Friday, June 24, 2011

Friday Forum: Why Do We Care About Authors?

Note: I've been so pleased with Disqus and invigorated by the comments here at The Ape over the last few days that I'm trying out a new feature, Friday Forum. The idea is to pluck a story from the week in book news and think about it deeply and then discuss it. Let's see if it works. Cheers, TRA

Yesterday we had someone blithely dismissing book blogging, today we have someone (or someones, rather) proscribing rules for it; never a dull moment in this little corner of the internet (though at least I don't care about YA. You guys have to keep them at bay with whips and overturned chairs).

Over at Three Guys One Book, Dennis Haritou, offers Ten Cardinal Rules for Book Blogging, which  ranges from the high-minded (the only reading that's worth any respect is close-reading) to the idiosyncratic ("Never write about your's revolting").

Rule-making for blogging seems like a bit of a fool's errand; your time would be just as well spent arranging sand on the beach just so. Still, there is a central concern to the 3G1B list that is worth thinking about: the relation of the author to the reviewer, reader, and blogger.

The first rule suggests that the reader/reviewer ignore the fact that there is a writer at all:
 You love the book, not the writer. You don’t care about the writer. They could be a talking gazelle. You don’t care. You’re in for trouble if you like the writer. No good can come from this.

Then, in the last rule, a seemingly contradictory imperative:
Read only the writers who will talk to you. There is no greater thrill than reading a novel, being amazed, and knowing you can ask the writer about it.

I'm not really sure how to reconcile this. We're not supposed to care about the writer and yet we are thrilled to talk to writers, to have access to them, to connect our appreciation for a work to the being who created it.

I think that affection for a writer after reading a great book relates to something else I've thought about, An Offshoot of the Buzz. Basically, reading something that moves, entertains, or inspires you is difficult to keep contained. You want to share it, process it, and revel in it. And yet, the book object (or increasingly text file) is inert. It cannot share in your exuberance, respond to your questions, or otherwise affirm your excitement. So we want to go to the source.

The problem then becomes---well now what. What does having some knowledge or even relationship with an author do to your existing love for a book? Does it intensify it? Attenuate it? Does your excitement get transferred from the book to the author?

My own experience has been that the best place to expend this enthusiasm is with other readers, not with the author in the various forms available to the common reader and blogger (interview, essay, reading, etc). For one, I can count on one hand the number of authors who, in person, are half as interesting as the book I just read (most are not quite as interesting as a can of Pringles. Though I do really like Pringles).

A fellow reader can share your experience in a way an author can't; the author is too tied to it, too invested in the work personally. Also, when discussing a book with a fellow reader, you are less likely to be subject to the author's presence. Even the best interviews are not conversations about a book in the same way that a very good discussion between peers can be.

Do you like to know more about authors? Why or why not? Do you think people should be paying more or less attention to the authors themselves?


  1. That is really the most random and weird list of rules, and you are right, quite contradictory. I can't figure it out. But personally, I'm not big on knowing authors. I'd rather discuss a book with readers, like you. I think that we need to know something about a writer because their views will be in their stories (homophobic, racist, etc) but that is about it for me. 

  2. You touch on a good point.  I agree, shared enthusiasm happens best among the readers.  Bring the author into the conversation, and I feel you would mute genuine discourse.  I'm happy to seek out the author's works, but I feel fairly "meh" about knowing the author outside the curated blurb on the book jacket.

  3. Good questions. I like to know a bit about the authors whose books I love reading, but I like getting that information by reading memoirs, biographies, or autobiographies. There is a mysteriousness attached to the authors that I like. When reading one of their books (especially if it's fiction), I like to wonder about how much of the story or the opinions contained are a part of who the author is in real life. I don't necessarily feel the need to speak with the authors or really get to know them on a personal level (although there are a few whom I would love to have lunch with and just have normal conversations with because I feel like we have a lot in common).

  4. I don't read a lot of interviews but I admit to enjoying them immensely when they're well done. However, I don't go into them thinking that reading it gives me an "inside look" at their personal lives. For me, they just build on the overall impression that I have of the books they write, and I'm still largely aware that interviews are still a performance of a sort.

    When it comes to interviews done on book blogs, I seldom feel like I'm getting
    something substantial. The kind of
    questions you will find in interview by bloggers are various rewordings
    of, "So how did you get you inspiration for this book?" People think
    that an interview is easy because it's just people talking (or corresponding)
    but it takes a lot of experience and skill to push writers into giving more than vanilla responses.

    To jump on something else that you mentioned, I actually don't mind bloggers interviewing or writing about books written by friends. I mean, isn't that something that distinguishes blogs from traditional critiques, that they don't have to operate with on obligation towards complete objectivity? By copping to that relationship you can even take an interview in a more interesting place, by exploring exactly what kind of baggage you are carrying in your reading of the book. Transparency is all I'd ask, personally.

  5. But if their views will be in their stories anyway, why do we need to know something else about them?

  6. What is the bare minimum you want to know about an author? and why?

  7. Really good point about how author's are performing during interviews so it's a false sense of authenticity.

    I think transparency is the best tactic as well. 

  8. Where were they born?  Where do they live?  The rest can be glossed over because it will probably start to give them strikes.  If I know they worked as a stripper in NYC to make ends meet and have self-proclaimed themselves a narcissist - I'm probably less likely to read.  

  9. I think any details about the author and his/her life can be interesting, but ultimately are irrelevant to their works in themselves. I would actually like to see less attention paid to authors on book blogs ... I prefer to focus in on the actual BOOKS!

  10. It's also maybe good to keep in mind that by the time a book is published, the author is probably two years past having finished writing it and is (hopefully) deeply involved in another book. It's a common statement among published authors that they don't even clearly remember or feel particularly close to/strongly about a published book because they've moved on to a fresh project. So an author's comments about his own book are going to be less interesting than the comments of another reader because readers will likely be more familiar with the text than the guy who wrote it. Counterintuitive, but true in many cases. Also, as you point out, authors are usually pretty dull in person. I like what Nabokov said about it, that he's much smarter and more interesting on the page than in interviews so why would anyone want to talk to him in real life?

  11. Great question - I think I'm going to enjoy this new feature. I don't usually have much interest in authors' lives, the one exception being Nabokov (probably because I wrote my undergrad thesis on his work). Some people can take their interest in an author's life too far, trying to find that life in his or her works...but this isn't something I've seen done on book blogs. Author interviews or posts focusing on a writer's life rather than a writer's works don't interest me, but sometimes it's valuable to know a little more about a reader's relationship with an author - I like to know, say, why someone finished a book they found disappointing, or how his or her reading history influenced the reading of a particular book.

  12. I don't much care for things like author interviews, but I find questions about how much I want to know (about) the author a little bit difficult to answer. Didn't I read all of Melville's works from start to finish because I wanted to know a lot more about him? Because knowing everything he wrote would contribute to my understanding of his books in terms of his life's work? Would it be better or just more confusing (or just less informative) to do this without finding anything out about his biography at the same time? And how could I not feel like I know a ton about him after reading all that?

    Of course, it makes the question even harder to answer because I'm only infrequently thinking about it in terms of contemporary authors who are still alive and writing. I can't really imagine wanting to talk to an author about one of his or her works, but I did enjoy that New Yorker piece Jonathan Franzen wrote about going to Massafuera after the death of David Foster Wallace. Or is that just an "essay," and therefore different somehow?

    So, I really don't know how I feel about most of this. One thing I do sort of like, though, is when authors talk about what books they like, like the ongoing series at The Book Lady's Blog. Not because I really care so much what they have to say about the books, or because I'm looking for recommendations on what to read, but because if they like the same stuff as me, maybe I want to read their book.

  13. Another angle: if an author is more/as interesting in person as they are on the page, then they aren't trying hard enough on the page.

  14. I guess one task is to figure out what you are reading for: does "understanding" Melville seem more important than engaging the works closely? How are those two things related/distinct? 

    I do like hearing authors discuss other authors as well. They see things that I as a reader/erstwhile critic often do not. And I like that.

  15. So you mean that reader's relationship to the author's previous work. That's interesting. I think your sense that it can influence their experience of the work in front of them is accurate, though difficult to account for with much precision. 

  16. The thing is...I am not sure if they really are irrelevant. I am also not sure how exactly they are relevant either. 

  17. Right. I find them to be closely related, at least for many authors for whom I have read multiple works, because you often tend to see the same concerns come up again and again. Ideas, methods, techniques that were not developed very much in early works may be revisited, and knowing a little bit more "what you are looking for" can help identify how well did this work, vs. the way it was approached elsewhere? E.g., it's important to approach the meaning of tattoos in Moby-Dick in terms of that work alone, but for me at least, it's equally important to look at how issues of "reading" other people develop from tattooing in Typee through blankness in White-Jacket all the way up to Queequeg, and beyond, to get a more complete picture of what the artist is attempting and succeeding or failing at.

  18. I'm down with the author info. I have a little obsession with reading their letters (since most of the authors I read are dead). I've never really thought about why...I guess it's because it helps me understand their books more? I've always been of the mind that a book doesn't stand independently from its author, which I know is an unpopular opinion. I don't research every author I enjoy, but the ones that I LOVE WITH ACHINESS, I will. I think it's a personal preference.

  19. I really really don't like author interviews. I know a lot of people do and that a lot of bloggers enjoy posting them, but as you say, I care about the book. And I have heard so many authors speak; there's not much "new" to say about the act of writing.

    However, the other aspect of your question, keeping the author in mind while reading, is, I think, based on our own interests and bias. I always have students in my lit class who love to say things like "Well that's because this author ______." It's an easy pitfall because certainly there ARE moments when I think the author is important in understanding the story. I also think it can be dangerous - not physically - but in terms of reaching a true understanding of the piece. It's a balance I am particularly aware of in the classroom.

    I also think tech - Facebook, Twitter, blogs - have narrowed the balance, and it's tricky. I just finished reading Simon Van Booy's first novel, met him at BEA, and I would love to email him. I won't because a. I would feel silly, b. I would simply gush, and c. How would that make him feel? Good, maybe, but more likely awkward. So, all that to say, I think I'll keep my distance from authors in general. (I think not doing so is where a lot of recent "blog drama" has come from.)

  20. I think knowing a little about an author's past or upbringing or maybe even their 'status' in society would help us better understand where those views are coming from, especially if they are views that we don't agree with.  Knowing a little something more about anyone helps us to better understand them, even if we don't agree with them.  Just a thought.

  21. So knowing something about the author before delving into their corpus is kind of a shortcut in that you can preview what you might look for before actually reading anything.

    This makes sense, but I can't help but think having foreknowledge of some writerly concern colors the experience of reading. If you know tattoos are a big deal before reading, you will look for them, when quite possibly your own reading experience would have ignored/subordinated them. 

  22. I think many people are like you and that ACHINESS is what I am interested in here. What does researching add to your experience of an author? What does it give you that you didn't have before?

  23. The ease of technological connection is implied in the Three Guys piece--they say bloggers shouldn't even read authors who won't talk to them. That is, the expectation now is that authors be accessible to readers/critics/bloggers. Why, is my question. 

  24. The "behind-the-scenes" fascination does seem a crucial piece of this. I think perhaps the desire to get to know the author is a kind of demystification/humanizing of the work of art. The work can seem so detached and outside of our normal realm of existence that connecting with the author can serve to bring it back to our realm of understanding. This explains, in part, the centuries old fascination with Shakespeare's "true" identity; the work is so beyond us that we feel compelled to bring it back to earth, to attach it to a person we can identify, name, and study. 

  25. Hmm. I personally like to know more about authors if I like their books. Some of them are fascinating, some are hilarious. Some surprise you -- when I found out Orson Scott Card's opinions on gay marriage, etc., I made a decision not to purchase any of his books new. But it's all interesting stuff.

    Of course I care more about the book than the author. But after reading the book, I really do find it fascinating to seek out information on the author, sometimes if only to gape in awe and think to myself, "See? Yes, a human actually DID write that."

  26. I find reading the biography of an author who is dead and can no longer comment on his or her work helpful - and if the biography is well-researched and well-written, I'll enjoy reading the biography for its own sake.  An author's biography is only going to be good if the biographer is also a reader of the author's work, so reading a good biography feels to me like a conversation with the biographer about what we both read.  Sometimes this conversation is impolite: when I read Brad Gooch's 2009 biography of Flannery O'Connor two weeks ago, my side of the conversation included such things as "if you would quit being such a sycophant and get on with the story, we might..." and "Stop excusing her racism - let's call it what it is, you ridiculous apologist!"

    I also like reading the author's letters - can't WAIT for the forthcoming volume of letters between Nabokov & his wife Vera.  Chekhov's letters were excellent as well: worth reading for themselves, not just for any dim light they might have cast on his stories and plays.  The secret thrill of reading someone else's private correspondence is almost as good as the stuff I did in my career as a spook:  perhaps I'm a closet voyeur?

    Sometimes I even like to read histories (non-fiction) related to the author and his or her work.  Sometimes I want that context as well, because it allows me to escape more fully into the world of certain stories and novels.

    Some authors seem to write as a way of wrestling with the angels, or wrestling with ideas and issues of the day (this is especially true of my dead Russians).  Understanding the angels and the issues helps me to enter a different kind of conversation with the story or novel than I would have if I reacted simply to the work in a vacuum.  The conversation-in-context feels broader and more interesting to me; I feel like more parts of my brain are engaging around the story or novel, and this sensation is pleasant for me. I may have developed a preference for the wider conversation with any work of art as a result of having a multidisciplinary undergraduate education - I wasn't a traditional literature major. 

    For example:  knowing that Dante wrote The Divine Comedy in exile adds a kind of richness to my understanding of his tone, his helps me to understand WHY I feel what I feel about the work. 

    I think that it's possible to be a "broad" reader and a "deep" reader simultaneously...that there are times when one way of experiencing a text would be preferable to the other...and that the loveliest thing is that it's possible to pick and choose.  What gives you pleasure in reading may be different from what gives me pleasure; the difference in no way detracts from the validity of either of our reading experiences.

    There might be some advantage to attempting a deep or close reading of a work with as few outside influences as possible, especially in an academic setting.  That said, because we're human we bring all kinds of baggage to any endeavor, whether it's running a Cub Scout pack or reading a book.  I prefer to acknowledge my personal baggage so I can deal with its effect on what I'm doing. 

    And because I'm a collector, a pack rat, a bag lady with overstuffed totes dripping bits of flotsam and jetsam along the road as I go, I want the bios, the letters, the context, the odd trivia.

  27. Right, it's something you can gesture at in attempting to explain what you thought of a book, if you're looking for a way to justify your reaction, but there's no way to be precise about that relationship with an author or its influence on your reading.

  28. This part interests me:
    "Understanding the angels and the issues helps me to enter a different kind
    of conversation with the story or novel than I would have if I reacted
    simply to the work in a vacuum. The conversation-in-context feels broader
    and more interesting to me; I feel like more parts of my brain are engaging
    around the story or novel"

    What I hear you saying, in effect, is that at some point the work becomes
    insufficient because of its status as art--you want to connect the art-work
    to the wider canvas of human experience (history, psychology, etc). Your
    interest exceeds the work's ability to mimic the fullness of lived
    experience and so turning to complimentary sources fills in that void.
    Literature then becomes an avenue for wider exploration.

  29. Do you go out of your way then to support writers who hold views you
    support, even if you wouldn't have bought their stuff anyway? I am
    conflicted about not buying books I would otherwise be interested in because
    of a belief the author holds. For one, I do believe that people with ideas I
    don't agree with can still offer me something. Second, I also worry that
    avoiding disagreement closes me off from useful thinking and conversation.

  30. A deeper understanding of where they are coming from in their works, maybe? For example, some of Tolstoy's early journals and letters to his fiance go into details about his failures to control his lust as a young man, which is an experience he obviously used to create the character of Levin in AK. He's not judging Levin, he is using his personal struggle to create a more three-dimensional character. Also, if I really think someone is a super-genius, I want to know what they think about other things, how they lived their lives, what made them think that way. 

  31. Also, there's an apostrophe mistake in rule 2. I'm not that fussed about finding out about the authors - I don't really feel the need to ask them questions afterwards.

  32. Interesting point. I don't go out of my way to buy books by writers whose views I support -- on the other hand, I don't buy very many books at all. I remain (sadly) on the ex-starving-student budget, which means I get almost everything I read from the library.

    In choosing not to purchase anything new from a writer who holds views I strongly disagree with, I like to think that I'm making a choice not to support him. It seems like you're equating the purchase of a book with the reading of a book -- two very different things, especially on my budget. Choosing not to purchase a new book by Mr. Card doesn't mean that I'm choosing not to read books by such a writer. It just means I'd pick them up from the library or a used bookstore instead. My point about avoiding purchasing new books is not that I refuse to read these books, or that I'm consciously avoiding engaging with content from a different point of view. It's a financial decision. I have very limited money to spend on books, and I choose not to spend it supporting a person who spends his money lobbying against gay rights.

  33. Holjo PedanticPhookaJune 25, 2011 at 1:20 PM

    Hi There,
    I couldn't find plog hop post on your page, but I wanted to let you know that I'm stopping by via the Book Blogger Hop.  I'm a new follower.
    Have a great weekend!
    Holjo @ Pedantic Phooka 

  34. Very interesting.  In my college years, I took a class with a visiting African writer.  I was too excited.  I knew him also as a family friend.  Well, he was just horrible during his lectures. Dismissive, belittling etc.   I have no inclination to ever ever talk to him personally again.  But he remains one of my favorite African writers.

    For me,  I think what I look for is the author's creative vision and how that vision intersects with his/her issues, ideology and how all that is manifested in a truly enjoyable book.  And if I connect with all that, then the writer becomes a favorite of mine.  This, however, does not stop me from panning any work of theirs that falls short of what I consider to be their best. If I like their books, I will follow and read about them.  But I'm really only interested in what they have to say regarding their work and literary influences. However, sometimes what they think of or how they interpret their own work is not relevant to my reading, understanding and appreciation of their work.. 

    I get what you are saying about a relationship with an inert object.  However, I think one can have a relationship with a writer's body of work.  A ongoing conversation. Of course, said writer must produce at least 5 novels for it to work for me.  And it does not mater if they are dead, or living with a bad attitude. 

  35. I actually don't think you can have a conversation or a relationship with a writer's work, not in the standard definitions of those words at least. In a conversation or relationship, both parties react and respond to the other. A writer's work is static; it cannot account for you. Now, that's not to say that a writer's work cannot be meaningful, but by necessity the transaction is one-sided. 

  36. Ah, I see. A voting with your wallet thing. Do you research the moral/political beliefs of every writer you are thinking about buying? Or is it just in cases where you happen to hear about something?

  37. Hmmm. So some if it is trying to account for the extraordinary: how is it that this person did this amazing thing. I think that's a good explanation. 

  38. Why does it matter "where they are coming from"? This is a phrase I hear, but I don't quite see how it matters how their origin  affects the words on the page. Again, the focus here has shifted from understanding the work to understanding the writer; it's this shift that I find interesting. 

  39. This doesn't necessarily apply to every book I read. Just some. If the book has some kind of social or political message, sometimes I am interested in knowing something about where the author stood. I don't always connect that to the book, either. Sometimes I'm just interested in knowing.

  40. TRA, for me, I love authors as people first and foremost. Sometimes I find them through their books, other times I find their books through them. Quite a few of the authors I have met (IRL or over the internet) have great personalities - personalities that oftentimes outshines their "author voice". I get a great kick out getting to know the people who write the books I love yet the relationship I cultivate with them extends beyond their books... because how boring would it be to befriend someone who only wanted to discuss your novel? (cringing) 

    As far as defining rules or guidelines for blogging, I think only bad and negative things can come of that. Each blogger began blogging for a reason that is unique unto them. How can someone come along and attempt to define what that should be? So what if a blogger out there decides to ONLY review books written by authors they know personally? I say, more power to them! So what if a blogger only wants to review books from one specific publisher? I say, you go on with your bad self!

    We humans need to learn to let go of our our insane need to categorize and compartmentalize everything. We are afraid of something being rule-less, undefinable. We need to learn to relax, you know?

  41. The reason I think they are irrelevant is because it is impossible to know exactly what the author was thinking when they wrote the text. I think it's easy to connect an author's experience to something they wrote and assume that that's why they wrote it. That's not the point of the text, though. The author always writes a text in expectation that it can stand alone, and I think we as readers should respect that. We should give the author's creativity the benefit of the doubt and not assume we know what they were thinking. 

  42. You said correctly that I want to connect art to the wider canvas of human experience (what a nice phrase!), and that I use literature as an avenue for wider exploration of the world (even nicer!). 

    But I may not have expressed my thoughts clearly enough - your read and my intent are different on two points.

    A work doesn't become insufficient for me because of its status as art - the insufficiency isn't in the work, it's in the angle of vision, or the approach. To me, looking at a novel or story strictly as a work of art is a perfectly valid way to go about the business of reading and reacting. But such an approach presumes some knowledge of (or at least preconceived notions about) what art is or isn't, and perhaps even a desire to pass judgement on the work on the basis of its artistic merit or lack thereof. This seems to me to be a way of looking at a work that's appropriate, or even necessary, for professors of literature and literary critics.  I'm neither.

    I also wouldn't say that my interest exceeds a work's ability to mimic the fullness of lived experience. That implies that I buy into a kind of value judgement - that I approach fiction seeking mimicry of lived experience, and that I judge a work sufficient or insufficient - and go looking for "something more" - based on its success or failure at mimicry.  That seems to me to be a modern approach to contemporary fiction, which is valid as far as it goes.  But I'd like to think that I go into a new book or story asking with a broad perspective, "What is it doing/attempting to do?  Does it succeed, or fail?" and then, "What else about it is interesting?"  I think that fiction can mimic life, but it can also do other things; and sometimes those other things please me more than the bit of life that the story attempts to portray. 

    Sometimes I dive into the peripherals - the history, the author bio - out of frustration:  I don't understand something about the story, or don't understand why I like or dislike something about it; coming at it from a different perspective can help me to better develop and express my own ideas about a work.  There's no void to fill other than the one between my ears.

    And sometimes, honestly, it's just what I call "kangaroo brain" - I read something, and my thoughts about it start bouncing all over the place like the little kangaroo in the old Sylvester the Cat cartoons, so I pick up the author's bio or read a little in some other discipline that may only be peripherally related to the original work.  Following the bouncing thoughts is a kind of play for me - so pleasant that it can make me forget to start dinner or do the laundry.

    Thanks for making me think about this more!  I hope I'm expressing this stuff clearly.  Just because I know what I mean doesn't mean that you should!

  43. A talking gazelle would write about about eating grass and having horns. No one wants to read about that. I am not impressed with this lazy argument Three Guys, One Book, I am shaking my head and wagging my finger at you. But I am loudly applauding you, Reading Ape, I love this new blog feature, it's so insightful and provoking. Bravo, you!

  44. Oh, I'm definitely not serious enough to research every writer whose books I purchase. Although considering how strongly I feel about some particular issues, maybe that would make sense. In any case, it's definitely a happen-to-hear-something thing for me right now.

  45. I care about books, not writers.