10 May 2010

Weekly Geeks

Weekly Geeks

A couple of incidents have prompted this week's topic.

1. I very much enjoyed the two Susan Hill novels that I’ve read and already have the next book in her series Simon Serrailler series on my audio book playlist. Then I discovered, via the author’s opinion column in a UK newspaper, that I don’t particularly like her personality (this piece is an example of what I found mean-spirited and inaccurate about her rants but there were other articles too). Suddenly her books did not seem so appealing any longer.

2. Craig Sisterson's excellent blog Crime Watch featured an article about historical mystery author Anne Perry who, as it happens, committed a particularly grim murder many years ago (at the ripe old age of 15). "Thank heavens I'm not a fan of hers" was my first thought.

So I have been pondering the issues of whether it is possible to separate an author's non-writing life from the books they produce and thought I'd throw these questions over to you. Feel free to answer one or more of these and give examples if you have them.

Does an author's politics matter to you? Do you have a favourite book or series written by someone you know to be your political opposite? Or have you stopped reading works by a particular author after discovering that their politics was radically different from your own?

What about their personality? Have you ever stopped reading an author's work after seeing or hearing them talk because you didn't like what you saw or heard?

And how about that secret past? How would you feel if you found out your favourite author was a murderer or some other kind of criminal? Are there some crimes that you would be OK about and others that would stop you following their work? Do you know about the pasts of 'your' authors? Do you want to?

This week's topic is brought to you by Bernadette at Reactions to Reading.

That reminds me ... I really must get around to (finally) checking which of Anne Perry’s books is the first in the series so I can read it. I’ve been meaning to for years, but the library has too many distractions :-) Learning that she’d committed a murder herself only piqued my curiosity about the books; it certainly didn’t deter me. (Would people’s opinions be different, I wonder, if she wrote in another genre?) Nor did Frank Abagnale’s history of conning people stop me reading and enjoying Catch Me if You Can. However, if a writer decided to move from books to crime rather than the other way round, I could take a different view. For someone to put an unpleasant past behind them is one thing; to go and do something horrible in the present is quite another.

I’m going to assume the politics part of the question applies only to modern authors. You can’t judge a book by the political or moral standards of an author who lived in a different century; and if outdated attitudes with which you don’t agree come through in their writing, well, that’s the chance you take when you open a classic. (And if you object to sending royalties to someone of whom you don’t approve, there’s no need to worry about that if they’ve been dead since 1846.)

About a third of the fiction I’ve read over the past couple of years has been written by authors now deceased, which reduces the chances of my reading being affected by revelations about the writers. The chances are made even lower by the fact that I never know much about the people whose books I read. Unless an interview turns up in the pages of the Courier-Mail I tend to remain clueless unless I stumble across something on a blog somewhere and actually read it. I couldn’t specify a single author’s political preferences, and since I’m largely apolitical I probably wouldn’t care.

Personality, too, I’m largely unaware of, but there’s an exception to everything and this one’s name is Peter Carey. He recently popped up in the pages of The Australian with some comments he made during a talk in New York. What. A. Snob. Granted, I rarely read literary fiction, but any interest I might have had in his work has now been snuffed out.

A more pertinent issue, for me, would be authors using their books to espouse their own beliefs, but this is a tricky area. You’d have to be certain it was the author, and not the characters, holding the offending opinion, before judging their entire oeuvre on that account. If you’re dealing with historical fiction, it’s a minefield. The characters then cannot possess a complete set of 21st-century values and must possess some now outdated, which the author need not share. (During NaNo last year, one of my characters informed me that he didn’t want the heroine to save the day; he thought her place was tending to the ill and injured with the rest of the women. I was briefly horrified before realising that that was just what someone born in 1829 would think, and if I didn’t like it, too bad.) A disagreeable authorial message would likely need to be sledgehammer-unsubtle or a constant theme in their work before I’d give up completely; after all, a certain amount of bias is perhaps inevitable.

With non-fiction, I always read any biographical information about the author supplied on the back flap of the dust jacket or wherever, to check out their background and qualifications. Even if I’m just reading the book for personal interest it’s good to know that it’s written by someone in a position to know what they’re talking about. On the other hand, I recently read and liked a thoughtful historical biography by a science fiction writer; there’s exceptions to this, too.

As for Susan Hill, I haven’t been put off her books (though I wouldn’t read any other editions of her column ... and conversely, I read Rebecca Sparrow’s column even though I hated her book. Novels and opinion pieces are entirely different things ... so long as the latter don’t disparage people with tastes less highbrow than those of the writer).


  1. I would have said that it didn't matter to me but I fear now, after reading Susan Hill's column, that it might matter. It was a bit horrid. Still, I tend to judge books on their own merit as literature and not by their author's political beliefs. Unless I thought that the author would use their book profits to fund something completely against my morals or beliefs, I probably wouldn't skip their books if I had a real interest in them.

  2. OK so I'm learning that I should read more books by dead people. Good advice :)

  3. Older authors too must have had dark secrets but being dead and all that it is not easy to find about them. I am talking about the authors of the classics.

    And an author's values and ethics does matter to me.

    Weekly Geeks: Secret pasts and peculiar presents


Newer Posts Older Posts Home
Header image shows detail of A Young Girl Reading by Jean-Honoré Fragonard, c. 1776