The myth of the lone artist

The idea that writers create their works in isolation, that novels and other stories aren’t acts of collaboration, is one of my pet hates. Tackling that myth is one of the reasons why I think China Miéville’s talk on the future of books is so good, and why I couldn’t bear to listen to the audience responses. The first few responses were apparently intelligent people, creators in their own right, leaping up and defending the status quo, saying how they didn’t want people meddling with existing texts, how they wanted to carry on working in splendid isolation.

It was reactionary nonsense, scared of facing the future, and indeed the reality of past and present writing.

Not an island

It’s not just that storytelling is becoming more collaborative. I firmly believe that every creative act is an act of collaboration. Even writers, who might seem at times to be working on their own, are really working with others.

No-one stands alone
No-one stands alone

There are some obvious elements to this. The role of alpha readers and editors in helping polish the piece. The cover artists who evoke an atmosphere before the reader has even turned to page one. The people who create fonts.

But there are less direct collaborators as well. Any writer works within the ideas and expectations created by those who have come before. They adapt and build on the ideas of those who wrote before them, and of their contemporaries within their genre. They are not working in isolation, but in communication with those authors through the ideas that they have put into the world.

At the most basic level, stringing together sentences involves working with language others have created, remixing the ideas of others.

The idea of the lone creator, the isolated artist driven purely by his or her own inner magic, is utter rot.

Special snowflakes

So why does this myth persist?

I can see two obvious reasons. The first is a psychological defence. Seeing ourselves as individual creators helps us to feel special. If someone challenges that it threatens our identity, puts us on the defensive. But it shouldn’t. The effective collaborator is a far more admirable figure than the lone wolf – they work well with others and are open to ideas.

The other reason is the ‘great man’ view of history and the world around us. Thinking that the world is shaped by significant individuals and their special abilities saves us from having to make sense of the more complex reality, of intertwining social, political, economic and artistic influences. It takes some pressure off our brains by making the world seem simpler than it is. It’s very soothing.

Busting the myth

But the myth of the isolated artist is becoming ever harder to defend. In an age of remixing and fan fiction, of collaborative cross-media storytelling, of the TV writers room, it just doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. Perhaps we can now let it go and relish the fact that we are all collaborators.


Picture by Scott Cresswell via Flickr creative commons.