The author, the writer, the editor and the president

The author, the writer, the editor and the president

Yesterday, Thursday 19 November, a ring at the doorbell announced the arrival of former President Obama‘s volume of autobiography, which racked up a huge sale of well over 800,000 copies in 24 hours. What to do first with such a very large book? Why, look at the photographs of course! One of these caught the eye and set off a train of thought. A photograph of this photograph appears here.

Who is the author of presidential speeches and announcements? The photograph indicates the complexities involved. The speech was made by Obama. The speech was written as a draft for consideration by a customary speech-writer, Jon Fovreau. Obama then edited it; and as the photograph indicates, he edited it to the point of majorly re-writing it so that it became more his than the speech-writer’s. Authorship in such circumstances is a very complex thing, because presumably the draft originated in discussions with or notes from Obama, was drafted out by another person in their writing but to be spoken by him, and was then modified by him in writing, again with the intention of speaking the result.

What this has reminded me of are the letters written by first century CE members of the Roman garrison at Vindolanda in North Britain, and the role of scribes in acting as a labour-saving device. Scribes routinely did the donkey-work of writing, but to the instruction of senior officers and others further up the hierarchy, with the people that the scribes were acting on behalf off providing a signature at the end to indicate authenticity. In the Vindolanda corpus, the concept of a ‘private‘ letter is a non-starter. In the context of the photograph being discussed, the concept of a ‘personal‘ presidential speech is similarly a non-starter. These are public matters, with President Obama signing them off and this thereby acting as a guarantee of his ownership of them. Authorship here is not an individual pursuit but a collective endeavour.

Last updated: 20 November 2020