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