Food for thought: Does the author matter?

Well, of course the author matters! We wouldn’t have books in our hands without authors!

But hold up. That’s not what I’m talking about.

What I’m really pondering is whether or how much the details of an author’s life influence our reactions to a book.

For the most part, I usually take the stance that once the author has released a book, the book should stand on its own and be judged on its own merits. It’s what’s in the book itself that counts. So if an author makes a statement that I think is ridiculous during an  interview, or if I find out that the author has a political stance that I object to, does it matter?

Well, sometimes. I don’t research authors’ personal views before deciding to read their books. In general, who cares? So long as the book appeals to me, touches me, or makes me think, I don’t particularly need to know more.

On the other hand, if I knew that a particular author was out there promoting hate, or had a bias or prejudice that he/she actively promotes, or uses the revenues from his/her books to fund something I find objectionable, then yes, I guess it does matter. Although… (and this just shows my ambivalence on the subject), I suppose a work-around on the funding issue might be to borrow the book from the library, rather than buying my own copy.

I’d like to think that the work of art stands on its own and can be appreciated even if the artist is abhorrent, but in practice, that doesn’t always work for me. I mean, if I find out that an author is a no-question-about-it homophobe or anti-Semite or racist, then I just really can’t.

And also, it’s not like an author’s bio or background is completely irrelevant. If someone writes about a complex medical issue, for example, knowing that the author has a Ph.D. in a relevant field might make me feel more confident that the scientific elements of the storyline are plausible. Knowing that Mary Doria Russell has a doctorate in anthropology helps me appreciate the fabulous work she’s done in The Sparrow, exploring issues related to first contact with unknown cultures, social structures and hierarchies, and the impact of exploration on native populations. (PS – I probably haven’t raved about The Sparrow for a while, so let me just take a moment to say READ THIS BOOK. It’s amazing.)

Anyway…

I’ve now wandered far afield from what started me thinking about this topic, which is my thoughts on reading Eragon by Christopher Paolini. You can check out my review here.

Christopher Paolini was about 15 when he wrote Eragon, so I’m guessing he must be somewhere around 30 by now. To what extent should reviewers take his age into account when writing about Eragon?

As a reader, if I knew nothing about the author, I’d be thinking that the book is pretty derivative, a giant mash-up of every standard fantasy trope, repackaged into an overlong book that lacks narrative flow and uses very awkward language. But — the author wrote this book when he was 15! According to author info found online, he originally wrote Eragon for his own entertainment, trying to create something he’d enjoy, and the book was self-published by his parents prior to being “discovered” and picked up by a major publisher, then achieving bestseller status.

Eragon was published in 2002. That’s a lot of years ago! So in reviewing Eragon today, in 2015, is it still relevant that the book was written by a teen? On the one hand, I say kudos are in order for the young man who wrote such a detailed and complicated story at such a young age. At the same time, if I were strictly considering whether I’d recommend the book, then the age of the author is irrelevant. What counts is the book itself, and whether I think others would enjoy it. Period.

Here’s another weird example: I really loved Before I Go To Sleep by S. J. Watson when I read it a couple of years ago, and just finished reading the author’s second novel, Second Life, this past week. All along, I’ve been under the impression these books were written by a woman, but only found out while preparing my blog tour post that this:

S-J-Watson… is S. J. Watson.

But does the author’s gender matter?

In this case, I’d have to say that it does have an impact on my impression of the books and my reaction to them. In both books, the main character is a woman going through hell. In the first book, she’s someone who loses her memory each day and is at the mercy of the people around her while she tries to figure out who she really is. In the second book, she’s a woman with a troubled past dealing with her sister’s murder and getting in way over her head with a creepy online hook-up.

Somehow, knowing that these books were written by a male author and not by a female, as I previously thought, makes the books feel ickier to me. Looking at them through this new lens, the women’s victimization becomes a lot starker and the overall tone strikes me as more sensationalized. This probably makes no rational sense, but I can’t help how I feel — and my feeling is that in Second Life, knowing that I’m reading a man’s idea of how a woman would feel about the horrible situation she’s in is much different from reading about a woman’s pain from a woman’s perspective. In addition, infidelity plays a big role in each book and leads to disaster for the main character — so in retrospect, now that I’m thinking about a male author, is the subtext in these books that women are somehow deserving of horrible fates because they explored their sexuality outside the bounds of marriage?

If I’d known ahead of time, I might have felt differently about the books while reading them. I just pulled my copy of Before I Go To Sleep off the shelf, and nowhere in the author bio or anywhere on the jacket copy is there a gender-specific pronoun used. Intentionally vague? Deceptive? I’m not saying that anyone necessarily set out to pull the wool over the readers’ eyes… but I do wonder why the books were published with just initials in the first place.

Should things like an author’s age or gender matter? Open to debate. But does it matter? Well, yes, I think it does.

In the case of Eragon, I can praise the efforts of a young author, even though I wouldn’t put it anywhere near the top of my list if I were setting out to recommend fantasy epics. In the case of Second Life and S. J. Watson — well, all I can say is that it clearly does matter to me, rightly or wrongly, and that I’m rethinking my reaction to the author’s books now that I know more about the author himself.

How about you? Has information about an author’s life ever changed the way you’ve felt about a book? I’d love to hear other perspectives!

2 thoughts on “Food for thought: Does the author matter?

  1. I can see both sides on this. On one hand, I can see how it would matter to a reader if an author who is male talks about the struggles of being a woman. It might make me doubt how “real” the character really is. But on the other hand, we don’t necessarily criticize an author for writing characters of the opposite sex that may not be the protagonist. I don’t think authors have to limit themselves to writing protagonists that are exactly like themselves though. I also believe that social media has had the biggest impact on blurring that line that separates an author from his or her work. I personally don’t seek out information on authors either before or after reading a book, but I can see how difficult it would be to “unhear” certain facts. We are human after all, and I think we all come with our own biases regardless, so no one is ever going to be able to look at a work objectively. Great discussion!

  2. I haven’t read Eragon but I did read Before I Go to Sleep and I thought the author did not have good insight into what it was like to be female. You raise an interesting point. Some authors can cross over to the other gender and nail that point of view. Others have no clue! And in a broader sense, knowing something negative about an author would definitely influence my opinion of the book!

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