The idea that an author’s body of work begins and ends with what they professionally publish is outdated. “What is a work?” asked Michel Foucault – a pertinent question in a society that encourages the sharing, tweeting, and blogging of experiences. As contemporary readers, we are privileged to have access to these different forms of expression, and to have intimate access to the lives of contemporary authors through their social media engagement. Modern technology calls for a redefinition of the boundaries of an author’s “work”: a definition that encompasses everything an author writes, and, more specifically, what they publish on social media.
Technology means that the way authors produce their work is increasingly computer-based. Word-processed documents, emails and cloud storage mean that first drafts, notes and correspondences are susceptible to loss or deletion. In this way technology also calls for a change in our approach to authors’ archives. Considering online contributions as work, it is important to think about where contemporary work is stored and how to best preserve it.
In taking seriously an author’s contribution to Twitter, Instagram, and blogging platforms, we unlock a wealth of untapped material. For those of us researching a contemporary text or author – for which there may be a lack of critical material – this redefinition becomes essential. Drawing from online sources and treating a writer’s social media presence as a piece of critical material is an indispensable way to unlock and better understand the text. It is an opportunity that we should not deny ourselves.
This is not a ground-breaking suggestion. There is a well-established literary custom whereby texts are included in an author’s body of work that were never intended for publication or literary interpretation. Consider the posthumous publication of William Blake’s notebook known as “The Pickering Manuscript”. Published thirty years after his death, there is no evidence to suggest that Blake intended its publication, but its content is considered some of his most distinguished work. Isn’t reading over this snapshot of Blake’s private thoughts like viewing his Twitter profile?
Or consider the letters written by John Keats to family members, lovers and contemporaries. Often published alongside his poetry as an important appendage to his work, they trace his many complicated relationships, as well as providing further explanations of his formally published work. Isn’t viewing Keats’ private letters the same as accessing his direct messages or online comments?
These texts would not be considered by their authors as a formal part of their body of work, however, we still consider them academically. They can be beautiful, revealing, and culturally significant. In the same way, we should shift our attitude towards authors’ contributions online. What an author publishes, whether through a publishing house or on a social media platform, should be included within their body of work. As savvy, modern readers, let’s take advantage of the position we hold as social media users and exploit the brilliant opportunities that can occur when we expand the limits of an author’s work.