I think what we’re facing today, in the 21st century, as readers whose habits have been hugely affected by the explosion in print and digital publishing, is oddly parallel to the issue at heart in Margaret Ezell’s Social Authorship and the Advent of Print. Let me explain.
There’s no page number on our handouts, but I suspect that it’s on 43 (the joys of counting) that Ezell complains about the way modern literary history has prioritized print history over manuscript circulation history: “Finally, having a ‘voice’ is equated with being in print, with the obvious implication that ‘work’ is equated with print text and anything else, manuscript copy in particular, is only ‘silence.’ The sole criterion of the success of these generations of women writers is the amount they published, with no mention of the amount they actually wrote.” Now, it’s clear what Ezell’s bottom line is: manuscript text was important and warrants as much study as the printed work. Unlike what today’s stuffy thinkers seem to insist, “the manuscript text operates as a medium of social exchange, often between the sexes, neither private nor public in the conventional sense of the terms, and a site at which women could and did comment on public issues concerning social and political matters” (41).
Foucault would probably be one of those people Ezell takes with, as he outlines very specifically (remember the four criteria?) what it takes for an individual to be called an “author,” what it takes for a text to be called a “work.” And, if you recall, they are not democratic definitions that include everyone who writes a journal, letters, cookbooks, whatever. But Ezell’s studies deal precisely with those handwritten, hand-bound letters, personal journals, etc. shared among friends, family members, and coterie circles, papers that were at once literary in nature but not meant to be published for wider dissemination.
Ezell deals with works from the seventeenth century. We are here today, over 300 years after these texts were written, and yet still the question of “To whom shall we bestow the title of ‘author’?” is valid.
Today, our print culture is the exact opposite of literary culture in the age that Ezell has described. Hardly anyone writes by hand today (penmanship classes are dead in the public educational system of the United States – R.I.P.), and in the last twenty years we have seen an unbelievable explosion in digital publishing, the average person shares his personal thoughts with the rest of the greater world (even if they want to hear none of it) via the internet. Just about everyone has a blog, like this one.
In 300 years worth of literary study, the verdict is still not out on manuscript literature – or, maybe it’s safer to say that there’s a prevailing notion that it is secondary to printed literature, which Ezell is trying to change. Let’s do a quick survey around the room and ask if it’s fair to call bloggers “writers.” And let’s wonder if in 300 years from today, assuming life still exists, people will be asking the same kinds of questions about our age of digital print.