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?



Hanging out on line

I have had a Facebook account for several years. Without it I would know a lot less about the lives of many friends I rarely see. Of course I am aware that I am only being offered the briefest of edited snapshots of their lives, but still. Still it is more than I would otherwise be offered; I am grateful for the little that I am given, for the link into a chink of their lives.

I was encouraged to join Facebook by a friend with whom I used to exchange regular emails. Since he and I have been on this supposedly social site we have not been as intimate. Can a largely electronic, text based relationship be described as intimate? I think that it can. I regret our loss of intimacy as I value the friendship and felt that I was giving something back. Inverted selfishness; I valued being able to give, as much because of the benefits to me as for the hoped for value to him.

On Facebook I keep most of my settings private. I try to take care over what I post, particularly photographs. I try to take care over who I will accept as a friend. I realise though that much of this is an illusion. The real reason why my friendship list is so small is because there are few people who seek me out. I have never in my life been one of the popular people.

This year my use of the internet has changed. I started to blog and put out links to my writing on various sites in order to encourage readers to pay me some attention. Having spent years carefully watching and listening, I started to put a chunk of myself online, accessible to all. I started to say what I thought and, more especially, how I felt. I started to befriend the internet in a way that I had never managed with the face to face people I knew.

As well as setting up this WordPress site I made use of Twitter, Tumblr, Pinterest and Google+. It took me some time to get into the rhythm of Twitter but, at times, this is my favourite medium for news and expression. It offers soundbite communication and easy sharing of other’s musings in a quickly digestible, largely disposable format. When we attend large gatherings of friends and acquaintances isn’t most conversation like that?

I set up my Google+ quite some time ago but have only just started to use it in the past few weeks. I am not yet comfortable with the settings which seem tricky to manage compared to Facebook. Last week I commented on a Youtube video that amused me, and was quite shocked to see a link appear on my Google+ feed, shared with my circles, many of whom I know only from the blogosphere. I need to learn how to share more carefully on this medium. I need to decide how I wish to use it.

In general though, my active pursuit of an on line profile has made me less concerned about personal privacy. I question whether I have much to hide. I started to write under the moniker zeudytigre and that has largely stuck, but my Twitter account uses my given name and I now link it to this blog.

I also use my given name on Pinterest where I record my book and film reviews. I am not into cutesy craft, fashion or home improvements. I have managed to make this site work for me, the way I want it to. I may still add a board to link to this blog though; I want people to read me. I feel a sense of embarrassment admitting that.

Of all the sites to which I ascribe, my Tumblr is probably the maverick. I have yet to find a use for it beyond a means to take the pulse of a world of young people who know how to think for themselves. It gives me hope for the future. Whether or not I can harness it for myself remains to be seen; perhaps that will be my next project.

In November I took part in NaNoWriMo, an experience that gave me more confidence as a writer. I decided that I would like to pursue my fictional writing so set up a second WordPress blog as a home for some my short stories (Dreams and Demons). I also joined the writer’s community at Tipsy Lit (link via my sidebar button). I am gaining a lot of pleasure from this new direction and have had some positive feedback from other writers, which is always very satisfying. I still feel somewhat reluctant to describe myself as a writer.

With all of this activity to manage it now feels as though the internet is my hangout. I certainly feel more comfortable here than I ever did at physical gatherings of people. The one thing that I do need to watch is that I do not stop reading the books that do so much to feed my mind, essential if I wish to improve my writing. I can spend far too long on line.

As well as my writer’s pseudonym I continue to use my original avatar rather than a personal photograph on many of the on line sites that I frequent. As a back garden hen keeper, the picture of a mother hen with her three eggs seemed to suit me (I have three children). I feel more comfortable being known by that picture than by my face. Perhaps, in time, I will gain enough confidence to allow my true self to be seen more often.

As my children have grown away from me to pursue their own lives I have felt a need to fill the void that they left. My writing has offered me this possibility. Those who mistrust the internet and wonder at my willingness to open up to on line strangers may well be those who can easily socialise off line. As I am not comfortable in such an environment this space has allowed me to interact with like minded people who I would struggle to meet otherwise. My hope for the coming year is that I may expand my community of acquaintances and continue to find help and inspiration, as well as readers, amongst those I meet.

Finding the readers is a tricky balancing act. I wish to promote what I write but do not wish it to be the only aspect of my conversation. I do not wish to use my social networks purely for self advertising as that alone is bound to put people off linking to me. I am not yet confident that what I write is worth other’s time, that it is good enough to warrant their attention.

If this is where I go to party then I desire conversation more than mass attention. I wish to discuss, dissect and muse over the significant and the inane. I am interested in books, films, current affairs and politics; I am not interested in celebrities, cooking or fashion. I seek out the blogs and the sites managed by those who offer me insight and feedback.

Am I still only using my ‘friends’ for my own means? Perhaps that is all that any of us ever do. Perhaps the best that we can hope for is that we may also give enough back to make the interaction worthwhile for all concerned.