Books and Authors

When you encounter a book you like, do you do what I do and Google the author’s name?

He *what?* A citation for not eating his lunch in kindergarten? Awful! Image:

He *what?* A citation for not eating his lunch in kindergarten? Awful!

I have to admit to being quite a nosy person. I’m interested in the minutiae of other peoples’ lives, like what they dreamed of being when they were young or what their favourite smell is, or how they feel about string. This is why Google is both the best thing in the world, and the worst, for a reader like me. It’s all very well when the author you’re Googling is someone like Neil Gaiman, who is unspeakably cool in every respect and whose every fleeting thought is a masterpiece (allegedly); what happens, though, when you absolutely love a book but then discover that its author was – or is – a raging misogynist or a self-confessed homophobe or a murderer or someone who really, really doesn’t like string?

Should it even matter? Should our feelings about the life of an author have any bearing over their work at all?

During the past week, there was a celebration of the work of V.C. Andrews over on A whole day was given over to the work of Ms. Andrews, an author whose name sets of tingling thrills up the spine of most readers of my vintage, and I was delighted to see such kitschy pleasure taken in her work. I, like most people I know, was fascinated with Andrews as a teen: her work took me to a weird place which was almost magical-realism, almost something far more frightening and adult and distasteful, yet somehow compelling. My favourite of her novels was ‘My Sweet Audrina’, a book which gave me nightmares for years but which was also, in a strange way, like an addictive drug.

This was what the cover of my edition - I mean, someone else's edition - looked like. Image:

This was what the cover of my edition – I mean, someone else’s edition – looked like.

After I’d had a good old browse through the Toast website and realised I was far from the only Audrina fan out there, I decided to do my usual thing and Google the author. I’d never thought of doing this for V.C. Andrews before, mainly because it’s been the best part of two decades since I’ve read anything by her, and what I found was almost as weird as anything you might come across in her novels. Following a childhood accident, where she fell down a flight of stairs, Andrews had unsuccessful spinal surgery which left her with crippling injuries. She lived the rest of her life in pain, confined to a wheelchair a lot of the time. One interview with her editor recounted how Virginia sometimes needed to be strapped to a board, and was often reliant on her mother’s care. When you consider that her novels are famous for featuring children who were kept captive and who had complicated relationships, to say the least, with parents – particularly grandmothers and mothers – her ‘real’ and her ‘fictional’ lives take on a poignant sheen.

I think my new knowledge about Andrews and the reality of her life will affect the way I think about her work in the future; whether it will enhance my experience of her writing, or detract from it, remains to be seen. She’s not really an author I read much any more, so perhaps it’s a good thing that I only learned about her life now, and not as a younger fan. I’m glad I got to experience her books for myself, free of any knowledge of their creator. I was fascinated to learn about her on another level, though, because Andrews’ life was remarkable in a lot of ways: not only did she implicitly understand what it felt like to be ‘in captivity,’ but she was also a very successful commercial artist and fashion designer prior to her writing career. Perhaps it’s no wonder her novels have this soft-focus, hypnotic quality, like you’re reading them through a layer of tulle; in them, one could say, we’re reading Andrews’ dreams for her own life.

So, sometimes Googling an author can be interesting. Having said all this, of course, it’s not for me or anyone else to say how much influence Andrews’ life had on her work; in a way, it’s not fair to speculate. As a human being, though, I can’t help it. It’s one thing to find out that a person whose books you love struggled with ill-health during their life, but what do you do when Google uncovers something far worse? When you come across an author who holds abhorrent personal views on something you hold dear, or who you discover was a rather nasty person, does it affect the way you read their books?

A prominent SF author has recently declared his opposition to marriage equality and his stance on President Obama’s administration (he’s not in favour, to say the least). His criticism is a little off-the-wall, to my mind, and he’s receiving a lot of flak from readers and non-readers alike. I, personally, am a fan of this author’s work, but I’m not sure whether I’ll be able to read it with the same pleasure now as I used to. I’m also not sure whether this is fair – everyone is surely entitled to their own opinion, however much it may differ from mine, and an author is entitled to write about whatever inspires and excites them – but is it really so strange that I’d find my mind straying to what I know of the author while I read his work?

Maybe it’s just me. Perhaps my innate nosiness leads me into places I shouldn’t go, and I’d be better off not researching the lives of the authors I love. I should read their work in the bubble of ‘separateness’ from the rest of the world in which they were created, and – no doubt – in which they were intended to be read.

We’ll see how long that lasts.

Happy weekend, everyone. It’s Friday! Go read some Virginia Andrews.

Spooooky. Image:



9 thoughts on “Books and Authors

  1. MishaBurnett

    I usually am not troubled by an artist’s personal life and opinions unless they show up as polemic in his or her work. There are exceptions–I flat out refuse to support any film that Woody Allen has worked on ever since he, in essence, married his daughter.

    In general, though, I judge a work on its own merits. Some of my favorite authors have made public statements that would lead to shouting matches if I knew the author personally. If a person can write a good story without filling it with polemic it doesn’t really matter that much what they believe–I don’t know them personally, and I don’t have to agree with a person to enjoy their work.

    The personal opinions of a carpenter or a plumber don’t effect my opinion of a house, why should the personal opinions of a novelist effect my opinions of a novel?

    1. SJ O'Hart Post author

      Yup. Excellent point re. the carpenters and plumbers, and their effect on the house they build. I hadn’t thought of it in quite that way. You’re right, of course – an author’s beliefs, if not trumpeted through their work, should make zero difference to how you read it.

      I understand where you’re coming from with the Woody Allen thing, though. That’s the sort of personal life that would put me off an artist’s work, too.

      Thanks for your thought-provoking comment. As always, it’s helped make a few things clear in my head. 🙂

      1. susanlanigan

        I think there’s an issue when (a) it actually happened and (b) the tutor in question got his pupil up the pole and (c) the author is the protagonist.

        I’m not opposed to the pupil-teacher theme – I think when done right it can be very effective – but it has to be handled sensitively, IMO.

      2. SJ O'Hart Post author

        Yes, of course. I read the article only after I’d made my first reply to you, and I’m sorry I sounded so flippant. The woman/pupil in question in this case seems to have been hurt terribly, and it’s a dreadful situation for her.

      3. susanlanigan

        For some reason I can’t reply to your comment in the thread. Don’t worry I didn’t find your response flippant at all 🙂 Em, I might be biased by the themes in my own work. 😉

  2. anna3101

    I’m totally with you on this. Once I discover something really ugly in the life of the author I like, I can’t make myself look at their books with the same eyes anymore. Really can’t.

    On the other hand, if it’s someone you absolutely love, then it’s different. I wouldn’t stop loving a member of my family even if they were homophobic and fanatically religious, even though I’d probably try to avoid having too many conversations with that person. It’s the same with my “idols”, be they writers or someone else. Sooner or later you find out that this amazing person whom you admire and respect so much was not exactly without serious faults. Dostoevski mistreated his wife and engaged in hazard. Disney hated Jews. Even my all-time favourite figure, Leonardo da Vinci, was not without his sins. But I still admire them all. They are a part of my virtual family 🙂 Their work has made me smile and cry and dream and think. And you don’t give up someone from your close circle just because they were far from perfect, right?

    1. SJ O'Hart Post author

      Well, exactly. None of us are perfect, after all. I’m not going to stop reading a person’s work if I’m not a fan of how they conduct their personal life, but I think it’s human nature to let it affect your opinion of their writing, perhaps.

      I like the way you use the analogy of loving a family member while not agreeing with their views – that’s really useful. Thanks!


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