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Should we stop reading into authors’ lives and get back to their books?

10 September 2018

From The Guardian:

As soon as the news of VS Naipaul’s death broke a few weeks ago, a thousand think pieces rose as one, as though to take his place. His legacy was both attacked and defended, his misogyny and racism condemned and forgiven. This frenzied conversation crystallised around a question readers have been grappling with for years, but with increasing urgency: to what extent should we consider an artist’s personality, politics and ethics relevant to our appreciation of their work?

It seems that almost no one can separate the writer from the books when it comes to Naipaul. The same is true of our response to work by authors who have recently been accused of various levels of misconduct following #metoo. In the past week alone, compelling and devastating reports of abuse by lauded authors have appeared in the media: Gwyn Conger Steinbeck, John Steinbeck’s second wife, detailed his sadism and womanising in a memoir that has recently come to light; author Joyce Maynard has written of her experiences with JD Salinger, who summoned her to live with him when she was 18 and he was 53.

Practical criticism – the academic approach to texts that aims to consider words on the page independently of their author or the reader’s preconceived ideas – began almost 100 years ago; now, in 2018, such “death of the author” talk appears to be dead itself. While the takes on Naipaul were diverse, and some argued that Naipaul’s bad character was irrelevant to his work, the fact of his bad character was always front and centre. It could not go unmarked– but what remains to be decided is the extent to which it marks the legacy of a Nobel prize-winning author.

I am in favour of removing monuments erected to celebrate individuals whose life work was to destroy the happiness or lives of others. I think the statue of white supremacist Cecil Rhodes at Oriel College, Oxford, belongs in a museum with a lengthy note about Rhodes’s horrific legacy and the cultural circumstances under which the statue was first erected. The same is true of the many tributes across the US to Robert E Lee. But a book is not a statue. A story is not necessarily a tribute to, or celebration of, its author. I am left reaching, instead, for the correct metaphor to evoke the relationship between work and creator. Is a book its author’s child, innocent of its parent’s wrongdoing? Or is it a hologram of its creator, representing all that its author was and did? Of course neither of these is correct; I’m still searching for an analogy that lies between these two extremes.

Link to the rest at The Guardian

PG suggests if you can’t separate the author from the book, your mental, emotional and analytical self-discipline may need some work.

PG is reminded of a quote that he suspects begins (or began) every first-year semantics class, “The word is not the thing.”

Although S.I. Hayakawa popularized it, at least in the US, PG understands the phrase originated with Alfred Korzybski, who also said, “The map is not the territory.”

Here is a longer quote from Hayakawa:

Citizens of a modern society need […] more than that ordinary “common sense” which was defined by Stuart Chase as that which tells you that the world is flat. They need to be systematically aware of the powers and limitations of symbols, especially words, if they are to guard against being driven into complete bewilderment by the complexity of their semantic environment. The first of the principles governing symbols is this: The symbol is NOT the thing symbolized; the word is NOT the thing; the map is NOT the territory it stands for.

PG also suggests that the book is not the author and vice versa.

If a reader comes to a book having pre-judged it by its author, he/she may well fail to understand the book. If the author had written this particular book anonymously, using a pen name, would the book be different?

The idea that one should pre-judge a book by what one knows (or thinks one knows) about the author seems totally bizarre. One is not supporting Naipaul by reading his books. What we know or think we know about an author does not change the words the author wrote.

A bit of perspective on the history of a society’s popular thought and accepted truths might help today’s critics of people who lived in a much different time and culture that attitudes and understandings change and today’s verities can well be tomorrow’s disdained falsities.

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45 Comments to “Should we stop reading into authors’ lives and get back to their books?”

  1. It has always been the attack of the small mind – if the book was too good to attack directly without looking stupid, then they tried to find another reason to attack – the author being the next easiest target.

  2. This is the same school of thought that says the founding father’s wisdom and teachings should be ignored because they owned slaves.

    The hilarious hypocrisy is that when Clinton was President every said, “ignore him cheating on his wife, it doesn’t affect what a great president he is.”

    • Kinda hard for those same folks to take the high ground on #metoo without exposing their nature.

      Whichever position you take, be consistent.

  3. Forgot to add …

    “The map is not the territory.”

    The man is not the file.

    .

    “And knowing that, you still thought you knew what to expect from me?” he chuckled. “A star chart is not space, a map is not the land, and a man cannot be trimmed down to fit neatly into a file – not that I think they’ve let you see my file.”

    • Source?
      Sounds like a character worth knowing.

      • The first was in David Weber’s ‘From the Highlands’ (in the book Changer of Worlds’).

        The second was just me adapting it for my own purpose. So many people automatically stereotype and are therefore surprised/shocked when they run into that square peg that will never fit in the round slot they had prepared for them. 😉

        • Ah, Anton Zilwicki.
          Hardly anybody’s idea of a superspy.

          • Ah, but that was Usher starting Victor on his true training.
            Anton was just lucky they thought his daughter worth saving.

            As for the other, a young legal eagle meeting for the first time a cranky [space] freighter captain that has been keeping the law firm she works for quite busy. (You might say he has some little ‘depth’ to him. 😉 )

  4. I always like to point out that saying an author is a bigot or racist or homophobe or whatever because someone in his book is makes as much sense as watching Silence of the Lambs and wanting Anthony Hopkins arrested for murder.

    • True, but if, for example, you knew that in real life Hopkins was a cannibal who frequently advocated better health by the consumption of human flesh, that movie would take on a whole different tone.

      I’ve found the same thing in a few different authors I’ve read. Knowing what I do about Marion Zimmer Bradley, for example, makes a lot of scenes in the Avalon or Darkover series feel very different than they did before I knew that.

      • tossed out all my MZB books when I learned that she molested her children.

      • I won’t read MZB (if I wanted to, I never did read her) after finding out about that. Because to me that is heinous crime. If I knew the baker down the street was raping kids, I wouldn’t buy their bread. That’s different than a radically different, say, political or religious view.

        I’m super-religious. I read Scripture and pray daily, go to church, give to mission work, etc. Some of my top fave authors are atheists (and in some cases, even mock my religion). I still read them. If they started kidnapping and torturing fellow believers, that’s another thing.

        Being different, even very opposed to what is of value to me, doesn’t remove an author from my list–although I avoid outright blasphemous works. But if they perform criminal acts, that’s a whole nother thing. I can befriend and love those different from myself in all areas of life. I won’t put money in a known pedophile’s pocket.

    • Hah, I remember reading a profile for him a year or two after that movie came out. The reporter made a point of mentioning that he took care to only meet with Hopkins after Hopkins had already eaten.

      But other than that, I can see both your point and Zsuzsa’s. I used to wonder if the real VC Andrews had “issues,” since her characters were typically in incestuous relationships. However, one day a coworker and I reminisced about He-Man and She-Ra (the originals). She had always thought the pair should get together, and I reminded her they were twins. She said she didn’t “get” sibling relationships, because she was an only child.

      Turns out Andrews was also an only child. Mystery solved (at least as far as I care for it to be).

      But it’s rarely useful to know anything about an author’s personal life to understand their fiction. Knowing that Lovecraft dreaded sea creatures really doesn’t make his monsters more interesting, it just explains why they’re typically constructed from that template. Most of the time a cigar will just be a cigar, though.

  5. It is certainly possible to read the person in the prose they write, but it’s not a 1-to-1 correlation, and it requires much more understanding of the writer’s life placed against the works before anything interesting can be said.

    Few people have the time and the depth of knowledge to do both.

  6. In discussing a novel, I have often heard people ask, “What is the author trying to say?”

    I don’t know. Who cares what he’s trying to say? I don’t know him from the man-in-the-moon, don’t give a hoot about him, and don’t care what he thinks about anything.

    I’m just reading a story.

  7. I guess in the general case, it’s good not to confuse an authors beliefs with those of his characters.
    However, Im reminded of a previous post hear about J R R Tolkiin s Christian beliefs influencing his fantasy, and why some people have a problem with this.
    Certainly, you don’t have to be a Christian to enjoy his books, or those of CS Lewis, but I don’t think it would be right to say that these are just stories and have no meaning behind them, if you remove the Christianity from these books they just wouldn’t be the same.

    • Possibly a story which moves a reader might lead that reader to wonder what kind of a person wrote the story – and dig deeper into the author’s beliefs.

      I have had that happen when I’ve read Dorothy L. Sayer’s later Wimsey mysteries – and know that she went on to write Christian theology. There is a depth to her characters in areas of integrity, ethics, and commitment.

      My favorite children’s book, The Other Side of the Moon, which has moved me deeply all my life, was written by Meriol Trevor, who also went on to write Catholic theology.

      I note a pattern, but didn’t find that source until I dug into the authors’ lives.

      Reading about Tolkien reinforced that.

      It may not be true of stories written and read purely for entertainment, but it is true of some literature. In well-written work, it is subtle, and never preachy.

      For better or for worse.

  8. Hemingway is the only one that comes to mind where you need to know the author, and his life, to understand his stories.

    If you read a Hemingway story without knowing that it is by Hemingway, the story is not that interesting because it is not complete. Many times up to half of the story is missing from the page. The story only works when you are reading along and realizing that what he is saying is linked to some event in his life. You are constantly going, “Oh, that’s what he’s saying.”

    – It forced you to pay attention to him each time you read the story.

    To me, that is an actual flaw of Hemingway’s work, but I suspect that to Hemingway that was a feature. HA!

  9. “PG suggests if you can’t separate the author from the book, your mental, emotional and analytical self-discipline may need some work.”

    Sure, you can avoid harsh truths and pretend that a writer’s life doesn’t impact their work, but you’d still be wrong.

    H. P. Lovecraft’s work, for example, takes on a very different tone when you realize that, for example, some parts of his work were written in response to then current architectural trends. (and then there’s his racism)

    Robert Heinlein’s work changed after his trips to the third world, and after his surgery late in life.

    Orson Scott Card noted that George Lucas’s religious beliefs are reflected in the ending of the original Star Wars trilogy (where Annakin was forgiven and redeemed). Card is a Mormon, and pointed out that he wouldn’t have ended the story that way Mormons don’t beleive in that type of redemption (I might be remembering what he wrote).

    These kind of details shed light on the subtexts of an authors work, and to ignore that fact means you will read an author’s work only on the most shallow level.

    • Hi Nate,

      Assume that up until this point in time, OSC has written everything except the books that comprise the Enderverse.

      Ender’s Game gets published this year.

      Does it win the Best Novel Hugo next year?

      Does it even get past the nomination stage?

      Are those people who read Ender’s Game, and then nominate it, reading it on only the most shallow level?

      Andrew

    • Sure, you can avoid harsh truths and pretend that a writer’s life doesn’t impact their work, but you’d still be wrong.

      One can easily acknowledge that everything we do is impacted by our lives, yet still separate the author from the book or have zero interest in the author’s life.

    • Not really. It’s just as easy to read what isn’t there at all. To take an example PG once posted here, a lot of critics truly believed that the subtext of particular short story of Octavia Butler’s was about slavery. She was black and grew up in the pre-Civil Rights era, so slavery, right?

      Except, no. No relevance whatsoever. In her preface Butler said she was actually dealing with a trip she was taking to South America. She had to be vaccinated against the vicious parasites they have there, and the story came from that. In middle school we had to watch a filmstrip on South American parasites: they are high-octane nightmare fuel. I don’t remember the name of the species that I think inspired Butler’s story, but it’s completely plausible as source material. And it actually correlates with the text that’s on the page with respect to the aliens’ method of reproduction.

      From watching “the making of” snippets from the Lucas-era Star Wars, and reading about his scripts vs. the scripts of his teammates, I can’t commit to the idea that Anakin’s “redemption” was necessarily informed by Lucas’s religion/philosophy/creed, etc. Or by anything so fleshed out. Card’s conclusion could just as easily be something he read into the story, by projecting what he would do as a writer who is informed by his own religion.

    • I don’t know much about Mormonism, but a religious offshoot of Christianity should understand about forgiveness and redemption. I mean, Jesus forgave that dude on the cross who may have been a robber-murderer at THE LAST moment of his life. And St. Stephen forgave those who were stoning him, in imitation of Christ, who forgave his crucifiers while up on that very painful cross, asking the Father to not hold it against them.

      So, for those who read the Bible (the canonical text, which Mormons as far as I know also hold as a holy text, if my cousin the Mormon is doing it right), the idea of forgiveness and redemption of gross sins, even at the last moment of life, is right there, possible, because, as Scripture says over and over: God is merciful. Whoever repents is forgiven (if it’s true repentance), even if it’s the last hour of your life.

      I’d really love to read that by Card, if you have a reference/link.

    • I’m not saying that a writer’s life experiences can’t impact his/her work.

      However, the author’s experiences may impact the work in ways which are far different than readers or critics may assume they do.

      To take one of the threads of another commenter, the fact that an author is a practicing Christian does not necessarily predict what the author will write about. Ditto for a practicing Hindu or Buddhist.

      Let’s briefly take one example.

      James Fenimore Cooper’s mother was a Quaker. He was a life-long committed and practicing Episcopalian who became a warden and vestryman in his church.

      Does that mean we should look for Christian themes in The Last of the Mohicans, which was written at the time when the United States was an overwhelmingly Christian nation?

      Natty Bumpo explicitly describes himself as a “man without a cross” and doesn’t seem to reflect many Episcopalian or Christian virtues. Here’s a quote from the book:

      “Well done for the Delawares! Victory to the Mohican! A finishing blow from a man without a cross will never tell against his honor, nor rob him of his right to the scalp.”

    • Terrible people can and do create some beautiful things. It does not follow from this that the person is any less terrible, nor the work any less beautiful.

  10. What a story says, what the author thinks he’s saying/doing, and what any given reader gets are almost always very different things.

    All are personal things and nobody can really tell another that what they experience is wrong or incomplete. Critics aspire to this but that is just hubris.

    I’m reminded of the Asimov story where a time traveling Shakespeare enrolls in a course on his works and totally flunks it.

    https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Immortal_Bard

    The good doctor knew whereof he spoke.

  11. This has been a topic in a writers’ forum I frequent, so I’ve given it some thought. The conclusion I’ve come to is that I will apologetically judge whether I want to support a writer by who that writer is. Many people in close circle of fandom knew Marion Zimmer Bradley’s husband was a pedophile. Some knew she was abusive. Little (almost nothing) was done to protect the vulnerable ones in their circle. Tolerance can be taken too far.

    I’m not alone in this. A lot of people got upset when OJ Simpson’s If I Did It was initially scheduled for publication. Rightly so, IMHO.

  12. There’s a huge question of choice here. Unless you HAVE to read a book because you are a student or a reviewer with no choice, then don’t read it if you have very poor feelings about the author. Don’t buy the book or waste your time when you find the author repellent. If enough people find that author repellent, then the books will disappear from the culture.

  13. I’ve personally blacklisted authors who post or interview in ways that offend me. Blacklist in this case means they won’t see my dime. It’s not so much as their views are radically different… it’s more that they are not smart enough to see that alienating 50 percent of their audience might not be the smartest business practice. This caused me to loose respect for them and to also loose any desire on my part to see them succeed financially from my dime.

    Keep in mind the type of behavior which I feel proves the author is not the brightest is the “F*** X or Y” type.

    • Agreed.
      Seeing a lot of this these days.
      Playing to the peanut gallery is not good business unless you’re in the political PR business.

      Keeping an eye on Disney, CBS, and Nike; one of those is going to hurt big.

      • I would disagree, I think as authors are increasingly becoming their own brands, it’s smart for them to want to discourage some people from reading their books.
        Not all fiction is for everyone, take Larry correia for example, his blog posts are kind of a test in that regard as in if you enjoy reading the blog, you probably enjoyed the books as well because he expresses some of the same views, whereas if you don’t you probably won’t.
        I don’t think Larry is particularly sad that he is alienating some potential readers, because they were not his target audience in the first place.

        • You believe only liberals read romance?
          Only conservatives read SF?
          Or whatever?

          That is not my experience.
          I know “liberals” who enjoy combat SF and “conservatives” who enjoy tearjerkers. Out in the real world people are complex, flexible, and complicated. Open minded, not cartoons.

          Also, just because you’re targeting a specific audience doesn’t mean you hit it. Or that they are the only ones who can appreciate it.

          Partisan politics isn’t the end-all be-all of life.

          • I’m confused.
            On the one hand, you seem to be saying that we should focus only on the story and leave the author out of it as much as possible.
            On the other,, that authors should not make overtly political statements for fear of losing half of their readership.
            It seems to work for Correia and many others, and there are a number of authors have expressed political viewpoint on this public forum.
            Or is it only certain political views that an author shouldn’t Express.

            • What’s the problem?
              One statement is about business behavior and the other about consumer behavior.

              Everybody can run their life/business however they see fit but for businesses there is more money in the biggest potential audience and for consumers there will be the biggest supply of product if they evaluate the product on its own merit.

              Me, I’m a fan of “Live and let die”.
              If somebody is willing to actively annoy part of their potential market “on principle” it is no concern of mine. Their life, their business.
              Doesn’t mean I’ll emulate them.

              I’m not a lemming.
              Or an Overlord.

            • Here, remember this catfight, from 2010?

              https://chamberfour.wordpress.com/2010/02/23/douglas-preston-jerk-comes-crawling-back-to-his-readers/

              eBooks were barely 10% of the market then but Preston had to backpedal real fast.

              In these hypersensitive days, partisan political statements are going to automatically annoy one camp or the other, which means 40% of the market, either way.

              A week or so ago, a California burger chain found itself targeted for boycott by the chair of one of the state parties. Their crime? Donating $25k to both parties.

              Annoying customers is bad for business but politics is toxic no matter how careful you are.

              The authors keeping their private lives (and opinions) private look wiser by the day. Pen names may soon be a requirement, not just an option.

  14. Yes, please. I’m tired of the “No one should read X cause they vote Y or they believe Z.” If I vetted all my fave writers that way, I’d have little to read. If they haven’t committed some gross act or crime–and I mean like molesting kids or raping or murdering or blowing up churches and mosques or beating up their elderly parents–I’ll keep reading them.

    I may make an exception for something I find truly reprehensible and the only one I can think of is this: I will not buy from an author whose works I read since I was in college when this author came out supporting sex between prepubescents of the age of 6 and adults. Mostly cause now I get a gag reflex thinking about it. Not that THEY are doing it. I just see the name and think little boys being done and wanna run away.

    Shoot, most fiction authors I read aren’t religious like me, don’t vote like me, don’t have my worldview and may disagree strongly with what I consider immoral. I’m not buying their BFF status. I”m just reading stories.

    • +1000.
      Most writers keep their private lives private, anyway.
      And few (if any) readers bother to profile authors before buying their wares.

  15. Your experience is your own. My experience of a book always changes when I learn something about the author. Sometimes I like their work more, sometimes less, sometimes it doesn’t change much, but my perception is always affected to a greater or lesser degree.

    I’ve noticed that I always feel best when I think well of people, try to look from their point of view, and ignore what I might perceive as their failings, but I don’t always succeed. There are people, and some authors are among them, who are beyond the limit of my tolerance and forbearance. That is a fact about myself that I have to deal with. I expect that my judgement of the products of those who are beyond my pale will be different from those who are not affected as I am, but that does not change my judgement.

    I never agree with anyone anyway…

  16. Yes, we should separate a writer’s life from his work. The Left has no problem separating an actor or director’s (Roman Polanski) work from their private lives. This current #metoo business is simply a matter of lesser qualified and talented feminist writerss attempting to drag down and trash superior minds and talents.

  17. Terrible people can and do create some beautiful things. It does not follow from this that the person concerned is any more terrible nor the work any less beautiful.

  18. Correct me if I’m wrong, but isn’t Mein Kampf still sold? Still read?

    What if its a “biography” on a hated guy, is that ok as long as the author of the biography is a “good guy?”

    And am i correct that this idea should work in reverse. So if I’m re-reading Machiavelli’s “The Prince” I should have an intense dislike of Machiavelli – the author – despite him not personally having skeletons in his closet correct? Because many people take a simple view of his thesis without reading them and believe he is preaching hateful smut.

  19. Thanks for the thought-provoking comments.

    When I consider the aggressive and aggressively condemnatory tone of a great deal of public discourse today (at least in the United States), I am reminded of 1984’s two minutes of hate.

    “The horrible thing about the Two Minutes Hate was not that one was obliged to act a part, but that it was impossible to avoid joining in. Within thirty seconds any pretence was always unnecessary. A hideous ecstasy of fear and vindictiveness, a desire to kill, to torture, to smash faces in with a sledge hammer, seemed to flow through the whole group of people like an electric current, turning one even against one’s will into a grimacing, screaming lunatic. And yet the rage that one felt was an abstract, undirected emotion which could be switched from one object to another like the flame of a blowlamp.”

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