Bylines (Part 1 of 2)

by James Somers, March 3, 2009

Although an author’s name is attached to nearly everything we read, it’s clear that we attend to this information differently in different circumstances.

I read the morning weather report, for example, with no regard to who wrote it, but I actively seek out some columnists (e.g., Michael Lewis) and avoid others (Maureen Dowd); if an author’s speaking voice is familiar to me, I will sometimes “hear” it when I read their writing; I search for papers by “author” in academic disciplines that I know well, and by “keyword” in those I don’t; etc.

So it is clear that sometimes we make use of bylines, and sometimes not, depending on the situation. And it’s likely that in this kind of “market” for our attention, we pay roughly the right prices; that is, we probably have an excellent sense of when a byline matters.

But maybe not. Maybe there are enough cases where we are misled by bylines to warrant some kind of rules governing their use: for example, when is it appropriate to emphasize the author’s name? Or supplement it (with a job title, for instance)? Is anonymity ever acceptable?

Here’s an example that should bring the point home. Last year a buddy of mine sent “A Perfect Day for Bananafish,” a story by J.D. Salinger, to a friend at another university. For the sake of formatting he had copied and pasted the text from some website into a Word document, which he attached to an e-mail that said only “read this now or i don’t like you at all anymore.” It was his way of heartily endorsing an excellent story.

In her mind, though, he was urging her to read this piece because he had just written it, and probably wanted another pair of critical eyes to look over the draft before he turned it in for class. Such an interpretation made a lot of sense in light of the attached Word document, which, incidentally, lacked a byline.

The product of these shenanigans is hilarious. My friend’s friend took a stab at editing — using the “track changes” feature, no less — what is considered by some to be Salinger’s best story. Read at your pleasure [doc].

It’s not surprising that most of her edits seem to make the piece worse. Quite a few of them are obviously wrong (for example, the change to “for whom” on page 1) and would look just as wrong on anyone’s work. And for those that have a more ambiguous impact, we are inclined to side with Salinger, whom we know to be an excellent and meticulous author whose work has been heavily scrutinized.

All that said, though, it’s not like she did a terrible job, and I wonder what I would have done in her shoes — whether I would have exercised some editorial restraint or, more likely, indulged the urge to criticize.

In any case what’s interesting here is that the humor turns on the total misfiring of this poor girl’s usually reliable byline heuristic: instead of activating her enjoying-an-established-author mode, she accidentally chose to constructively-criticize-a-peer.

(Of course, this trick can be pulled in reverse, and I used to do just that when I had written something short — a joke, maybe, or what I thought was an insightful comment — and wanted an impartial reaction. I would send it to my friends via AIM, claiming to have found it on the web.)

In either case the point is this: in reading, as in anything else, framing matters.

In part 2 I’ll make some more “normative” claims about the way we read, and suggest that the “misfirings” mentioned here are only extreme cases of something that happens all the time, namely, the consistent mispricing, due to bylines, of certain classes of assets in the “attention market.”