidences between the life of DeVere and the author's works.

Ah, mistake number two: reading the plays and sonnets as autobiography.

Those uncanny co-incidences are found in the lives of James I, the Earl of Essex and probably dozens of other aristocrats too. So this argument isn't very persuasive either.

http://shakespeareauthorship.com/ox2.html

Not that any of this is going to persuade a true believer.

Jim O said...

Thurday, even after having clicked on the link I provided, you continue to assert that James I and Essex lived lives as close to the work as did DeVere? I dare say that most objective observers would disagree.

As to the smaller point: I found the wills of several of the men you mention on line (try Google Books). None of them gave away small items of personal property. They gave money to some, and everything else was conveyed via the residuary clause. In contrast, Shaksper specifically bequeathed his clothing, his plates and dishes, and his "second best bed." Again, it's a small point, but to the extend that it's significant at all, it militates in favor of the Oxfordian view. It's hardly a basis for ad hominim attacks on me.

If you think there's never a connection between an author's life and his fiction,fine. Too big a topic to argue about. Perhaps you'd feel differently if Shakespeare's works contained details about the lives of businessmen in Stratford-on-Avon, but no matter. The bigger question is, how did the Stratford man even come to know the things in the words that Devere obviously would have known?

Mike said...

There is a copy of Florio's translation of Montaigne's essays, bearing one of the few extant signatures of Shakespeare on its flyleaf, in the British Library. The comtesse de Chambrun recorded that a copy of Holinshed's Chronicles had been found in the library of the duke of Northumberland, bearing the initials of Shakespeare in what was, at least in the 1920s, considered to be his autograph. If these works had indeed been in Shakespeare's possession at some period, but were not itemized in his will, a logical explanation is that he had given up possession of them before his death.