Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Authorship and writing: is there a distinction without a difference?


On Christmas Day, I watched a saved broadcast from Turner Classic Movies of the 1948 RKO film “I Remember Mama”, directed by George Stevens, from the novel by Kathryn Forbes. In the film the narrator girl wants to become a writer, and has to struggle when a teacher says it is rude to write about family members. Later the teacher reverses herself and says she should write what she knows. She does, sells her first story, and launches a career. In the prologue, the TCM hosts discussed the previous broadcast of “Little Women” (Louisa May Alcott’s post Civil War novel) in which, if I heard right, a heroine give up writing because it is too “selfish.” I put the 1933 film in my Netflix queue immediately so I can check that comment out. We’ll have to watch what the film “Freedom Writers” from Paramount (by Richard LaGravenese) has to say about this in early 2007.

I was a member of the National Writers Union for a while, and I do understand the perspective of writing as a profession. There are all kinds of specialized forms of writing, including business writing, technical writing, grant writing, and professional journalism in all media, including the Web.

The concept that really concerns me goes beyond writing in that sense, to authorship. One concept critical to my books and websites and blogs is that any subject matter is fair game. That is because every issue can affect any other issue. And that is also because I do want to maintain some distance and some objectivity. Yes, to give the material credibility, I do need some of the “personal stuff” and the autobiographical narratives.

What is more common, of course, is for people to speak to only side of one issue at a time. The endpoint of that approach is professional lobbying. Many writing jobs (especially those connected to unions) come out of this paradigm. With my background, that would support a narrow view of promoting “equal rights for gays,” with stereotyped arguments about discrimination, equal protection and immutability. But I believe that the those politicized approaches overlook broader concerns about individualism, objectivism, socialization, self-concept, and the ability of many people to function in an increasingly competitive world—especially the enormous costs of child rearing and now eldercare. You could say that religion tries to touch on these issues (even more so with be basic Christmas message). I wind up with the idea that we really do need a database-style repository of all of the “dots” and organized link-objects to connect them.

I’ve also noted than in the past eighteen months or so, employers have become increasingly concerned about off-duty self-publishing by employees, most of all on social networking sites. I expected this kind of thing to happen and wrote about it as early as the spring of 2000 (and got email comments), but I was more concerned about the formal legal conflicts of interest that could occur, as with securities, or with my own situation involving my activism with respect to “don’t ask don’t tell” and gays in the military, when I was working, though as an individual contributor, for a company that did heavy selling to members of the military.

What is more disturbing, though, is this idea that some employers and other visitors want to look at blogs or profiles as a part of a person’s “appearance”. Why would I be concerned about such-and-such a topic? The potential motive for writing about something troubling will concern them. Does there have to be an obvious ulterior motive? I can see their liability concern. But we can’t say that any topic is just a third rail. Sure, someone could say, I don’t care if you blog if you limit yourself to, say, social security. (That was always the politician’s third rail.) But social security is connected to demographics, to eldercare, to procreation, and therefore to gay rights (by contraposition), and in some people’s minds, gay interests are connected to other inappropriate desires and temptations. It’s all connected.

That is why, in my own mind, there is no point in having the books, blogs, websites, or even movies later if they cannot be open to what needs to be said, if they just serve one side’s interest. Objectivity, as I have noted on earlier posts, was drummed into me in my own high school social studies education. Yet I do see that many people have needs (or are in families where other members who have needs) that seem to call for pinch-hitters. Share our burdens or compete like a man with our responsibilities, they say, before you speak out in public about things.

There are, of course, legitimate careers (most of them, perhaps, if you advance) where you are paid to advance one economic or cultural interest to the public, to the indirect expense of others. There are times when one is paid to write, is paid to be objective, but must accept some supervision in what one says on one’s own. Such is usually the case with professional journalists – newspaper reporters and news anchors. That can indeed be a legitimate career and a way for someone, in stages, to get to the truth. Within the software industry, particularly in connection with open source models and “open content”, where objectivity and neutrality are policy objectives, there can be similar opportunities.

In view of all of this, I have often written that people with certain kinds of jobs – getting paid to represent someone else’s interests in public (call it partisanship if you will) – should not blog or publish anything on their own (even the beloved family pictures) to the whole outside world through the “free entry” mechanism of the Internet without employer supervision. The underlying principle would be, that an person can have one portal to the public space, and that either belongs to the individual or to the employer, depending on the nature of the job. I think that this kind of idea could evolve rapidly in the near future. (The posting right after this, physically above, addresses this further.)

I don’t know where this leaves me, as I might have to move in this direction myself in semi-retirement as I get into 2007. I cannot say for sure what the future of these blogs or sites will be, whether they would have to be removed or restructured under some kind of supervision. Even given very low operational costs, it is not possible to go one forever without figuring out a way to make them more profitable, but that is what the marketplace is ultimately all about.

There are a number of specific issues that, in hidden fashion, increase the risk to self-publishers and others associated with them (including employers and maybe even families). I have proposed some solutions to some of these issues on other blogs and will summarize some of these solutions with a new posting soon. That may help clear the air.

Suggested blogging policy.

The picture is that of a quarry in West Virginia. Quarrying links to strip-mining, which in turn links to global warming and "inconvenient truths".

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