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Posted by Tom, December 3, 2011

Neil Gaiman on ‘The Simpsons’; or, does authorship matter?

Last week, Neil Gaiman joined a very exclusive group of writers, whose number include Thomas Pynchon, Jonathan Franzen and J.K. Rowling: they’ve all been animated on The Simpsons.

Gaiman guest-stars (as himself) in the latest episode, whose plot absorbs so many layers of irony and ludicrous happenings that it truly defies synopsis, but here goes: after watching an animatronic dinosaur show, Bart and Homer come upon a plan to launch a “book heist” (the cognitive leap between cause and effect here is beyond my powers of explanation) – they will write, along with a crack team (and Gaiman, who fetches sandwiches), a new series of YA novels cynically capitalising on every recent trend (vampires, orphans, schools of magic), publish under a pseudonym, and make millions (naturally).

Initally a satire of churned-out, money-spinning franchises (and an Ocean’s Eleven spoof), the episode eventually morphs into a parody of the entire literary and YA establishment. And, despite being a bit all over the place, plot-wise, it has a lot of interesting things to say about authorship.

It’s absolutely spot-on in identifying the natural tendency towards disapproval so many people seem to feel toward collectively-written texts, and challenges it with real feeling (as it should, given that this is the means by which episodes of The Simpsons are written) – by the end, Bart and Homer feel authentic pride for their creation, and Lisa, who in a fit of pique vows to right her own, “legitimate” novel, has not penned a single word (there are some truly great author-procrastination gags). Kate, in an earlier blogpost, mentioned Roland Barthes’ ‘Death of the Author’, in the context of The Gruffalo being the same on every reading, but the theory applies here, to: is who writes a book important?

For us, collaboration to one degree or another is often essential in the creative process – either in the case of picture books like Hubble Bubble, Granny Trouble or The Baby that Roared, which have different authors and illustrators combining their separate artistic visions, or our Mega Mash-Up books, which are jointly created by the brilliant, inspiring partnership of Nikalas Catlow and Tim Wesson, or our apps, which demand the input of a whole host of people – illustrators, coders, sound engineers, script writers, and so on.

And one of Nosy Crow’s values has always been that we should earn our own seat at the creative table, as well – not just by printing the pages and getting books into shops, but by nurturing talent, providing support and offering input. Perhaps these are all different sorts of collaboration to the type The Simpsons skewers so well, but does it matter where a story comes from? What do you think?