Attribution matters

[This is my contribution to the MVSA Lifetime Achievement Award Roundtable in Honor of Patrick Leary: Exploring Print and the Victorians – Views from 2021. It’s hard to overstate Patrick’s influence on the field, both through his genial participation in (and leadership of) various scholarly organisations to his various intellectual achievements, and it was a real privilege to be asked to take part in the panel. My fellow panellists were Paul Fyfe, Andrea Korta, Leanne Langley, Jennifer Phegley, and Jonathan Rose. The chair was Linda Hughes. The panel took place on 22 May 2021]

Back in December, in an email to Victoria announcing a bumper update to the Curran Index, Patrick made a plea for the Index’s underlying rationale.  ‘Attribution matters’, wrote Patrick, ‘An anonymous review of Little Women would mean one thing if it was written by Harriet Martineau and quite another if the author turned out to be Eliza Lynn Linton.’  ‘Which, by the way’, he adds, cheekily, ‘it did’.  He goes on: ‘There’s a big difference between being able to write, “Popular playwright and longtime civil servant Tom Taylor observed in Punch that..” and instead having to write, simply, “Punch observed…”.  ‘Periodicals don’t write things’, Patrick quite rightly observes, ‘we only pretend that they do when we don’t know any better.’ 

The Curran Index, for those of you who don’t know, is an online database of newspaper and periodical attributions that grew out of Eileen Curran’s ongoing attribution work published on Patrick’s Victorian Research Web.  Eileen’s generous bequest to the Research Society of Victorian Periodicals permitted the Society to formalise its relationship with the Index, and, more to the point, it editor, Gary Simons.  Gary’s recently retired and the editorshiphas passed to Lara Atkin and Emily Bell.  To give you a sense of the achievement of the Curran Index, the Wellesley Index, that bedrock of periodical scholarship out of which the Curran originated, contains nearly 89,000 attributions.  The Curran Index now has 170,000.

After Patrick’s email a lively discussion on Victoria then ensued, which included a response by Laurel Brake on the salience of house style and the politics of anonymity, pseudonymity, and signature.  I don’t want to recapitulate those exchanges.  Instead, what I want to do is endorse Patrick’s arguments but suggest we go further.  Attribution matters, he argues, and I agree, but I want to suggest it matters in two further ways.  Firstly, while periodicals don’t write themselves, they’re not really written by authors, either.  Sure, authors provided copy and people wanted to read their words, but not all writing in the press was “authored” and not everything printed was verbal matter.  Similarly, the words read weren’t made by authors but by the press of inked type on paper.  And this brings me to my second point.  Attribution need not be limited to naming people.  Authors are important, but so too are illustrators and engravers, printers and publishers, presses and type.

In my own work I have to confess that I should probably care a little bit more about who wrote what.  I try to think of press as process, attending to newspapers and periodicals first as objects then as texts.  I’m interested in material and textual forms, how serial media punctuate space and time, and that characteristic interplay between predictable pattern and the thrill of the new.  Centering the press in this way tends to foreground the constraints under which authors performed.  We’re all familiar with how agency is circumbscribed – by the author’s background, the limits of langauge, the various cultural discourses that make certain things utterable – but agency is circumbscribed by writing for the press too.  There’s literary genre, of course, and the expectations of a particular set of readers, but seriality makes all of this much more tangible.  Readers come back for the next issue because they know what it will contain.  Authors might provide words to fill white space, but that white space is already partially written: a type of article, at a set length, in a particular place in a particular publication.  In this way, perhaps, periodicals do write themselves.

There’s a risk in an approach like mine that people get forgotten as the press becomes more animate.  Attribution matters.   We still know so little about those commissioned to fill white space, and the literary canon, with all its biases, still looms large.  But one of the advantages of studying the press is the diversity of writing it contains. Those of us of a literary bent might want to know who wrote a particular essay or review, but what about the person who wrote the copy for an advertisement that appeared all over the place? And what about all those other people whose labour also deserves our attention?  We know so much more about authors than writers, but we know so much more about writing than printing, publishing, editing, illustrating, and engraving.  And we know so much more about them than distribution, marketing, sales, and haulage. 

As I said, it’s not just about authors, but it’s also not just about people.  At the risk of further animating print, I do think that the contribution of things matters and so deserves attribution too.  The periodical press looks very different when seen from the perspective of a particular advertisement, for instance, as it is tracked across pages and perhaps, onto the walls.  It looks different again if we monitor what passes through a particular print shop, or, indeed, a particular printing press.  These are material histories, and so cultural histories, and they matter too.

A few years ago our chair today advocated going ‘sideways’, both materially, turning the pages, and conceptually, embracing what she calls print’s ‘pervasive dialogism’.1  Attribution, I want to suggest, readily allows such lateral moves.  While attribution can be understood as the shoring up of authorship, insisting that texts belong to their authors and that the fact of their authorship is inseparable from what they might mean, attribution can also be understood as a radical unravelling.  Instead of ressurecting the author as origin, there’s nothing to stop us going in the other direction, placing their texts as nodes in a network that links together all those other people and processes responsible for the production of print.  One of Gary Simons’s achievements as editor of the Curran Index was to turn its lists into a database, providing an architecture that models just such a network.  As it stands, contributions in the Curran Index are classed by genre and contributors by gender, education, and nationality; rather than simply reveal who wrote what, in other words, it can reveal how many Irish women wrote reviews, or whether a particular publication drew its contributors from the same Oxford college.  The Index, then,already decenters individual authors by placing them, and their contributions, in relation to one another.  Rather than further reify the link between author and text, I think we should embrace the way texts become necessarily collaborative as they approach the printed page and add further nodes accordingly.  Authors don’t write newspapers and periodicals – that’s why we call them contributors – and for their writing to be read it has to be combined with other texts (both verbal and visual, original and otherwise), printed, distributed, and sold.  Attribution matters, so lets start to attribute those other contributors, and all their diverse contributions too.

1 Linda K. Hughes, ‘SIDEWAYS!: Navigating the Material(Ity) of Print Culture’, Victorian Periodicals Review, 47.1 (2014), 1–30 <>. [back]