Writer vs. Author: the defective verb

— A Writer is a person who writes.

— An Author is a person who has written.

Dean Wesley Smith

This fine distinction explains why I have never had any ambition to be an Author, and have the very lowest suspicions about anyone who has. This attitude is, I think, part and parcel of my devotion to a God who (as C. S. Lewis once said) ‘cares only for temples building and not at all for temples built’. I have no ambition to be a person who has written. Nor do I take anticipatory delight in becoming a person who has eaten: an accomplishment that does not nourish the soul (or the body) for long. While I still hold out a faint and forlorn hope of one day being married, I have not much interest in becoming a person who has been married, i.e., a widower or a divorcé. Least of all do I aspire to become a person who has lived.

I think this distinction also lies at the bedrock of why I so dislike the use of author as a verb. It is not only an awkward construction, but essentially a phony one. Authorship is a particular relation between a person and a work once completed. How one brings the work into existence is not ‘authoring’ but writing. Properly speaking, the verb ‘to author’ exists only in the perfect tense; and I have a fine religious terror of such verbs — ‘defective’, as the Latins rightly called them.

Shakespeare will always be the author of King Lear, but Shakespeare is not a writer anymore. In the days when he was a writer, and King Lear was issuing from his pen, he was not yet its author. By the time he had become the author of that play, and it had had its season in his theatre, Shakespeare the writer had moved on to his next creation. He had no time to rest upon his laurels; he had seats in need of bums.

Alas for poor Will, this narrow and unleisured attitude meant that he was for ever deprived of the characteristic joys of Authorship. He never did a book tour or a radio interview; he never bloviated to Larry King or signed autographs at a mall. Why, the poor fellow never even tweeted, and he is without a Facebook account to this day. Yet somehow he managed to get that theatre filled, and somehow he sold his work.

Loath as I am to be merely didactic, this tale appears to be verging upon a moral. (It shames me to admit it.) Apparently the moral is that either auctorial self-promotion is not all it is cracked up to be, or Shakespeare isn’t. Considering how loud and multitudinous is the testimony in favour of self-promotion, I suppose it must be Shakespeare.

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