Could collaborative storytelling create works of great art? Before we can answer that, we have to dismantle some cherished notions about author-creators.
The whole series so far:
Part I | Part II | Part III | Part IV
Literature, as we understand it, has a lot to do with the concept of the “author” as “autonomous creator” of a self-contained, authoritative text, which also entails all our ideas about “intellectual property” (and, in extension, copyright). That has not always been the case. In fact, this “author-as-creator” concept, in many respects, is historically rather new.
At its peak strength in modernism, this concept did not collide, but fuse with the dawning age of mechanical reproduction, and the legal groundwork was laid for what has increasingly stifled cultural freedom, growth, and innovation ever since. But from the late 1940s onward, already, these concepts came increasingly under attack. Formalist and later (post-)structuralist thought began to dismantle the author-as-autonomous-creator concept or at least most of its implications, and the concept of the self-contained text, including formalist thought in turn, was vehemently attacked by Marxist, poststructuralist, or deconstructive literary theory, among others. (Which doesn’t mean, though, that postmodern texts were any less tightly controlled by their creators than the texts of their modernist predecessors.)
For the greater part of human history, storytelling has been a collaborative endeavor in the form of oral performance and oral composition. With the exception of the canonization and preservation of “sacred texts” by major cults, which is another story entirely, it took another two hundred years after Gutenberg until the idea had taken root that stories had to be “conserved” (copyright laws surely helped, but back then these laws were developed for quite different purposes, and the integrity of texts was certainly not among them). And there is another problem with “authoritative texts” even up to the 18th century, a problem that is responsible for rows and rows of what we call “critical editions”: the publication history of even the most important works are dizzyingly chaotic as a rule. Of course, once it’s fixed, it’s fixed: The Finnish national epic Kalevala, for example, was collected, arranged, amended, and “authoritatively” published rather recently, and has, for all practical purposes, ceased to dynamically develop.
But two of the most famous texts, or corpora of texts, have been “collaborated on” in very different ways. The first is Homer’s Iliad, which had a long oral tradition before Homer put the text into written form, and oral tradition artifacts can be found throughout. Obviously, Homer’s work on the Iliad was quite extensive, but he is certainly not the author-as-creator people once thought he was. The second text is a corpus of texts, namely Shakespeare’s. Here, it’s the other way round: it was how the texts were passed down that introduced massive disturbances. Shakespeare died in 1616, and neither in his lifetime nor for many years after was he hailed as the “great writer” he later came to be known. Take the First Folio, published in 1623, which “is the only reliable text for about twenty of the plays, and a valuable source text even for many of those previously published,” and check out from which sources these texts were actually taken: the best and most authoritative sources are transcripts from a scrivener. Actually, “pirating” in Shakespearean times consisted of people in the audience scrambling to write down the whole play during a performance, and to put them in print or perform them without license elsewhere; you see, unauthorized recording of movies or live performances and uploading them to ru.domains isn’t such a new idea in principle. And for some works from some authors, such “notes” were the source of the only extant secondary sources.
Certainly, the Iliad and Shakespeare’s works are not collaborative works in that sense that people sat down and wrote a text together. But if we try to argue that collaborative writing wouldn’t work, i. e., that it couldn’t possibly produce a great work of art because the text wouldn’t be as tightly controlled, master-minded, self-contained, and “all of a piece,” as if it were written by an author-creator, then we would have a hard time to explain why the Iliad or King Lear are among the greatest literary achievements in the history of storytelling.