THE DIFFERENCE (IF ANY) BETWEEN AN AUTHOR AND A WRITER

I’m happy to admit that over the course of my own career, in reference to both myself and others, I’ve used the words “writer” and “author” entirely interchangeably. In my mind they have always been synonyms.

But lately I’ve started noticing a building argument out there as to the difference between being a writer and being an author. This came to the fore again as I read Dean Wesley Smith’s Heinlein’s Rules: Five Simple Business Rules for Writing (see my thoughts on the book here) in which Smith takes a strong stand on the issue:

My definition of a writer is a person who writes.

My definition of an author is a person who has written.

Yeah, I agree, sort of a nasty distinction. I have no respect for authors. I have a ton of respect for writers.

He goes on to say:

In this modern world of indie publishing, we see a ton of authors out there pushing their one or two or three books, promoting them to death, annoying their two hundred Twitter followers and their family on Facebook.

Promotion is not writing., That’s just being an author.

Writers are people who write.

But then I have to ask: aren’t people who promote promoters? Marketers? Salespeople? And indie authors have to fill those roles that traditionally-published authors can (at least in part) rely on their publishers to provide. This angry distinction comes off as more than a bit hypocritical, frankly, from Dean Wesley-Smith who has quite an active indie publishing enterprise of his own, which he, one could say, promotes to death.

This isn’t getting us anywhere.

I’ve been thinking a bit lately about the difference between art and craft. So is it as easy as:

author = artist, writer = craftsman?

This tends to make the title of “author” feel like something to achieve, to strive for. Self-proclaimed author Jami Gold in her blog post “Do You Call Yourself a Writer or an Author?” sees “author” as a title to be claimed, a mantel of some distinction:

But I want people’s first impression of me to be that I’m a professional writer and take my work seriously, so I claim the title of “author” in the header of my website. I am a writer because I write, but “author” embodies my goals, my actions, and my attitude toward writing. So I swallow the self-doubt that plagues most of us writers and strive to live up to the word “author.”

So then:

author = professional writer, writer = aspiring author?

Still not good enough for me. Still too didactic. Maybe:

author = writer with artistic pretension, writer = writer without ego?

I don’t like that either, though that’s a bit more in line with what Dean Wesley-Smith has written.

Roland Barthes, in his essay “The Death of the Author” takes a similar tack to Smith in that he sees the status of “author” as an intrusion on the medium itself, as a sort of self- or critic-made villain who does his readers, and the culture, a disservice by being placed alongside if not above his own work:

Auth--I mean, Writer, Roland Barthes.

Auth–I mean, Writer, Roland Barthes.

The author is a modern figure, produced no doubt by our society insofar as, at the end of the middle ages, with English empiricism, French rationalism and the personal faith of the Reformation, it discovered the prestige of the individual, or, to put it more nobly, of the “human person.” Hence it is logical that with regard to literature it should be positivism, resume and the result of capitalist ideology, which has accorded the greatest importance to the author’s “person.”

Barthes continues in an attempt at separating the author (the person, the artist) from the art itself: the writing:

. . . it is language which speaks, not the author: to write is to reach, through a preexisting impersonality—never to be confused with the castrating objectivity of the realistic novelist—that point where language alone acts, “performs,” and not “oneself.”

So that, unlike the “author,” the “writer” is separate from his writing in some way, expressing some larger truth rather than wallowing in his own self?

. . . the modern writer, having buried the Author, can therefore no longer believe, according to the “pathos” of his predecessors, that his hand is too slow for his thought or his passion, and that in consequence, making a law out of necessity, he must accentuate this gap and endlessly “elaborate” his form; for him, on the contrary, his hand, detached from any voice, borne by a pure gesture of inscription (and not of expression), traces a field without origin—or which, at least, has no other origin than language itself, that is, the very thing which ceaselessly questions any origin.

And all this seems to be Barthes’s assertion that a sort of post-author world has been achieved, giving birth to a naturalist approach?

. . . succeeding the Author, the writer no longer contains within himself passions, humors, sentiments, impressions, but that enormous dictionary, from which he derives a writing which can know no end or halt: life can only imitate the book, and the book itself is only a tissue of signs, a lost, infinitely remote imitation.

Okay, tell that to J.K. Rowling.

Clearly the era of the Author (capital intended) is far from behind us.

I’ve seen some indication that the difference between “author” and “writer” is that the title “author” denotes some degree of success and/or legitimacy as a person who uses writing to communicate ideas and emotions, while the word “writer” might call to mind someone who writes catalog copy or insurance pamphlets or other works of utilitarian communication meant neither to entertain nor illuminate.

Robin Storey, in “Writer V Author—What’s The Difference?” seems to be coming at it from that angle:

On the surface there doesn’t seem to be much difference, but I’ve always known there was, without stopping to analyse why. But as I’m about to publish my first novel on Amazon, with a second to follow a few weeks after, I now think of myself as an author, not a writer. Somehow author has a more authentic, professional ring to it. An author is someone who takes their writing seriously and often makes a career of it, whereas a writer could be composing long, lovelorn sonnets in their attic for years with no one being any the wiser—not that there’s anything wrong with that, if you happen to be a budding Byron.

But I’ve also gotten the feeling that, by definition, “author” is a specific sort of writer, who expresses him/herself in book form as opposed to other specific sorts of writers like playwrights, screenwriters, copywriters, etc.?

That might get us, finally, to a distinction I can sign off on, personally. If I’ve written a book, I can be described as the author of that book. If I’ve written a play, call me a playwright. When I write poetry, I am a poet.

And yes, I am intentionally ignoring the word “novelist.”

I guess you could make a further distinction that a novelist is someone who writes novels, but then we’re starting to get into what feels to me to be an unwieldy series of specific differentials: novelist, memoirist, biographer . . . How important are those distinctions?

In the end I tend to agree with author Nicole Evelina, from her blog post “Author vs. Writer”:

Really, it boils down to semantics. Oftentimes, I use the words “writer” and “author” interchangeably, because really, they mean the same thing—someone who writes. If you asked me which I prefer, I’d say “author,” only because to me, that is more evocative of the literary nature of what I do. You can “write” anything (and I write all day long for my day job, so I know): newsletters, articles, ad copy, cereal box text, instruction manuals. But the word “author” seems to me to be more reserved for those who write literary works: books, poems, plays, etc. That’s why I like it. It speaks to who I am. I’ve been using it since my writing became more than an occasional hobby and I plan on using it well into my future days as a best-seller.

Call yourself what you want, then, right? Just don’t succumb to the temptation to use either “author” or “writer” as a pejorative. I’ll stand up for either or both.

 

—Philip Athans

 

 

About Philip Athans

Philip Athans is the New York Times best-selling author of Annihilation and a dozen other books including The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction, and the recently-released How to Start Your Own Religion and Devils of the Endless Deep. His blog, Fantasy Author’s Handbook, (https://fantasyhandbook.wordpress.com/) is updated every Tuesday, and you can follow him on Twitter @PhilAthans.
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5 Responses to THE DIFFERENCE (IF ANY) BETWEEN AN AUTHOR AND A WRITER

  1. Hmmm, now I’m tempted to go with:

    “I AM a writer, I’m the author of X.” With the distinction of one is what you do/who you are, and the other is what you’ve done.

    • kam80kam says:

      Just struggled with this the other day when writing my first authors bio. Finally settled on writer but I guess really in a sense I am both . It’s a weird distinction.

  2. patriciaeimer says:

    In the past few years I’ve started to use “Author” as a career title and “Writer” as a description or casual term. I’ll joke about meeting up with other writers for double w group meetings (wine and whining) or I’ll make sarcastic comments about the “glamorous writing life” when I tell people I had to spend the day scrubbing my toilet or taking care of sick kids. But when I first meet people and that conversation comes up of “what do you do?” I’ve found that saying “I’m an author” gets me “oh anything I might have read?” vs. when I say “oh I’m a writer” and I get “oh you’re one of those mommy bloggers/you freelance ad copy/you’re trying to publish a book”. And maybe that happens more because I’m a woman in a cookie cutter east coast suburb but I’ve found when I say “writer” people assume it’s just a little hobby I’ve picked up since the kids are in school but when I say “author” people suddenly realize that I earn my paycheck by putting fingers to keyboard every day.

    • kam80kam says:

      Funny how the title of writer is viewed as being lesser when it’s really the one that speaks of the work , dedication and love that goes into a writing career.

  3. susielindau says:

    I had wondered since I’ve published hundreds of essays on my blog and finished writing a novel. Among other writers, author seems to connote having published a book. I’m querying mine and am close to finishing another. I still don’t know if I can call myself an author…

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