Why do we care about the Novel but not the Novelist? An observation about authorship and public Googling and use of Wikipedia

Sorry it has been a while since I posted a blog, between grad-school, PhD applications, health, teaching, and a masters project, life has been a bit overwhelming. I have a report coming soon reflecting on the Blake Archive internship last fall, and parts of that should be going up here on the blog in the next month or so. However that is not why I am writing; instead, I wanted to publish some interesting observations I had about the public’s idea of authors and writers when glancing through traffic on Wikipedia articles.

It all started with a Wikipedia contribution. I have recently been working on the article for “Novelist” on English Wikipedia as part of the Wikipedia Core Contest, which is a competition for experienced Wikipedians to write articles about core subjects to public knowledge. Since 2004 the page has been a redirect funneling viewers to the article “Novel”, which linked to a vast network of nearly 12000 pages on Wikipedia related to novels and fiction writing. The novelist redirect was frequently used, with something like 3000-4000 links on Wikipedia articles, so I decided to create an actual article about novelists. In doing so, I ended up hijacking those internal links to the novel page (“novel” now has about 8695 links and “novelist” 4850, a number much larger than the original links because of work I have been doing to integrate the novelist article into the encyclopedia). However, I noticed the novelist article is not getting the same amount pure traffic as would be proportional to the number of links I grabbed from the “novel” page: the novel page gets well over 1200 views on most days while, though the traffic has more than doubled to the novelist page since the time it was a redirect it was getting only around 100 views a day, it is still only getting about 250 views on most days. This led me to an interesting question: are people really more interested in the form, than the process of novel-writing or the origin of the work? And in a much broader question: what is the place of authors within our culture of readers? Do the readers care about the author or what type of author wrote a work? How does the profession of novelist shape up against other types of writing professions?

Google trends writers

Authorship tends to be a major topic in academia, and being in an English department, I have always thought of the creative writers by their genre and by their relative relationship to the workshops they do. But a little bit of looking through Google trends, shows that the public really isn’t asking about authors’ genres. When comparing the search term “novelist” with the professions of “author”, “writer”, “poet” and “playwright” on Google trends, I found that relative Google interest about novelist hits the bottom of the barrel along with playwright while the concepts of author and writer lead the numbers. However, one part of the graph stood out: the trends for “poet” have nearly a third of the popularity of the writer category, blowing both novelist and playwright out of the water. This is probably skewed a bit, because “novelist” doesn’t have its own topical search, but it strikes me as interesting that the concept of poet stands out well above the rest. These trends hold out on Wikipedia page-views as well, at time of writing author trumps writer with 17635 “author” views in the last 30 days compared to 14533 “writer”‘ views. Moreover, “poet” still has 10503 views, while novelist has 5565 (including the spikes around my contributions and it’s debut on the front page through DYK), though playwright still does fairly well with 12636 views . Even though Wikipedia’s inter-connectivity seems to level the playing a field a bit, the concept of poet alongside writer and author still trend fairly high. So novelist as a profession seem to be of far less importance within this public conversation.

This leaves me with a few questions: culturally do we perceive poets as different the other types of generic writers? Why are we thinking about writers and authors in more general categories when we train writers in the academy within genre based practices?

However, I also noticed that the mediums in which the authors are writing seem to create way more interest, with pages on Wikipedia like Novel getting 46452 views or Poetry getting 64550 view in the last thirty days. The concepts of the work is clearly overshadowing the authorship, leading to another set of questions: Why does the concept describing the product of these authors take privilege over their idea behind the author’s profession? Is it that we don’t actually attribute the work to an authorship process? Has Barthes’s “Death of the Author” permeated our sense of authorship so much, that we don’t ask as many questions on the internet about the writerly practice behind it? Is writing simply something that permeates our experiences of the world so thoroughly that the works are all we see rather the people behind it?

Anyway my post is more questions than actual concrete conclusions, but I think this is an interesting reflection on the impact of product-centered perspectives of consumers in the literary market place: they aren’t asking question about the labor that goes into it. That might be a problem, especially when writers struggle with getting published, and in doing so making a living. Its an interesting dilemma. Of course, in the meantime, we can always improve the public information about those professions: both the poet article and the novelist article on Wikipedia could use your help!

Thanks for reading, and I’ll be back again soon!