This is not an essay about writers that congregate under a single pen name, though they are definitely encompassed by the question. Picture the following: you enter a bookstore in a rainy day (because why not?) and you go to the section of your favorite genre. You gaze through the novelties until you come across the latest novel by your favorite author. Let us call your favorite writer John Jackson and his new novel Raining In The Desert. You pick it up from the shelf and, while admiring its gorgeous cover art, you notice a few short quotes from critics and other writers praising Jackson, his literary production, and especially all that his prose accomplishes in Raining In The Desert. Some call him the new Mark Twain, Stephen King calls Raining In The Desert the best book of the year… Ultimately, you buy the book, you read it, you love it with all your heart, and when your best friends asks about it you slam a hand on the table, blow your cheeks out and say: Oh, my god, John Jackson is a total genius!
But is he, though?
No doubt he has a talent for writing, otherwise he wouldn’t be getting appraisal from Stephen King, but to what extent is that name in a gigantic font right above (or below) the title of a book the sole mastermind behind all the wonders contained in its pages? Who are these ‘other authors’ behind a writer?
If you are one of those people who actually read the Acknowledgements section after finishing a book, you surely will have noticed how writers effusively thank all the friends that supported them while working on the book; especially those who read its many drafts and offered guidance and criticism. Now, to what extent are these people not co-writers if their input has led to shaping the final version of the manuscript? I can assure you that no great work in literary history has flourished from a single creative mind (except for Naked Lunch, which sprouted from William S. Burroughs’s delusions while he was high as a kite on God knows what drugs). We writers improve by exposing our wildest ideas and fantasies to a reduced number of confidants that we trust with the task of giving us constructive criticism. What a lot of readers fail to realize is that bestsellers like Raining In The Desert are but the polished version of an original draft that could not have evolved to its final stage had the writer been alone in his creative process. Nobody here is casting doubt on the fact that Umberto Eco, Gabriel García Márquez and Paul Auster are some of the greatest writers in human history. Their imagination was boundless, their prose spellbinding, and their worldwide reader fanbase proof that they all possessed more than just a talent to conjure up amazing stories. But they were not alone in their literary quests, and history is quick to forget those who helped in their journey to stardom.
Even more intricate is the fact that sometimes the writer may not have any kind of relationship with these ‘co-authors’, and yet find in them the key to take their manuscripts to unimagined places. This time I can even provide you with a personal example to illustrate my point. I am working at the moment in a dark fantasy novel and the other day I was rewriting a chapter for the umpteenth time. It had to exist, it contained key information and events for the story, but where other chapters worked swiftly as a clock, this one felt more like a rusty ratchet. I was just about to throw a fist across my computer screen when my playlist turned to French shoegazing band Alcest, particularly to their second album, Écailles de Lune. My brain, which was about to melt within my skull and pour out of my ears, was so soothed by the melancholy and sentiment of the music that the words and images came to me after hours of struggling to find them. The chapter was finally completed that very night. Now, what I mean with this is not that listening to Alcest is a life hack to write bestsellers, but at that particular moment it certainly induced me into what I like to call the ‘writing trance’, and the point I want to make with this is that every writer has a way to get into that inspiration zone where their prose flows out of their brains like it had been written there all along. Music is only one of the many tools one can use to trigger that stage of focus; sometimes there’s a scene in a movie that reconfigures completely the way you approach an obstacle in your art, other times coming across an artwork in a museum sparks your imagination out of its slumber… Even if you get your book together after a holiday in Paris you can credit that Michelangelo statue that impressed you so much at the Louvre for getting you off your literary hook!
So my question for you is: to what extent is not Alcest a co-writer of my book if their music has made me change radically (and for the better) a whole chapter? I know that they have not written a song because they’ve read the chapter and wish to give a hand with it, but when does an influence cross the line of a mere inspiration and becomes an active agent in the shaping of an artwork, even without knowledge that it is happening? Stephen King would have not written The Dark Tower series had he not been fascinated by Clint Eastwood in The Man With No Name. Star Wars would not exist as we know it if George Lucas had not come across Akira Kurosawa’s The Hidden Fortress, perhaps not even at all. Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One depended completely on the existence of a pop culture to get nerdy references from. The list can go on forever. Pablo Picasso once said: good artists copy, great artists steal. But is it truly stealing when you find the essence of what you wish to create by interpreting that which has already been created?
Written by Javier Gonzales