Does it Matter Who the Author is?

This is a discussion-based post, so responses are encouraged! Share your thoughts in the comments, and hopefully we can get some interesting discussions going!

Do you ever think about who the author of the book you’re reading is? Does it affect how you read the book? This topic came up in one of my grad school classes, sparking a huge debate. Is it deceptive for an author to disguise any part, or all, of their identity (including gender, race, political views, etc.)? For example, J. K. Rowling used her initials (well, her initial plus her grandmother’s) to publish Harry Potter at least partially because it was thought that young boys would be less likely to read a book written by a woman, despite the fact that the protagonist is male. Recently, I started reading bell hook’s All About Love: New Visions and she made the point that women are more likely to read books about love written by men than by other women, because they tend to assume they know what any other woman will have to say on the subject. That’s why Nicholas Sparks books are such big sellers.

There is a long tradition of authors masking their identity, especially when it comes to gender. The Brontë sisters, Louisa May Alcott, Mary Ann Evans (George Elliot), and Amantine Lucile Aurore Dupin (George Sand) are just some of the female authors who, at one point or another, used a male pseudonym. In my editing class, I had to read a list of editing guidelines from the 50s or 60s, and the author (supposedly a renowned editor) made the point that this practice is deceptive, and that readers often feel cheated if they read a book or article assuming the author is male, only to find out she is a woman (or vice versa). Would you, like this editor, be upset by this? And if you are, would you also be upset to find out that Mark Twain was really Samuel Clemens or that George Orwell’s real name was Eric Arthur Blair?

The point isn’t the pseudonyms, though, I get that. It’s the fact that, whenever you read something, you gain a greater understanding of it (regardless of whether it is fictional or not) when you have some knowledge of the author’s perspective or who they are as a person. But, short of a man writing a detailed account of the experience of giving birth (which, can totally still be done with a lot of research and a good imagination), I don’t see why it really matters. Would you only read books about transgender characters written by transgender authors? Or books about mental illness written by someone who suffers from mental illness (or a doctor who works in the field)? Andy Weir did not go to Mars before writing The Martian. V. E. Schwab, author of A Darker Shade of Magic and Vicious, hasn’t been to more than one London or found a way to use science to give herself superpowers (I’m pretty sure). So how much, if at all, does the author’s personal history matter?

There is another side to this coin: what if you decide you don’t like the author for a reason that has nothing to do with their books? I love Ender’s Game, but Orson Scott Card has been outspoken about some political/rights views I don’t personally agree with. And it is a challenge to separate the two in my mind. Do I still support him by reading his books? Does that really matter in the scheme of things? I’m not sure I’ve completely decided. And I’d be lying if I said the fact that there is evidence of Cassandra Clare bullying (teenage) critics of her books online didn’t play a part in why I stopped reading her books. So why did I stop reading Clare and not Card? (Probably because I like Card’s writing more, but I still think the point is valid.) Have you every stopped reading a certain author because you heard something bad about them or you don’t like them as a person?

I can also say the reverse is true, at least for me: I have a few favorite authors who I like partly because they are just amazing human beings. I have met both Pierce Brown and Neil Gaiman, and they are literally some of the nicest people I have ever come across. They were both so kind and accommodating to their fans, and are genuinely interested in meeting them. While I also just really love their writing, I think having such amazing experiences actually meeting them contributed to their being a couple of my favorite authors – I will buy and read anything they publish. Hypothetically, if we agree that I shouldn’t let my negative personal opinions of Clare and Card affect how I view their work, is it then not okay for me to let me positive opinions of Brown and Gaiman do the same? Should let our thoughts about an author affect how we see their work regardless of any other factors? Are there exceptions (such as nonfiction or fiction rooted in historical events)? Does it depend on whether your opinion is positive or negative (and is that a double-standard)? Or should there be a distinct separation?

I would love to hear your thoughts on this topic! Does your opinion of an author affect your opinion of a book? Would you be angry/annoyed/disappointed if your impression of the author turned out to be false after you’d finished their book? (Would you treat a painting or sculpture the same way?) Do you think your opinion about the book itself would then change? And, regardless of your opinion on the above questions, do you think it’s fair to let your perception of an author color your perception of their work?

Feel free to comment down below with your answers to these questions, and respond to the comments of others. I am really curious about what other people have to say, so I would love for a discussion to happen. Thanks for reading/commenting!

15 thoughts on “Does it Matter Who the Author is?

  1. Hmmm, tough topic. I am not a huge fan of the Miss Peregrine series, however, I really like Ransom Riggs as a person. I think that and that he is Tahereh Mafi’s husband might have something to do with me still buying all of his three books. Yet, I wouldn’t say it affects my opinion of his work. It’s not really for me, but I guess what it does do, is me wanting to give him more chances to prove me wrong. Does that make sense?
    I would be the same with paintings or sculptures. I think you are just willing to try more and to try to understand the work if you like the person who has made it.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I think liking an author can definitely make you willing to persevere with their work for longer, if you find yourself wanting to enjoy it more than you actually do. I think the opposite can be true if you dislike someone. For example, you mentioned Orson Scott Card, and I neither know nor want to know about anything he has written. I find his views deeply offensive and feel no urge to dedicate time to looking into him/his work or to support him by giving him my money.

    As for things like gender, age, sexuality, nationality – they make no difference to me whatsoever.

    Interesting topic 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for commenting! I kind of feel the same way about Card, except I did read some of his work before I found out about his views. I haven’t bought or read any of his books since, and I haven’t decided whether I’m going to read the ones I already own but haven’t gotten to. Every time I look at his books on my shelf, I feel conflicted. Maybe that’s a sign I should just get rid of them…

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I can imagine it would be a tougher call to make if you already felt invested in his work. I suppose that’s where I’m lucky: I was aware of his views and so on before I knew anything about his books, and with so many authors/books that I’m excited about, I’ve just never bothered to dedicate time to what he has written.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. This is a good question. I think there is truth in the metaphor that a book is to an author as a child is to a parent. So it is given form and substance by the author, but it also has an independent being-ness of its own; many writers that I respect describe having a sense of “discovering” or “listening to” the work rather than manufacturing it. So, we may be able to overlook the personal faults of the author and look at the qualities of the work he or she produced, judging them by their own merits. There are exceptions — when the book has been written specifically or used to forward a repellent ideology or goal, for example. I recently learned about one author who wrote wonderful books but then used them to lure children into his home and abuse them. That makes it very difficult to read them objectively.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Woah, that’s crazy! I found out a few years ago that Lewis Carroll used to take nude pictures of little girls. And as much as I love Alice in Wonderland , I can’t get that out of my mind.

      What do you think about authors who may not specifically use their books to promote a controversial agenda, but use the fame they get for having written those books to do so?

      Thanks for commenting!

      Like

      1. Well, I might be reluctant to financially support the author by buying his or her book new, but I might check it out from the library or buy a used copy.

        Incidentally, Lewis Carroll’s behavior, while suspicious by our standards, was not considered so in his own time and there’s no evidence he abused any children. We look at him through a post-Freudian lens and that makes him look very different, but it’s a bit unfair.

        Liked by 1 person

  4. Interesting discussion topic. I don’t think anyone can say with a straight face that it doesn’t matter at all, because there will always be something you hear about some author that will put you off their work. For example (though it hasn’t happened to me), if I found out that an author had been convicted of pedophilia at some point in his/her past… those books would go into an instant “NOPE!” pile.

    HOWEVER, in general, for me it doesn’t really matter (probably because I know so little about authors). I’m not someone who gives a crap about authors. I don’t fangirl over them. I don’t seek out signed books by my favorite authors. I don’t like to participate in Q and As with them. Occasionally I will reach out, in my task as a book reviewer, but that’s it. Like you said about Orson Scott Card – he’s, uhm, a bit of a jerk to my understanding. Ender’s Game is still my choice for the BEST science fiction novel. Its an amazing piece of work, and the fact that he’s a jerk doesn’t bother me in the slightest. I like the story he put on paper. He’s nothing more than the name that wrote it to me.

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  5. Since I don’t even expect my friends to agree with my political and social views, I don’t worry too much about the author’s, so long as they don’t adversely affect their work. Among horror writers, Bram Stoker, F. Marion Crawford, and H. P. Lovecraft all had their racist beliefs; I doubt M. R. James was in favor of equal rights for women; and Charlotte Bronte and her sisters didn’t like the Irish, even though they were half-Irish themselves. Still like their good stuff. That said, the weakest part of “Tom Jones” is Fielding’s lengthy condemnation of the Jacobites, and Aristophanes’ support of the aristocratic conservative element in Athens sometimes gets to me.

    As you can tell, I HAVE read about the lives of some writers whose works I’ve read. It can be useful, both for explaining the context of their work, thinking of the author as a person, and understanding their faults as well as their virtues. “Shirley” and “Villette” are somehow more appealing when you know that Charlotte Bronte wrote them after Emily had died, and partly in memory of her. Nathaniel Hawthorne’s New England heritage is writ large across his fiction. And it was just fun to learn that Vernon Lee was a cross-dressing lesbian and acknowledged expert on 18th century Italian music, though it also helps explain why music plays such a role in her supernatural stories.

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  6. Great discussion, which I’m late to, but Lory pointed me here. I tend to read more dead authors than live ones, so they usually have something objectionable about them by modern standards. IME genius of some kind is very frequently off-set by something awful; many great writers (or artists, whatever) have been absolutely horrible people. I try not to let it bother me too much. It’s very easy to point out anyone’s flaws, but I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s better to look for what I can learn, or for the good parts of a writer. Finding out that a writer is a really neat person is then a happy bonus. Not, of course, that I ever apply it consistently; I don’t read Clare either. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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