The myth of the lone writer

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If you put together Anna Funder’s recent book on George Orwell with Jennifer Burns’ biography of Milton Friedman, an oddly similar story emerges. Both men, especially Friedman, co-created their most famous works with their wives. In Friedman’s case, with several other women besides.

Orwell’s marriage to Eileen O’Shaughnessy seems to have prompted his best writing. She had written a dystopian poem about 1984 and helped convince him to turn his anti-Stalinism into a fable, Animal Farm. A little later, Friedman had the advantage over sexist male peers in realising that there were brilliant female economists who possessed few career options beyond working for him. To quote his wife Rose: “You can’t tell who wrote what, the style is the same throughout the books. I always tell people we work as one; we are one.”

Funder and Burns have given forgotten women their place in history. But their findings also point to a truth that’s becoming evident about writing: often it’s collective rather than singular. The myth of the Great Writer creating in solitude is only sometimes true.

People have long understood that most acts of creation are collaborative: pop music, sport, films, inventing the atomic bomb. Only for books, especially fiction, does the presumption of the lone genius hang on.

That might have surprised Shakespeare, who co-wrote some of his plays and adapted many from other writers’ work. But at some point, literature grew snooty about collaboration. Writers who did do it, like the two cousins who co-wrote detective stories under the name Ellery Queen, often pretended there was a single author.

The author Malcolm Gladwell told Vanity Fair: “Writers . . . have this false ethic of originality. Whereas musicians are like, ‘Yeah, totally — we took this little bit from that song. And it’s inspired by this.’ I love how open they are about the fact that creativity is a collective enterprise. I want writers to be able to talk that way.”

Look at what happened when two musicians, John Lennon and Paul McCartney, co-wrote. They took collaboration for granted. Their biographer Hunter Davies, who had the unfathomable privilege of sitting in Paul’s house in Cavendish Avenue, St John’s Wood, watching them write “With a Little Help from my Friends”, recounts their method. They would sit there for hours, John playing the guitar and Paul “banging on the piano”, and when one of them thought up a line, they would edit it together. “Do you believe in love at first sight?” tried John, but there weren’t enough syllables for the melody. Paul added “a” in front of love, then John changed the opening to “Would you believe . . . ”

While they were writing, visitors often dropped by — one friend sat reading a horoscope magazine — and John and Paul asked them for suggestions. The two would collaborate with anyone. Davies says that their assistant roadie Mal Evans, who wasn’t even a big Beatles fan, supposedly came up with the name “Sergeant Pepper”. Lennon and McCartney, equal parts inspiration and irritation, were better together, perhaps like Orwell and O’Shaughnessy.

This kind of literary collaboration made a comeback in our century. During the “golden age of streaming”, now ending, some great novelists co-wrote television series in writers’ rooms. Dramatists in Shakespeare’s time had worked in much the same way. In my brief glimpses of writers’ rooms, I saw the potential. One day, working on a fictional series that went nowhere, our team included an Italian woman who had been flown in for her expertise in writing female characters. Every writer has weaknesses and blind spots. A good writers’ room has fewer.

No wonder that one of the most admired novelists of our time, Elena Ferrante, may in fact be a writers’ room. Elena Ferrante is a pseudonym. There is a whole genre of literary sleuthing devoted to uncovering who she is. In 2018, Rachel Donadio wrote an essay in The Atlantic magazine that possibly solved the mystery. Donadio suggested that Ferrante is at least two people: Anita Raja and her husband Domenico Starnone. Other writers and editors may have chipped in, too. After all, both Raja, as a literary translator, and Starnone, a successful screenwriter, had backgrounds in collaborative writing. Donadio also unearthed Starnone’s novel Autobiografia Erotica di Aristide Gambía, never published in English, which riffs on the mystery of Ferrante’s identity and laments a male author’s inability to create female characters.

Perhaps Milton Friedman was also a writers’ room and (to a much lesser degree) Orwell. They should have just said so.

Follow Simon @KuperSimon and email him at simon.kuper@ft.com

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