Random Musings: On judging a book by its author


October started with the alleged unmasking of the author Elena Ferrante, who has publicly stated on several occasions that she wishes her identity to remain unknown. Predictably the literary media went into overdrive. Fans were concerned, readers were incensed, everyone it seemed had opinions that they felt compelled to share. Newspapers commissioned comment pieces that were avidly re-posted on Twitter and Facebook. And some voiced wonder at what the fuss was about, and how much privacy those who choose to publicly promote their work can expect.

As this was happening I noticed an aggressive comment awaiting moderation below one of the older book reviews on my blog. The vitriol wasn’t aimed at me but rather at the author of the book. There was something about it that prevented me from simply discarding it as I do any comment that I believe could be deemed offensive – this is not what I wish to host on my blog. Instead I took the unprecedented step of tentatively contacting the commentator explaining why I would not be approving her words.

A few days later she replied. She knows the author. They have a history and it is not pretty.

“I am his ex partner who has just managed to escape an abusive relationship with this man with the help of the police. I am myself an artist, established. I am speaking out for all his ex lovers who have experienced extreme emotional and physical abuse […] to have the traumatic experience of reading about ourselves in his books, with a name change and a tweak here and there. I am trying to expose a con artist who through his charismatic and charming approach, has been given a platform to write about us and call it fiction, to be praised for his amazing transformation of character when myself, and his past lovers know full well that [he] is a misogynist, a self-confessed chronic liar […] a deeply cunning and manipulative man.”

There was more, and I have edited out what I hope is sufficient to mask his identity because, disturbing as all of this is, and allowing for the huge sympathy I have for any victim of domestic abuse, I do not feel qualified to enter such a personal battle. It did however get me thinking about what it means to support the creators of my beloved books. Does the character of the writer matter or simply the quality of their words?

With the current need for authors to take on some of the burden of marketing their books, more readers are meeting them face to face. I enjoy attending literary events and am delighted when I am granted the opportunity to chat to the authors, the vast majority of whom appear to be lovely individuals. Even so, I can think of a couple who did not present themselves in such a positive light. And then, shoot me now, it affected the way I think about their work.

Yet I don’t think it should. I cannot know these people based on a brief, public interaction. Whatever of themselves they choose to share, or keep private, it should not alter my judgement of their writing.

When I read articles about Woody Allen and the way he treated his daughter I vowed I would never watch another of his films. If I were to apply this thinking to classical writers I would be denying myself so many beautiful stories. Perhaps my discomfort only applies to the living, a wish to prevent the wicked from basking in esteem. And this is the point that I believe my commentator was making.

I do not consider that authors owe their readers anything. There will be threads within their stories whose foundations are personal experience, perhaps episodes they should and may regret. However much sympathy felt for any acquaintance wronged, it remains the author’s prerogative to keep private specifics of their own life. It does not change the quality, or otherwise, of their written words.

What do others think about this issue. In buying a book, in supporting the author’s work, is the reader in any small way complicit in the perpetuation of a writer’s behaviour? Should this affect a reader’s willingness to offer that support?



7 comments on “Random Musings: On judging a book by its author

  1. Joanne says:

    Fascinating piece, very thought provoking.

  2. This is a fantastic post Jackie. I had the same experience as you after meeting an author and it changed how I felt about the book. But, we are all just people and cannot get on or like everyone who crosses our path.

  3. Wow Jackie what a bold post, I loved it. As my friend is an author I’ve often wondered how I would feel if I ‘found myself’ in one of his books. This is so tricky and I know that remaining objective in a personal battle is the right thing to do, but for myself, anything that invited comment like that in my blog would be removed. Better for it not to be seen at all and remain impartial that way. I was recently reading a book and wanted to tag the author on twitter in a rave review but saw another person had done this and the author had patronised her for it. I almost didn’t bother to finish reading the book! When so did post my review I did not tag the author but I will be reticent to read any more of their books.

  4. The Disobedient Author says:

    I think there is too much emphasis on the writer these days, but at the same time, I won’t read books by people I consider immoral. I’m with you on boycotting Woody Allen.

  5. MarinaSofia says:

    This is so tricky – as you say, a lot of the deceased authors do not seem to have been very nice people, so it would leave literature very impoverished if we were not to read them. And yet, it’s impossible not to take some of the behaviour into account when we read the books of living authors. You point out that most of them seem lovely at literary festivals; in fact, many a time I’ve been eager to discover an author’s book if I liked what they said in a panel discussion. At the same time, I’ve had some ‘starrish mannerisms’ from 1-2 authors which did put me off them, where I wished I had never seen them in person and just continued enjoying their books.

  6. It’s a difficult one isn’t it! I admit I do tend to not accept review books whose authors are rude or pushy on the first approach, but most people’s public personas are pleasant. I prefer to ignore ‘private’ information – and hadn’t even heard about the Elena Ferrante furore until this post – because I think if I allow myself to be negatively influenced by the real-life actions of some authors, then it’s really only fair that I research all the others purely to make sure that they aren’t advantaged by my ignorance. And that wouldn’t leave much time for reading!

  7. sarah says:

    Such an interesting piece. I can read Elizabeth Jane Howard’s novels despite knowing that sadly she abandoned her infant daughter. Another deceased and very famous fantasy author who was revealed to have sexually abused her young daughter filled me with such revulsion I could never read another word of hers. It’s the same with artists. I can’t look at Eric Gills work without thinking of his sexual antics. Once you know these things it’s hard not to be turned off by the work. Conversely, a lovely person may write very poor books and this may colour a review. I suppose we can’t avoid being influenced in this way.

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