21st Century Literature discussion

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Question of the Week > What Role Does Authorship Play In Your Reading? (12/9/18)

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message 1: by Marc (new)

Marc (monkeelino) | 2592 comments Mod
When you're reading a book, to what extent does the author's identity and bio impact your reading? Do aspects of an author's life color your reading or do you view the text as independent of the writer? Do you prefer to know much, if anything about an author before starting a book? Does an author's intention(s) matter?


message 2: by Hugh (new)

Hugh (bodachliath) | 2594 comments Mod
I prefer not to know too much, but sometimes knowing bad things about an author will inevitably colour one's reading.


message 3: by Robert (new)

Robert | 414 comments Marc wrote: "When you're reading a book, to what extent does the author's identity and bio impact your reading? Do aspects of an author's life color your reading or do you view the text as independent of the wr..."

Bucking the current trend (i.e. background overshadows a piece of work)- I'm not really interested in the author's background or actions. I care about the book.

Knowing about Anne Sexton's background is not going to hinder my enjoyment of her writing.

As a school librarian I do things differently and constantly check because I have to keep things safe for my students but the above is my philosophy regarding my personal reading.


message 4: by Jess (new)

Jess Penhallow | 25 comments I often don't look into it too much before reading but sometimes I feel like I should because it's important for me to hear from people of different cultures and backgrounds to me. I've been trying to graph my reading this year and 80% of the authors I have read have been white. I feel a bit uncomfortable about that.


message 5: by LindaJ^ (new)

LindaJ^ (lindajs) | 2306 comments The vast majority of the time, I do not take an author's personal beliefs, morals, identity, etc into consideration when deciding whether to read a book and often do not know anything about an author's personal life. Since a personal goal is to read more translated work, authors-of-color, and women, I do sometimes specifically look for authors in those categories. There are, of course, exceptions and there probably are one or more authors whose work I do not read because of the author's stated personal viewpoint but I cannot think of one at the moment.


message 6: by Lily (new)

Lily (joy1) | 2465 comments I am more likely to learn about an author after I have read a book, rather than before. What I learn will then sometimes modify my reflections upon the text.

I do like to read different authors, often avoiding repetition -- a practice reinforced by my f2f book group, which likes to sample different writers. Even among authors of what we now call "classics," I usually at least think I am starting with the story. But just having finally finished a thorough reading of Moby Dick, I find myself wanting to know more about Melville -- in fact, the interest has been building throughout the read. Still, in terms of current writers, sometimes it is their persona that attracts me to read their book. This may be particularly true for non-fiction -- where writer credentials oft do come into play in selection. Among political books, I like to pick up and browse books where I'm quite certain I'm going to disagree with the writer. But I don't always finish those books! ;-o

(Perhaps a fun question sometime would be do you ever read the oeuvre of certain authors? Why? Why not?)


message 7: by Lia (new)

Lia Yes and no. I’d probably preorder anything by Ishiguro, for example. And some authors make it clear that what they write, how they write, is related to who they are, or what they’re going through at a certain stage in life. In those cases, I think researching their bio is important.

But, like Lily, most of the time I don’t find out anything about the author until after I’ve finished reading their books.

Occasionally, I’m be so repulsed by the author, I know I’m never going to waste my time on their books. I have in mind someone like Milo Yiannopoulos.

Though, I also willingly, with great interests, read books by authors that disgust, repulse, or frighten me. People like Heidegger, Ezra Pound, de Sade, Kissinger, Brzezinski...


message 8: by David (last edited Dec 10, 2018 01:42PM) (new)

David | 242 comments "Do aspects of an author's life color your reading..."

As little as possible. If I am thinking about the author and their life, then that's almost always bad for the reading experience. Even when reading Norm Macdonald's recent fictional memoir Based on a True Story: A Memoir I spent not time - none - wondering which people and events mentioned were real and which were his entertaining, absurd, comical mind making stuff up.

" ...or do you view the text as independent of the writer?"

All texts are and must be read as independent of the author.

" Do you prefer to know much, if anything about an author before starting a book?"

The less, the better.

"Does an author's intention(s) matter?"

Only insofar as sometimes it can help me understand what an author actually did write, but otherwise it does not. In an introduction to a reprinting of The Outsider aka The Stranger, Albert Camus explains why he sees Meursault as an existential hero. He is 100% wrong about this character and his reading is not supported by the text. That he intended the character to be something other than who he is has no bearing on either my understanding or enjoyment of the book.


message 9: by lark (new)

lark benobi (larkbenobi) | 201 comments Author intent matters to me a lot if it's a brand new book and the author is speaking out about what the book is meant to mean.

Then author intent fades for me in importance as the book ages, because it seems even when a book is a few years old, the book begins to be about an author's unintended messages, too--it's an interesting aspect of reading for me how some books begin to reflect unintended messages, once there is some temporal distance between the book and the year in which they were written.

Of course it's huge and disputed territory how an author's background in terms of racial heritage and gender and sexuality etc. can/should influence how we read their work, and how it should even influence what we allow a given author to write about.

A friend recently sent me this link to Lionel Shriver's manifesto, published last March--re-link is not an endorsement in this case, because I just don't know what to think about these issues:

https://www.prospectmagazine.co.uk/ot...


message 10: by Carol (new)

Carol (carolfromnc) | 452 comments Lark wrote: "Author intent matters to me a lot if it's a brand new book and the author is speaking out about what the book is meant to mean.

Then author intent fades for me in importance as the book ages, bec..."


She’s a jerk. Lionel, not your friend, of course.

Unlike the majority of commenters thus far, authors matter a great deal to me. I find out a fair amount about most of them before determining to give their works my time.

I haven’t read Richard Ford and won’t after his reaction to Colson Whitehead’s review of one of Ford’s books. Shriver is, indeed, another.

@Robert, I suspect you are referring to Anne Perry, but perhaps I’m unaware of some dark story in poet, sexton’s, past.


message 11: by Whitney (new)

Whitney | 2090 comments Mod
For current writers, authors matter to me as well. There are too many great writers out there to waste my time with people like Ford and Shriver, who are terrified that their lily white ivory towers are being sullied by the dusky rabble. I want to read things that are original and insightful, and when writers show themselves to be so clueless as to the world they live in, I lose faith that they have much to show me.

Classics and dead writers I'm much more forgiving, with limits. I certainly won't be reading anymore Marion Zimmer Bradley. I can't 'get past' something as heinous as child sexual abuse and somehow consider the work separate from the perp.


message 12: by Carol (new)

Carol (carolfromnc) | 452 comments Whitney wrote: "For current writers, authors matter to me as well. There are too many great writers out there to waste my time with people like Ford and Shriver, who are terrified that their lily white ivory tower..."

Well said. x 100.


message 13: by Robert (new)

Robert | 414 comments Carol wrote: "Lark wrote: "Author intent matters to me a lot if it's a brand new book and the author is speaking out about what the book is meant to mean.

Then author intent fades for me in importance as the b..."


I definitely mean Anne Sexton :)


message 14: by David (new)

David | 242 comments Carol wrote: "I haven’t read Richard Ford and won’t after his reaction to Colson Whitehead’s review of one of Ford’s books..."

That, and other just as awful things I know about Ford, are reasons I won't read his either. But I would rather I didn't know these sorts of things about authors as it can take away the potential enjoyment of writing that is quite good.

I am reminded of a different sort of example from the world of film, but it's still the same general point. Earlier this year I saw Andrei Tarkovsky's 1979 film Stalker for the first time. I liked it a lot and thought it would be one I would want to see again sometime in the future.

But then I read about the film and learned that many of the scenes were filmed in a location that had toxic waste (which you see in the film) that caused illnesses that eventually killed several people involved in making the film, including one of the lead actors and Tarkovsky himself. Now that I know this, I doubt I could enjoy watching the film again. At the very least, I would be quite distracted while watching it.

In general, anything you know about a book (or film) that is external to the work itself has the potential to distract and taint your ability to enjoy that work on its own merits.


message 15: by David (new)

David | 242 comments Whitney wrote: "I can't 'get past' something as heinous as child sexual abuse and somehow consider the work separate from the perp..."

I don't want to go off on a tangent, but.... It is an unfortunate and common problem that people in general find it difficult to make these separations and as a result will quite often disbelieve credible reports that a person has done something heinous because they don't want to give up the enjoyment of that person's work. We have seen this in a number of recent #metoo cases, where fans of an actor or comedian will defend the person against accusations because they enjoy that person's work so much. But the granddaddy of all such cases in recent popular culture has to be Michael Jackson. There are a lot of people willing to not look too closely at accusations against him so they can say "I don't know if that stuff is true" in order to keep listening to his music.

So when I hear someone say they won't read an author's work as a sort of moral stand against the awfulness of the person who wrote the work, I see that as actually a problem. That way of thinking can, in a lot of cases, make people willfully blind to the vices of people whose talent is admirable. It is much better to cultivate an attitude that separates the art from the artist.


message 16: by Carol (last edited Dec 11, 2018 04:58PM) (new)

Carol (carolfromnc) | 452 comments Robert wrote: "Carol wrote: "Lark wrote: "Author intent matters to me a lot if it's a brand new book and the author is speaking out about what the book is meant to mean.

Then author intent fades for me in impor..."


*heads down the rabbit hole of internet “research”

Oh, God. I wish I could purge this knowledge, although my better self will win by the morning.


message 17: by Carol (last edited Dec 11, 2018 04:24PM) (new)

Carol (carolfromnc) | 452 comments David wrote: "Whitney wrote: "I can't 'get past' something as heinous as child sexual abuse and somehow consider the work separate from the perp..."

I don't want to go off on a tangent, but.... It is an unfortu..."


We can agree to disagree on what is “much better” then. From my perspective, it is much better to know and consider through the framework of one’s own values viewpoints and actions of an author, a film, an actor a director, prior to giving artists access to your brain, heart and resources. I am uninterested in giving certain works air and implied endorsement, and am not concerned that I will deprive myself of the benefit of stunning art, given the imbalance between wonderful, demanding novels and my lifespan. Managing my response to bad facts is my responsibility, not an excuse for ignoring them.

Poster child from the art film world: Last Tango in Paris.


message 18: by David (last edited Dec 11, 2018 06:30AM) (new)

David | 242 comments Carol wrote: "...prior to giving artists access to your brain, heart and resources..."

I think this might be a point on which we differ. When I read a book, I give the book access to my brain and heart, but not the author. Yes, the author wrote the work, but the author is not the work. It's like when I move into a house. I live in the house, but I'm not roommates with the people who built it.

"I am uninterested in giving certain works air and implied endorsement...."

I have no problem endorsing the works created by terrible people, but if anyone infers that this is an endorsement of the creator of those works as a human being then they are making the error, not me. Put simply, Bill Cosby is a very funny comedian ... and he should spend the rest of his life in prison. I endorse his jokes. I do not endorse him as a person.

"Poster child from the art film world: Last Tango in Paris"

I've never seen it. I meant to see it one day, but then I heard about how the film basically filmed the sexual terrorization of Maria Schneider. As such, it is not just that the people who made the film are reprehensible. The film itself is a document of it. I can't imagine wanting to see that film now. But I would see other Brando films and do so without endorsing him as a human being. I won't throw The Godfather out with the Tango.


message 19: by Antonomasia (new)

Antonomasia | 156 comments Honestly, I'm really quite influenced by the culture around me.

There are a small number of exceptions where there is an ick factor I personally feel and so wouldn't read an author, and Anne Sexton is one of the very few examples of that.

I also got bored of Woody Allen years ago although in the early 00s I was really into his films.

But I can imagine having been on a slightly different timeline or in a different subculture in which reading transgressive authors was still lionised as it was maybe 10 years ago, and having a number of these authors mentioned here higher up my imagined to-read queue. It was probably about 10 years ago I read The Story of the Eye because it felt like something one should have read; now it seems like a fringe weird thing I wouldn't have to bother with to be part of any conversations, and even the people I know who did used to see that sort of thing as more central then, don't so much now.


message 20: by Lia (new)

Lia David wrote: "I have no problem endorsing the works created by terrible people, but if anyone infers that this is an endorsement of the creator of those works as a human being then they are making the error, not me..."

Who gets to decide it’s an “error” though? Some people understand arts (that are by nature different than mechanical factory [re]production of consumables) to be embodiments of their creators, their creator’s characters, their values, their wisdoms, their mental image for the world and interpersonal relationships and ethics, transformed into words (or image, or motion pictures, or music.) That might not be your intention, but is it objectively an “error” to perceive the promotion of the artworks of abusers as promotion of the abusers?

FWIW, I think monstrosity is part of humanity, and there’s nothing wrong with looking into the abyss, into the creation and expression of an abusive, genocidal beast. Which means it’s not wrong to endorse or promote harmful people or even harmful books. It does mean, for me, to process their “arts” with that context in mind.


message 21: by Whitney (new)

Whitney | 2090 comments Mod
David wrote: "I have no problem endorsing the works created by terrible people, but if anyone infers that this is an endorsement of the creator of those works as a human being then they are making the error, not me. Put simply, Bill Cosby is a very funny comedian ... and he should spend the rest of his life in prison. I endorse his jokes. I do not endorse him as a person. ..."

This is where I differ as well. Endorsing their work IS endorsing the person. We like to pretend art is somehow above everyday concerns. The reason people like Bill Cosby and Harvey Weinstein got away with so much for so long is because they were powerful people. By supporting their work and ignoring their trespasses, you're continuing to keep them in that position of power. If Weinstein has worked at a hardware store he would have been fired years ago for the shit he pulled, but he continued to have millions of dollars thrown at him because he was making popular pictures. The claim that separating the person from the art is more likely to lead to some kind of moral condemnation of the person is hollow. Who cares if people find them morally reprehensible if they continue to keep them in their position of power? People who separate the art from the artist are, in the real world, the same as those who deny or ignore the bad behavior.

That's the moral argument. But people here weren't just making a moral argument. As I said, I don't believe in the ability of a jackass to shed light on existence. And, as Carol said, I don't want to give rapists et. al. access to my brain, heart, and resources. Art isn't separate from the individual as if its channeled through them by some higher power. Reread some Bradley in light of the revelations about sexual abuse, there's disturbing shit buried there.


message 22: by David (new)

David | 242 comments Lia wrote: "Who gets to decide it’s an “error” though?"

The person who is endorsing the work does, which in this case is me. If I say that Bill Cosby is a very funny comedian, as I did earlier, and you infer from that that I endorse him as a person, then I get to point out that you are making a wrong assumption. I surely should know what I mean when I say he is a very funny comedian, and endorsing him as a person has nothing to do with it.


message 23: by David (last edited Dec 11, 2018 01:25PM) (new)

David | 242 comments Whitney wrote: "The reason people like Bill Cosby and Harvey Weinstein got away with so much for so long is because they were powerful people.

Yes, but power and talent are two different things. You can have talent without power or power without talent.

"By supporting their work and ignoring their trespasses,...."

If someone does that, you would be right. But that's a big AND there, and it's not one I do by saying Cosby is very funny AND he should spend the rest of his life in jail.

"People who separate the art from the artist are, in the real world, the same as those who deny or ignore the bad behavior."

In my case that is demonstrably false, as I have given several examples where I neither deny or ignore the bad behaviour of people who have created great art.

"I don't want to give rapists et. al. access to my brain, heart, and resources."

I bet that 98% of all male writers prior to 1950 were very sexist and that 98% of all writers, male or female, prior to 1950 were homophobes. Sure, they might not have talked about it a a lot, if at all, but that's who they were. I don't worry if I should be enjoying Dickens or Doestoyevsy because they probably would have despised homosexuality. I'm happy to give their books (not them personally) access to my brain and heart.


message 24: by Lia (last edited Dec 11, 2018 01:31PM) (new)

Lia I mean, acknowledging his talents is still an endorsement. You can endorse talents without endorsing moral, for example, or endorse someone monstrously immoral because you’s so seduced by their aesthetics. Maybe people aren’t actually wrong when they interpret your endorsement of an artwork as endorsement of the artist, after all.

I think many great writers are anti-social misfits that treat other people horribly - domestic violence, misogynistic, fascistic, racist, misanthrope, classist, narcissist, self-centered, manipulative, mentally unstable. Endorsing them could be charitably seen as accepting flawed people as having redeeming qualities too, we don’t all need to fall in line and publicly unendorse monstrous people.


message 25: by Antonomasia (new)

Antonomasia | 156 comments David wrote: "The person who is endorsing the work does, which in this case is me. If I say that Bill Cosby is a very funny comedian, as I did earlier, and you infer from that that I endorse him as a person, then I get to point out that you are making a wrong assumption. I surely should know what I mean when I say he is a very funny comedian, and endorsing him as a person has nothing to do with it."

That would be a case of people having two different philosophical positions though. It's a different position, rather than a misunderstanding of your intention, if someone considers that by promoting a work (which might include talking about it approvingly online) you are supporting the artist economically and/or through reinforcing others' opinion of their work as important and interesting.


message 26: by David (new)

David | 242 comments Lia wrote: "I mean, acknowledging his talents is still an endorsement. You can endorse talents without endorsing moral, for example, or endorse someone monstrously immoral because you’s so seduced by their aes..."

Well, if that is what is meant, and we need to be clear that this is what is meant, then yes, I endorse Bill Cosby as a comedian, and do not endorse his moral character. But then it makes it really hard for someone to deny that unless they somehow find his routines about going to the dentist or giving his kids cake for breakfast inextricably linked to his raping women. Sure, people like to try to make those links, but it's a huge strain to even try.


message 27: by David (new)

David | 242 comments Antonomasia wrote: "...if someone considers that by promoting a work (which might include talking about it approvingly online) you are supporting the artist economically..."

The economic support issue is a different and important one. But with a living artist who might economically benefit from a public endorsement of their work, you would, at most, have a good argument not to do that, but not an argument not to not view the work positively. In the case of books, when library copies are very often available, the decision whether or not to read a book by a reprehensible author when you believe the book might be great is not one where the economic worry applies.


message 28: by Antonomasia (new)

Antonomasia | 156 comments Yes, the economic argument is straightforward. (Although some countries' library systems do give a small amount of royalties.) If one were to be concerned about bolstering reputations, it is obviously different whether you are an individual with next to no online presence who talks about their reading only with a handful of RL friends, or a blogger / GR poster with a couple of thousand followers, or a New York Times journalist, but the latter two especially are helping to support a place in the canon and by extension their prestige and social acceptability to those who are only slightly familiar, and it may encourage others to purchase their work, book them for an event or similar. (On a personal level I find this too tiring when I have enough constraints to deal with already, but I know where people are coming from.)

For at least a couple of hundred years, there has been a prevelant idea that artists are unconventional and not necessarily subject to the norms of the rest of conventional society (although we are currently in a phase where this has been falling out of fashion), and that conservative parts of society may demonise them. (Although Cosby, as I understand from one of the essays in The Good Immigrant was conservative in his own politics.) So if an artist is behaving in a way that looks a bit unacceptable, or there were rumours about them, there is plenty of precedent for giving them the benefit of the doubt.


message 29: by Carol (new)

Carol (carolfromnc) | 452 comments David wrote: "Carol wrote: "...prior to giving artists access to your brain, heart and resources..."

I think this might be a point on which we differ. When I read a book, I give the book access to my brain and ..."


It's not a Brando problem, although he was complicit with the director. Different films; different directors.


message 30: by Carol (new)

Carol (carolfromnc) | 452 comments David wrote: "Whitney wrote: "The reason people like Bill Cosby and Harvey Weinstein got away with so much for so long is because they were powerful people.

Yes, but power and talent are two different things. Y..."


So here again, we differ - which is what makes this conversation interesting btw:

I bet that 98% of all male writers prior to 1950 were very sexist and that 98% of all writers, male or female, prior to 1950 were homophobes. Sure, they might not have talked about it a a lot, if at all, but that's who they were. I don't worry if I should be enjoying Dickens or Doestoyevsy because they probably would have despised homosexuality.

By bringing up authors who were normative for their time in terms of their viewpoints - a straw man - and equating them with authors who distinguish themselves from their peers in their own time, time and time again, whether in terms of their cruelty or sexual assault or predatory behaviors or essays/nonfiction writings demeaning to LGBTQ or indigenous peoples or those of different races or backgrounds, you're changing our point to something it was not. I don't choose to look back in time and judge a British author in 1930 for anti-semitic views in mystery novels, or for expressing in publicly released writings that Hitler perhaps has some good ideas. Similarly, pointing out sexism in Raymond Chandler's novels is silly, IMO.

Apples. Oranges.


message 31: by Whitney (new)

Whitney | 2090 comments Mod
David wrote: ""People who separate the art from the artist are, in the real world, the same as those who deny or ignore the bad behavior."

In my case that is demonstrably false, as I have given several examples where I neither deny or ignore the bad behaviour of people who have created great art...."


No. It's not different. That's why I said "in the real world". If you go to a show or buy a ticket to a movie, no one gives a rip what's in your head, whether it's "this person needs to be in jail" or "this person has been falsely accused", the result is the same. You continue to support them in a position of wealth and power.

And, frankly, I don't buy it. Do you really think it would be reasonable for one of Cosby's rape victims to buy a ticket to one of his concerts, go enjoy the heck out of it, and then the next day testify against him in court? And would you honestly buy a painting by someone who had shot your parents or burnt your house down?


message 32: by David (new)

David | 242 comments Carol wrote: "David wrote: "Yes, but power and talent are two different things. Y..."

So here again, we differ..."


I don't even understand this. How can power and talent be the same thing? When no one appreciated Van Gogh's paintings he still somehow had power because of his talent that no one admired?

"By bringing up authors who were normative for their time in terms of their viewpoints - a straw man....

It's only a straw man if you buy into full-on moral relativism. One of the major criticisms that has come from the #metoo movement is that it has been a major part of the problem that behaviour that is destructive and unjust has been regarded as normative in it's time, even recent times.

"I don't choose to look back in time and judge a British author in 1930 for anti-semitic views in mystery novels...."

I absolutely do judge them for this. And if the anti-semitism is a central feature of the book, then it better have as much artistic merit as The Merchant of Venice or I am probably going to want to skip it. However, if the British anti-semite wrote books in the 1930s that did not have anti-semitic content, then I would not have a problem reading them and, if they were very good, praising the books.


message 33: by David (last edited Dec 11, 2018 05:18PM) (new)

David | 242 comments Whitney wrote: "Do you really think it would be reasonable for one of Cosby's rape victims to buy a ticket to one of his concerts, go enjoy the heck out of it, and then the next day testify against him in court?

When the artist is literally contained in the artistic presentation, it is impossible to separate the two, so that makes the case different for other reasons. This is why people who wonder if some people who have last their careers as a result of #metoo could have a comeback one answer has been that it will be harder for people who worked in front of the camera than those who worked behind it. But also....

"And would you honestly buy a painting by someone who had shot your parents or burnt your house down?"

The three examples you used are all ones where the person was personally victimized. So in those cases, I can understand just why it would be difficult to enjoy the art when the artist had done such things to you. But if an artist killed someone else's parents or burned down someone else's home? Yeah, I could want to buy one of their paintings. If they were good paintings.

I doubt that any of the people Michael Jackson sexually assaulted could enjoy his music (although it would not shock me if I found out I was wrong about that). But millions of people will both say they think he did molest kids and still like listening to his music. So people can and do separate the artist as a person from the art.

I mentioned Richard Ford earlier as someone whose work I would not now be able to read because of the horrible things about him that I know. Sometimes it can be hard, psychologically, to separate the artist from the art (and he didn't even do any of those things to me!). But that's not a justification for having that reaction or thinking it's a good thing I have that reaction when I do.


message 34: by Whitney (new)

Whitney | 2090 comments Mod
David wrote: "This is why people who wonder if some people who have last their careers as a result of #metoo could have a comeback one answer has been that it will be harder for people who worked in front of the camera than those who worked behind it. But also......."

Which is a separate but very related point. Lots of people wondering about the redemption of those affected by #metoo, except that they are mostly looking at come backs for those who committed the acts, not the people who had careers derailed because the were victimized or refused to be victimized.

The three examples you used are all ones where the person was personally victimized. So in those cases, I can understand just why it would be difficult to enjoy the art when the artist had done such things to you. But if an artist killed someone else's parents or burned down someone else's home? Yeah, I could want to buy one of their paintings. If they were good paintings.

And I'll say that's were we can leave the differences. If the artist is truly separate from the art, it shouldn't matter if their actions affected someone directly. But you make an exception for someone who was personally affected. You decline to support the work of someone who assaulted you personally. I decline to support the work of someone who has committed heinous assaults against anyone. It's okay to be disgusted by Cosby if he had drugged and raped me, but not because he drugged and raped 60 other women? Nope.


message 35: by lark (new)

lark benobi (larkbenobi) | 201 comments you know out of curiosity I looked up Colson Whitehead's review of Richard Ford's stories, the one that apparently upset Ford so much, and what Whitehead wrote is that Ford's characters all seem to be nasty old white guys.

So maybe it's broadly the case that novels tend to reflect the soul and spirit of their writers, so if you don't like the writer then you probably won't like their writing either.

The offending review:

https://www.nytimes.com/2002/03/03/bo...


message 36: by David (new)

David | 242 comments Whitney wrote: "If the artist is truly separate from the art, it shouldn't matter if their actions affected someone directly."

I agree. It shouldn't matter. But sometimes it does anyway. I once had to stop reading a book just because the main character happened to have the same name as someone I knew. It was too much of a distraction. If you are thinking about anything other than the book in front of you, including thinking about the author and who that person is, it's a distraction. But that's different from saying it is a legitimate basis of evaluation of the work.

"But you make an exception for someone who was personally affected."

Again, no. In that case I can see why the distraction of the association might be more difficult to set aside. But that does not mean that the work is being evaluated based on who created it. In fact, the problem I identified in these cases is where the person is actually prevented from experiencing the art because this other thing just won't get out of the way.

"You decline to support the work of someone who assaulted you personally."

I wasn't talking about supporting work at all. Just being open to experiencing it and evaluating it on its own merits. But consider this: Suppose one day I meet Domenico Starnone, an author whose work I greatly admire. And when that happens, he tries to rob me, shoots me, and leaves me for dead. I would still say that his books are great, because they are. Would I be able to read another one of his books without being distracted by the memory of this traumatic encounter? Maybe not. But that's a different matter.

By the way, notice how bizarre and extreme the examples even have to be here, and even then I'm only willing to commit to a "maybe"?


message 37: by Whitney (new)

Whitney | 2090 comments Mod
David wrote: "If you are thinking about anything other than the book in front of you, including thinking about the author and who that person is, it's a distraction. But that's different from saying it is a legitimate basis of evaluation of the work..."

You keep coming back to this, I've never claimed this. I think that's the sticking point here.

BTW, I feel like this has been a reasonable discussion among people with disagreements, but having seen these kind of discussions get rancorous, and since I'm supposed to be a responsible moderator here, I just want to say that if anyone is getting hot under the collar, raise your hand (or PM a moderator) and we'll cut this off.


message 38: by David (new)

David | 242 comments Whitney wrote: "I feel like this has been a reasonable discussion among people with disagreements..."

I agree it has been a reasonable discussion, but if you agree that facts about the author are not a basis on which to evaluate a work that author wrote and negative facts about an author can, at most, only be a distraction, then I don't know what disagreement we have.


message 39: by LindaJ^ (new)

LindaJ^ (lindajs) | 2306 comments I think this is an important discussion that is being respectfully done. Discussing disagreements respectfully is something we as a society do not do often enough. They can make us feel uncomfortable, especially when the discussion is not in person and without those communication aids available in person to person discussion, such as eyes and faces. They can also reveal points of agreement and often reveal points of view not previously considered. Discussing an issue only with those with the same mind set doesn't help one learn and grow.


message 40: by Whitney (new)

Whitney | 2090 comments Mod
There have been a few different points, none of which is "Woody Allen's work retroactively sucks".

1. The moral argument. The artist is a slime ball, I don't want my money going to a slime ball. (ex: "Woody Allen may be a genius, but fuck that guy.")

2. The "I can't appreciate this slime ball's work without thinking about what a slime ball they are". This is the one that you agree can occur, but we disagree as to whether it should occur. (ex: "I loved Annie Hall when it came out, but now all I can see is Allen molesting his adopted daughter.")

3. This person has said and done such clueless and tone-deaf things that I doubt they have anything particularly insightful to offer about society. This last is maybe the only one that implies some level of judgment of the work per se. But note that no one claimed that either Ford or Shriver was a bad writer because of what they said, just that they didn't have any interest in trying to tease it out from their overt bigotry.

And at its very base is the disagreement over whether an artist is separate from their art. No, it's made by people, not angels. Art has a point of view. People profit by art. People frequently use their artistic reputations to hurt other people.


message 41: by lark (new)

lark benobi (larkbenobi) | 201 comments Well it seems that knowledge about an artist as a person can make the art mean something different. I used to like Woody Allen movies and now I can't stand the way his screenplay love-interests, the women he writes into the scripts for himself, are frequently so much younger and smarter and more vulnerable. Before I didn't notice, and now I can't watch.

Kind of tangentially related, this NYT essay completely resonated with me--about movie scenes of a man overpowering a woman with that first kiss, and how such a scene used to be the peak of romantic--

https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2...


message 42: by Antonomasia (new)

Antonomasia | 156 comments Those scenes in mid-20th century films can't really be separated from the relative taboo on women initiating sexual contact though (he same explanation that is quite often used about old bodice-ripper romances). It's unsettling to us because there aren't outward signs that the woman was interested, but many female viewers of the time would have seen it differently as a fulfilment of desire they wouldn't have expressed anyway, or may have felt it was seemly to deny.

My main complaint about films is the way that, especially for teenagers who haven't seen good models of social norms IRL that they feel on board with, they frequently make all sorts of behaviour look normal and desirable which actually alienates people or gets them into trouble IRL. (One of the many things on which I connected with Convenience Store Woman - her trial and error process of learning from media.) Films as a medium are particularly repetitive about these things. Praise for artists who have done bad things might have a similar effect BUT I have no idea what it's like to grow up in the age of Twitterstorms and suspect the effect of public furore is very different from picking up the impression from a novel, magazine or biography that someone did xyz and is regarded as cool regardless or because of it.


message 43: by Marc (new)

Marc (monkeelino) | 2592 comments Mod
I'd like to echo the sentiments appreciative of the tone and level of discussion and respect here. These are topics that often touch the core of who we are, or who we'd like to be, both as individuals and as a society, and it is refreshing to see engaged, respectful disagreement.

When I first posted this question, I was thinking a bit about Barthe's 1967 essay, "The Death of the Author" (Wikipedia page | PDF of the essay). He basically argues against "...the method of reading and criticism that relies on aspects of the author's identity—their political views, historical context, religion, ethnicity, psychology, or other biographical or personal attributes... " and sees the work as being separate from the author. Postmodernism seemed to build on this notion with the author almost like a conduit of sorts, negligible at best (at least, post-output). And I was thinking about how this view of writing/art probably oscillates historically.

Today, because of social and power dynamics, the identity of the author is often quite important--at minimum, a sense of immediate legitimacy is bestowed upon works where author and subject now match to a certain extent (e.g., women writing about women, african-americans writing about african-americans, lgbtq writing about lgbtq, etc.). Previously, unheard viewpoints are being given voice. And there is sometimes outrage/frustration when an author remains hidden/undisclosed (Ferrante), when the framing of the writing changes (think Oprah kicking Stephen Frey out of her book club because his "truthful" memoir contained too much fiction; or, how Knausgaard's family reacted to too much truth in his fiction, or too much distortion of truth, if you will).

With social media and the nonstop news cycle, it becomes almost impossible to entirely separate the living artist from the art and it becomes almost impossible to not make the intake of that art into a political act (whether you want to or not), especially the more public that intake is and the more is vested (money, time, etc.).

It would seem the central divide above comes down to evaluating the work vs endorsing or supporting it. Good writing doesn't become bad because you find out about a crime or heinous act of the writer, but it may change the context in which you understand the writing (certain passages take on a darker, even disgusting tone or symbolism) and it may make you want to decide ethically or morally that you don't wish to promote, support, or encourage their work in even the slightest way (great examples have been mentioned above about how nuanced a process this may be; e.g., purchasing a book and/or mentioning it online among your thousands of followers may be vastly different than picking up a library copy and/or talking about it with a couple friends).

In general, I like to know as little as possible about the artist or author of any work the first time I encounter it, but usually learning about them afterward adds an interesting dimension to the experience. I may even still want to explore a despicable author's work if I can do so without lending them credibility in any way, be that through financial or promotional means.

Do most of us give authors the benefit of the doubt (i.e., assume they're honest, semi-decent humans until we hear otherwise)? Certainly, there's no way you have the time or resources to background check every author, in the same way that you make countless purchases without knowing the source/origins of every product/service you buy.

Five years ago, did you think as much or as little as you do now about an author's personal life or political stances?


message 44: by Carol (new)

Carol (carolfromnc) | 452 comments Marc wrote: "I'd like to echo the sentiments appreciative of the tone and level of discussion and respect here. These are topics that often touch the core of who we are, or who we'd like to be, both as individu..."

Marc - great questions. I’ll take the last one first. Yes. I’m not newly aware of the impact of author context, views etc on the art, nor new to deciding whose art I want to let in to my brain. It’s an imperfect world full of decisions that aren’t always applied with what others might deem consistency, but it isn’t newly developed and is not based on recent events or experiences.


message 45: by Antonomasia (last edited Dec 12, 2018 07:36AM) (new)

Antonomasia | 156 comments Five years ago, did you think as much or as little as you do now about an author's personal life or political stances?

Back then I'd been spending a lot of time on a film site and it was frowned on by the majority to be averse to a director's work for ethical reasons. I still only expressed unease at things that I found personally unpleasant and was not vehement about principles. Practically the first thing I learnt about Alfred Hitchcock beyond his name was about how he treated Tippi Hedren during the filming of The Birds and as that was my first impression of him I didn't want to watch his films. I mentioned that quite casually and got a bit of pushback. I did end up watching several Hitchcock films a few months later and I was glad I did as I've subsequently found it useful to spot references to them.

In general I preferred to disregard these matters, found the culture around me supportive of that, and only avoided what I felt an aversion to. Other than on that site, no one I talked to had any issue with that.

Incidentally, that site has changed a lot in the make up of its most frequent posters and now is very concerned with representation, ethics and so forth.

I don't act very differently - i.e. I have not started boycotting any authors I otherwise would have read - though I have removed an author from my favourite authors list because of the direction he seemed to be going in politically. (Another one I removed for partially similar reasons though I had also changed in my opinion of his intellectual standards, which was a separate issue.) The first one has not had a new book out this year that I was interested in reading so I haven't had to address that. I would certainly read it if he had because I am curious. But depending on what it was like and what else he has been saying in public, I might not post a review or rating. The far right are recently becoming more vocal around several topics I've been interested in for over half my life, including history and prehistory, the environment and genetics and it is uncomfortable because it feels like a bit of a minefield talking about subjects which have always made me feel more enthusiastic and engrossed than fiction in general.

I feel embroiled and confused in a cultural environment in which the compass I grew up with and lived with until well into my thirties no longer works like it used to, and it can be very tiring. I am aware of having been changed to an extent, but there are plenty of things on which I still feel as I always did and I have to accept that this is the experience of being what looks like an out of touch old person (the centrist dad meme in British politics from 2017) and try not to say things that would be too egregious in the wrong place.


message 46: by Lia (new)

Lia The responses in this thread seem to support the audacious claim that The Author Is Not as Dead as Claimed: https://lareviewofbooks.org/article/t...

TL;DR, it’s actually an article about this book: The Varieties of Authorial Intention: Literary Theory Beyond the Intentional Fallacy

I think the gist of it is that the death of the author, as monumental as it was, has limited relevance today outside the academia. (I suspect it’s seen as niche and a very French thing even within the classroom.)

I also think many are tired of being told how we must, or must not, interpret literature, depending on the “trend” within the critics circle (I think death of the author was seen as a “new criticism” thing, which seems to be out of fashion anyway...), or the academia.

I think even people within the academia are sick of being told there’s one sanctioned method of literary criticism, and transgressions will be policed, shamed, investigated. (At least that’s what I gathered when I discussed The Limits of Critique with some grad students, and the collective “Amen”, “FOLK YES,” “SO MUCH THIS” I heard.)

Incidentally, I’ve been skimming The Transparency Society, it’s part of a series of books that deals with the (human) consequence of technological changes, and I think it’s especially relevant to what we’re talking about: this is our new reality, we may or may not be prepared for it, but we don’t live in Barthe's world in which privacy is the norm and publicized data on the author is hard to come by. This is the kind of social environment books are being published into, everybody knows too much about everybody else, including book authors, and texts are going to get interpreted within that kind of communities influenced by information overload, lack of privacy, etc etc.


message 47: by Carol (new)

Carol (carolfromnc) | 452 comments Marc wrote: "I'd like to echo the sentiments appreciative of the tone and level of discussion and respect here. These are topics that often touch the core of who we are, or who we'd like to be, both as individu..."

This question: Do most of us give authors the benefit of the doubt (i.e., assume they're honest, semi-decent humans until we hear otherwise)? Certainly, there's no way you have the time or resources to background check every author, in the same way that you make countless purchases without knowing the source/origins of every product/service you buy.

I don't assume anything about authors or anyone else. I start with a blank slate and you show me who you are. If I become aware of a basis for determining that someone's character flaws are of such significance that ignoring them is my favored option, then that's what I act upon. I'm not Googling authors to see what I find. OTOH, I do read a lot of essays and columns about authors, characters, best-selling, award-winning and none-of-the-above literature, so I encounter a lot of information, as well.


message 48: by David (new)

David | 242 comments Marc wrote: "When I first posted this question, I was thinking a bit about Barthe's 1967 essay, "The Death of the Author" (Wikipedia page | PDF of the essay). He basically argues against "...the method of reading and criticism that relies on aspects of the author's identity—their political views, historical context, religion, ethnicity, psychology, or other biographical or personal attributes... " and sees the work as being separate from the author."

Yes. This sounds like the view I was arguing for.

"In general, I like to know as little as possible about the artist or author of any work the first time I encounter it, but usually learning about them afterward adds an interesting dimension to the experience."

I am generally unmoved to find out more about an author and when I do, it rarely adds to reading for me. When I think of the authors whose work I have heard of and read for the first time in the last year or two and whose work I admire the most, I can tell you very little about most of the authors other than that they are the authors of those books. For example, I've read every short story and book that Ottessa Moshfegh has written, and could not tell you much of anything about her. I'm quite happy to keep it that way.

"Do most of us give authors the benefit of the doubt (i.e., assume they're honest, semi-decent humans until we hear otherwise)?"

I make no assumptions one way or the other. It's just not a question it would ever occur to me to ask, but if someone did ask me it I'd just say "I have no idea".

"Five years ago, did you think as much or as little as you do now about an author's personal life or political stances?"

Thought about it almost not at all then. Think about it almost not at all now.


message 49: by Marc (new)

Marc (monkeelino) | 2592 comments Mod
Lia, it seems somewhat funny/ironic, that I'm sure when "the death of the author" came about, I'm sure it was probably seen as a very freeing perspective whereby those analyzing literature were perhaps reacted against being told how to evaluate writing. :D
I do think these sorts of shifts are cyclical and start to reverse course after having gone too far in one direction or another. Thanks for those links!

Judging from Carol's, Antonomasia's, and David's responses, it sounds like culturally we have changed in terms of how we deal with these issues, but that your individual approaches have remained largely unchanged (except you now have access to more information about authors even if you're not necessarily looking).

Prior to this conversation, I would have characterized my separation of writer and writing as more distinct than I think it is. I'm talking here about evaluating the text without thinking about the author (setting aside for the moment--or eternity--authors who are abusive, rapists, pedophiles, etc.).

But I woke up today thinking about how I can't read David Foster Wallace or Sylvia Plath without their suicides hovering like a dark cloud over the text. And sometimes even when I don't know much about an author's bio, I start to wonder about them--Dorothy Parker always seemed like an unhappy person to me when I read her short stories (there's a biting ridicule toward her characters that seems like it could only come from someone with a lot of anger; this is complete conjecture on my part and I don't even feel remotely the same way when reading her nonfiction criticism, which is hilariously biting). An author's religious or cultural background will influence my reading (Michel Houellebecq--I'm like, "Oh, he's French, I kind of expect him to be a jerk." Which is not to say I think French men are jerks, but that there's a long line of fairly self-absorbed, intelligent French male writers who seem like pricks to me.). I think it's almost impossible to not look at authorship when it comes to translated fiction because you have to take into account the original language and its culture/history (for our next moderator read, I'm already wondering whether Kamel Daoud grew up speaking French or acquired the language of the "oppressor." When I read an interview with Nick Drnaso after Sabrina made the Booker longlist earlier this year, he spoke about the idea for the book starting just as he was about to get married and the irrational fears he was having about dangers his fiancé might face (they were living separately at the time)--it's not so much that this changed my whole perception of the book, but it did make me think back to when I was just married and the worry/concern one has over wanting to protect and care for your loved ones in a world that seems full of dangers you can't control. And this made me think about the book with his inspiration/intent in mind.

I was going to apologize for these long rants, but it's all of your faults for inspiring so many thoughts and ideas!


message 50: by Antonomasia (last edited Dec 13, 2018 07:18AM) (new)

Antonomasia | 156 comments I just assume that all authors from the past will have had opinions that would be unacceptable in typical literary circles now, and that many of them (more frequently although certainly not only the men) will have done things that would be beyond the pale today. As will plenty of middle aged and elderly authors in their youth when prevailing standards and culture were different.

There was an outcry about a British MP, Jared O'Mara, who's a few years younger than I am, and who'd written some laddish bits of music journalism when he was younger. (He was eventually suspended for more recent offensive behaviour, some of it in person and which I would agree was not acceptable.) Some of his stuff was for a site some friends of friends have written for too - although in the particulars of the jokes highlighted he was fairly crass, and it was not what most people I'm close friends with would have said. It would have been quite normal in student publications when I was at university and would have still sounded okay among wider circles of my acquaintance until a few years ago. That was one of the moments that emphasised to me that I am shaped by a different culture than people who are 10-20 or more years younger, and part of me is always going to be a bit out of touch because of that, because I just don't *feel* the level of offence that a left-leaning 25 year old does on reading the same thing. There are some things I feel more, and some I've minded for longer which I'm glad are not okay any more (11 years ago I suggested to a bunch of generally very nice people I was hanging out with, educated professionals in their mid to late 20s, that they stop saying "that's a bit gay" as a derogatory. They ignored this, though they also didn't get at me for saying it. I can't imagine people like them using that phrase now.) but a lot of the time I'm thinking more along the lines of "that wasn't a very good idea".


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