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The matter of attribution has to do with identifying the author (or even the most likely candidates) for a text whose authorship is doubtful, collaborative, or unknown. Such work has been practiced down the centuries, most often for the rectification of literary history but also in political and theological disputation where the authenticity of a document is at issue. Its apparent value in legal inquiry is limited by the fact that few criminals offer a substantial corpus of their writings. The notorious US Unabomber, who might well have written himself into gaol without benefit of other evidence, was a striking exception.
To begin with the obvious: the terms “literary” and “authorship” are bound to their histories – at some points of their history bound to each other – and a survey of literary authorship in rhetorics and poetics cannot work from overly granular definitions given the shifts in the signification of these concepts. Material changes (e.g., the shift from manuscript culture to the printed book and from printed book to electronic transmission), social conditions of literary production (e.g., the concentration of textual transmission in monastic settings during the Middle Ages and the emergence of authorial copyright in the eighteenth century), and conceptual shifts (e.g., the development of a notion of authorial subjectivity) all complicate the creation of definitions, and the temptation to construct definitions teleologically is powerful. I will therefore work from the broadest possible starting place: authorship exists where there is acknowledged enunciative responsibility, where the writer is taken to “back” his or her words and their promulgation, and where the writer’s name “marks off the edges” of the work, to use Michel Foucault’s formulation.1
Why do texts and readers need authors? Why is “authorship talk” so prevalent in literary conversations – whether at book fairs, book clubs, or readers’ groups, in literary magazines, newspapers, university seminars, or social media? These questions may seem absurd, at least to those who are blissfully unaware of, or have happily moved on from, twentieth-century debates about “the intentional fallacy,” “the death of the author,” or indeed his or her “return.”1 But, as we hope to show in this handbook, these questions have a relevance for literary studies that transcends the theory wars of the past or the narrow confines of the discipline itself. They are – or should be – central to the field if only because questions of authorship are of great popular interest, given the media attention devoted to, for instance, celebrity authors and the size of their advances, accusations of plagiarism, the gender of an anonymous author, or the Shakespeare authorship cottage industry.2
The ancient Mesopotamian written culture in cuneiform script on clay tablets, beginning about 3000 BCE and disappearing in the early Christian era, offers abundant evidence for authorship, including individual strategies for remembering the names of people who composed specific literary works and statements about how, why, and when they did so.1 These stand out because the authorship of most Mesopotamian literary and scholarly achievements was unknown in antiquity and remains so today; amidst such general anonymity some authors clearly made special efforts to ensure that their claims and experiences continued to be associated with their handiwork. A contrasting artifice, use of a pseudonym, was intended to associate a text with some notable figure of the past who had no role in its composition, even if it seems unlikely in most cases that ancient readers took such an attribution seriously. Cases of authors’ anonymous self-reference and evident presence in the text may also be suggested, as well as apostrophe, or direct address of the author to the reader.
This Handbook surveys the state of the art in literary authorship studies. Its 27 original contributions by eminent scholars offer a multi-layered account of authorship as a defining element of literature and culture. Covering a vast chronological range, Part I considers the history of authorship from cuneiform writing to contemporary digital publishing; it discusses authorship in ancient Egypt, Greece, Rome, early Jewish cultures, medieval, Renaissance, modern, postmodern and Chinese literature. The second part focuses on the place of authorship in literary theory, and on challenges to theorizing literary authorship, such as gender and sexuality, postcolonial and indigenous contexts for writing. Finally, Part III investigates practical perspectives on the topic, with a focus on attribution, anonymity and pseudonymity, plagiarism and forgery, copyright and literary property, censorship, publishing and marketing and institutional contexts.