Although there always have been superstar authors, for everyone else, gone are the days when you could write a book and leave it to your publisher to sell it for you. The author in person has become an integral part of their book’s status in the literary world and we, the reading public, are hungry to find out about them – or are we? The Shiny Eds discuss this changing world, and how it reflects upon the way we approach an author’s work.
1. You have a book to read from a new to you author – do you read the author bio? When do you read it?
Victoria: I hardly ever read the author bio. If I do look at it, it’s to see if the author might be keen/available/interesting enough for a BookBuzz article! 😉 But beyond this blatant self-interest, I’m only really curious about the book itself.
Harriet: I always read the author bio. I’m fascinated by people who write and want to know how they came to it, what their life is like, and even what they look like.
Annabel: I always do, usually before I read the book too. However, I recently read a thriller where the bio didn’t give much away and was convinced it was written by a woman at the end of the book. Intrigued, I followed it up and the author was male.
Simon: I only tend to read an author bio if I’m getting bored by the book itself. At that point I’ll flick to anything to distract myself. But in general I find them pretty unrevealing – I’m not particularly interested in how many children an author has, or where they’ve taught writing courses.
2. Carrying on from that, do you like to find out more about the authors you read – interviews in the press, visit their websites etc?
V: I absolutely love reading up on the lives of late, great authors. If a new biography comes out on Isak Dinesen or Simone de Beauvoir or Edith Wharton, I’m at the front of the queue. You don’t have to be mad to be a classic author but it certainly seemed to help, and their lives were so much more interesting when they were able to live unobserved. I will sometimes read interviews in the mainstream press or online with contemporary authors, but I don’t keep up to date with their social media stuff for the most part.
H: Like Victoria, I love reading biographies (or even Wikipedia entries) on authors from the past. If I’ve really enjoyed a living writer’s books, I might look at their website and seek out interviews they might have done in the press or online. Same reasons as in the first question.
A: Definitely, but I don’t read many literary biographies. I mainly read books by contemporary authors, so I do devour articles in the press, and visit author’s websites when I want to find out more.
S: I am joining the triumvirate of literary biography readers, with Harriet and Victoria, as (like them, and fittingly for the Reprints Editor), I tend to prefer authors from the past. Sadly most of my beloved authors from the 1920s and ‘30s don’t seem to have done interviews about their writing in the way of the excellent Paris Review interviews – but I love anything in-depth like that, about inspirations and writing processes.
3. What about hearing them talk about their work or meeting them in person. Does that then influence how you think about their books?
V: I’m a regular visitor to the Cambridge literary festival and have never yet attended a reading by an author I didn’t think was interesting. They’ve persuaded me to buy books I might not otherwise have done; no one has put me off their work. I can’t imagine what they could do that would – be boring, perhaps?
H: I don’t think I’ve ever had the chance to meet an author I admire in person, and would probably be stupidly overwhelmed if I did. But I’ve been to literary festivals in Oxford and elsewhere and love hearing people talk about their books. I always choose people I already like or am curious about, and nearly aways end up buying the book they’ve been talking about.
A: I love going to author events. I inevitably buy their books so I can get them signed and have a few words. Occasionally at events I’ve managed to have longer conversations with an author which is wonderful. You also have to remember that most authors don’t get paid for the publicity work they do – presumably major festivals are different?
S: Again, few of the authors I like are alive, but I have seen Marilynne Robinson three times – and got a little tongue-tied when talking to her. But I think, like Harriet, I go to see people I already love, so haven’t found my opinions changed. Seeing P.D. James a couple of times was a complete delight, but still haven’t read anything by her.
4. And the opposite – what do you think of the reclusive authors who refuse to do any publicity like Elena Ferrante?
V: I really applaud what Elena Ferrante has said about maintaining her privacy. I think authors should be allowed to spend their time writing, not constantly have to jet about the place giving readings. I do believe that publicity ought to be the responsibility of the publicist and that there ought to be ways to promote the book without the involvement of the person behind it.
H: Yes – despite all I’ve just said about wanting to know more about authors, I really respect the right of any writer (or anyone else) not to want people poking around in their lives or getting them to come out and give talks or readings. If people enjoy it, fine. If they don’t, they should be left alone – to write!
A: Ferrante has made her career with her reclusiveness hasn’t she, although her books are worth it! It is a shame that authors feel they have to be part of the publicity bandwagon whether they are happy to do it or not, not everyone is a natural speaker or interviewee – I hope they are reassured by the genuine interest of the public buying their books though.
S: As a reader, I think it’s fine and makes sense. As someone who works in marketing for a publisher, I can only imagine how frustrating it would be!
5. What about those authors whose personal views you don’t agree with. Can you separate them from their writing? Should we?
V: My goodness, yes, I strongly believe we should. Authors are entitled to a private life beyond their books while they are alive, and if they put their differing opinions in a novel, isn’t one of the great advantages of stories that they invite us to walk a mile in another’s shoes? Isn’t the very point of literature to open our minds to all sides of an argument? To make us think twice? And where’s the mad policing of identity going to end? Are we only going to watch television programmes if we ‘like’ their directors? What about the person who does our dry cleaning? Or who fixes our car? Are they all going to be road-tested for the same opinions as us and ditched if they don’t profess them?
H: Well, Victoria has said it all, really. I can’t deny that I’d be surprised if I discovered that an author I absolutely loved, and who seemed to be a great humanitarian judging by their books, was actually a fascist/racist/all round horrible person. But would it stop me reading them and enjoying them? No way. What happened to the Death of the Author, for goodness sake?
A: I am happy to read books which cover topics I don’t agree with – no problem. But, if an author publicly comes out with personal views which are anti-humanitarian, I probably wouldn’t pick up their books, unless it was necessary for research. The two are not the same thing.
S: I wish I had Victoria’s strength of mind and opinion! I certainly believe I should separate the two, and generally do, but can also imagine a situation in which I would steer clear of an author if I discovered (say) that they’d gone on an anti-Christian rant. It wouldn’t stop me enjoying authors I already liked, but it might be an obstacle to me reading an author for the first time. Now, I’ll just go and hand back my doctorate in disgrace… Having said that, I wouldn’t go to a dry cleaner who went on an anti-Christian rant either. In fact, thinking about it, I’ve never been to a dry cleaner at all.
6. What about if you personally know an author and dislike him or her. Does that put you off their books?
V: Again, I don’t know any authors I don’t like, but I still think that I should read their books with as little prejudice as possible. Couldn’t we consider it redeeming in some way if someone we hated wrote a brillliant book?
H: The few authors I know are really really nice, so I’ve never had this problem. But I’d just say, so, they’re not my cup of tea but my goodness, can they write! And as Victoria says, the very fact that they can write like angels (or indeed devils) must surely mean they’re not all bad.
A: I’ve found almost all authors I’ve met to be absolutely lovely. There was one for whom the book signing appeared to be a bit of a chore, but I’ve continued to read their work.
S: I don’t know any authors, really, but I think I’d find it harder to read a book if I liked the person. If I disliked them, I’d feel a lot less guilty if I ended up hating the book!