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Sunday Salon: Who Wrote This Book?

The Sunday Salon.comThis evening, like many other people, I’ll be watching the Super Bowl, something I look forward to every year. So, today’s Sunday Salon post will be short. Whether you’re watching the game or not, enjoy your Sunday!

At a book group meeting a couple of months ago, we had a brief discussion about authors. Without really thinking about it, I’ve always tended to separate novelists from their books. I enjoy learning a little about an author, and I like knowing if his or her life experiences have somehow found their way into a book. But I don’t tend to seek out full biographical details about authors. I’ve never read a full biography; I usually prefer to know only what’s immediately relevant to the book.

I know there are many readers who love to delve into favorite authors’ lives. I can understand why someone might want to do so. The more I read, the more I consider how inseparable a book is from the person who writes it. It makes me wonder, what makes an author tick? What is/was their life like? What experiences, preferences, and beliefs guide and inspire them to write about what they do? Through what lens do they view the world? Which events and people have shaped them? These questions inevitably affect the novel that is produced, and I imagine exploring them can yield a context for and a deeper understanding of a novel.

But sometimes, knowing too much can be a mistake, to some: a fellow reader once told me he read a biography of his favorite poet, only to discover the poet behind the beautiful poetry wasn’t a good person at all. How, then, does this new knowledge affect one’s reading of those much-loved poems? Does it, even?

I’m curious to hear about your preferences. Do you separate novel and novelist, make it a point to read up on authors, or fall somewhere in between? What are your reasons for reading the way you do? Have you ever had an experience where you went against your normal reading habits and either regretted it or were glad you did?

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  • http://zenleaf.amandagignac.com Amanda

    I don’t like to know about the authors. Some people say it’s crucial to understanding a book, especially a classic, and I say that’s a bunch of silliness. I’m not of the vein that says you should only interpret the book according to what the author wanted. At that point, I don’t see the fun in reading a book. If you can’t experience what you yourself experience, if you can’t understand things your own way instead of the author’s, what good is that book to you? I almost never know anything about the authors, and that doesn’t bother me.

    Now there are some authors who very much fascinate me and who I want to read more about: George Sand, Virginia Woolf, Oscar Wilde, Elizabeth Barrett Browning…I don’t mind reading more about them!

    • Erin

      I’ve yet to find those authors that fascinate me, though I’m sure they’re out there! I’m with you on being allowed your own experience of a book. If I do learn about an author, I tend to like to learn only what pertains to the book I’m reading and then usually only after I’ve finished the book and formed my own opinions.

  • http://fatbooks.org Ellen

    I think our feelings on this are pretty close. If I read a novel and love it I’ll tend to look the author up on wikipedia, but usually to see what else he or she’s written. There are a few exceptions (or maybe just one – Nabokov, but he’s my favorite author so is kind of in his own special category, research-wise), but I don’t view the life of the author as having a whole lot to do with the work. And like Amanda writes, I don’t believe that an understanding of the author’s life is crucial or even necessary to reading their work…in fact, I find it really frustrating when people write about a book for the ways in which it was inspired by the author’s life. I want to scream, “how do YOU know?!” I guess my reaction to this style of reading is to know NOTHING about the people whose work I’m reading.

    • Erin

      I love the screaming of “how do YOU know?!” :-) That’s how I feel sometimes, too. I feel like sometimes knowing too much about an author and then applying that knowledge to their books can be restricting.

  • http://readingwhilefemale.blogspot.com Emily

    I don’t usually look up too much information on my authors, mostly because I’m a lazy bum and I’m not a huge fan of non-fiction. That’s especially true of contemporary authors. With classics I’m a little more tempted to learn about the author or the time period, if only so I can understand some of the things that are going on. For instance, I’m a big fan of Jane Austen. I love her subtle class criticisms and social commentary. I feel like if I knew more about the time she was writing in I would catch even more of those moments, and I would enjoy the book more. Also, I’ve heard so many people say “This is her most/least autobiographical book” and I’m curious to see why and in which ways.

    I know exactly what you mean about reading about an author and then not knowing what to do about their books. I used to like Bukowski’s poems, but the more I read of his poems and his other writings, the more I realized that he is really not a nice person, and the less I liked him. The same goes for Franzen. He’s said enough pretentious and downright rude things to make me not interested in reading his work. If it’s a person who died a long time ago, I can usually get over it and enjoy their books anyway, but if it’s a contemporary author I won’t read their books because I don’t want to support them.

    All in all, I tend to fall in-between. If I need to know something to better understand a time period, then I’ll read up on it, but I don’t often read full biographies or history books. When we go over the historical perspectives on books in my literature classes, it always adds an interesting dimension to the reading. Did you know that Whitman’s elegy for Lincoln (When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloomed) is also partially for his closest brother, whose death and funeral he missed? Doesn’t that just add an entire new level to the poem? Most of the time I think that novels and poems can be understood and enjoyed perfectly well without needing to do any research, but sometimes learning a little about the author or the time period can add an extra dimension to a work. When I do research, it’s usually less out of necessity and more out of curiosity. And besides, there are some really interesting authors out there!

    -Emily @ Reading While Female

    • Erin

      Emily, that’s a great point that learning the history related to an author can give their work a context that helps us understand it. I guess that would entail less learning about an author specifically and more learning about a time and a place.

      Funny you should mention Franzen — I’m trying to avoid reading about him and his rude comments until after I’ve read something by him! The more bad things I know about an author, the less able I am to separate them from their work.

      I had no idea about the extra layer to Whitman’s elegy. Thanks for sharing that! That’s exactly the sort of thing I like to learn — relevant to the work I’m reading. As you say, those tidbits aren’t necessary, but they can certainly add to a work.

  • http://wormhole.carnelianvalley.com Charlie

    I will generally separate novel from author but sometimes it’s necessary to keep both in mind at once, say if a theme is included in a novel and you know that it’s because of the author’s own views on it. Also it can be difficult to separate if you’ve met the author.

    Regarding finding out about lives, I tend to read the book and then read up about the writer. It’s so easy to find out with websites, Twitter, guest posts etc, that to not find out about some would be difficult.

    • Erin

      I haven’t met many authors, but that’s a great point — I hadn’t thought about how that might complicate things! If I do read up on an author, I tend to do it in the same order as you: book, then author. I like sites like Wikipedia, so I just learn a little bit, not an author’s entire life story.

  • http://www.eclectic-eccentric.com Trisha

    I don’t really care about authors, which sometimes makes me feel callous. :) I am much more interested in stories than the people who wrote them. The connection is of course important, but I worry so much about ruining the story by knowing too much about the author. For example, I adore Ender’s Game. Then I find out that Card is a homophobic bastard. Not happy.

    • Erin

      Nah, I basically feel that way, too :-) Your Ender’s Game/Card situation is exactly what I want to avoid! I’d generally rather enjoy the book and miss the author connections than get the connections and risk having the book ruined.

  • http://ardentreader.wordpress.com Christina

    For authors who are no longer living I often want to know more about them and their lives. For living authors, though, I usually prefer not to know. I am all for informed consuming on everything from food to even books, but I am often times incredibly disappointed when I discover that author’s political views.

    For examples, as Trisha stated above, I hate the fact that I have purchased Orson Scott Card’s book. I have provided him with money that he may have turned around and donated to campaigns to prevent gays and lesbians from being allowed to get married. Or, even if he hasn’t donated money, I’m still supporting a homophobic. And that goes against everything I personally believe in. Of course, my reading has been heavily affected by this knowledge and it is often the first thing I tell people when they ask me about his books.

    • Erin

      I had no idea about Card before reading your and Trisha’s comments! Now I don’t want to buy his books, either. It’s hard to say which is better: knowing and having the story ruined, or not knowing and inadvertently potentially supporting a cause with which you disagree!

  • http://perduedansleslivres.blogspot.com virginie

    I’m not usually interested in knowing everything about the life of authors, except for authors I really like or classic authors like the Brontë sisters or Jane Austen, Carson McCullers or Sylvia Plath, for instance. I have never read any biographies of authors, but certainly will someday. Still, I have a Charlotte Brontë biography by Elizabeht Gaskell on my TBR that I’d like to read.

    • Erin

      I think if I ever do become interested in authors, it’ll be those classic authors like the ones you’ve listed. I still worry about finding out something about an author that would affect my enjoyment of their works, though! It’s so hard to find a balance!

  • http://www.lovelaughterinsanity.com Trish

    I don’t tend to seek out information about current authors as much as past authors. I think the time period and social circumstances do play a big part in one’s writing, but generally I’m too lazy to even look up past authors.

    That I can remember I’ve only read one full biography on an author–one about Lewis Carroll and because of it I feel like I have a better understanding of his writing and also feel more defensive of him when someone says something negative about him and his relationship with Alice (I cringed a lot while listening to Alice I Have Been recently because of it). I’ve wanted to read something about Dickens but haven’t been able to find an authoratative biography yet.

    To an extent, though, I don’t think that every aspect of a person’s life need to be taken into account when reading a book. Orson Scott Card is one that immediately comes to mind–people vehemently hate him and refuse to read him because of his beliefs on homosexuality. However, I don’t feel that his beliefs color his writing. Or maybe I’m just not that good at deeply analyzing them? Interesting topic, Erin!

    • Erin

      I think I do tend to look up past authors on Wikipedia more often than contemporary authors…though often I’m too lazy, too :-) Carroll is an author who interests me, which is a bit odd seeing as I didn’t love his Alice stories. I wonder, though, if that would actually be a better situation for me: learning about Carroll would be interesting and really couldn’t lessen my enjoyment of his writing, which I don’t particularly enjoy in the first place. Hmmm…

      I hadn’t realized about the Card thing. I thought what Christina said here about not wanting to support him was interesting. I suppose reading a book of his from the library wouldn’t be the same as buying one. Having never read anything by him (yet), I can’t comment on his beliefs in his writing, but now I’m sure I’ll watch for it when I do get around to Ender’s Game.

  • http://www.thingsmeanalot.com Nymeth

    I don’t like reading books in a biographical light, as I think that such interpretations are tricky more often than light. But sometimes knowing something about an author does affect how I feel about them, even if I don’t want it to :\ Orson Scott Card is the perfect example. I just can’t help being wary of him, even if, like Trish says, his fiction doesn’t really reflect his ideology. The financial point Trisha and Christina make is also a very good one.

    • Erin

      I had no idea about the Orson Scott Card issue! I’m glad you’ve all brought it to my attention. What a perfect example. I do think reading a book in light of an author’s biography can be misleading, causing a reader to create connections that were not meant to exist, in addition to the other issues cited here.

  • http://www.derapsreads.blogspot.com Mrs. DeRaps

    I often look up authors to see if there’s anything interesting or relevant to what I’m reading. If I don’t find anything, I’m not disappointed. When I do, it’s pretty exciting. I like to know the person behind the work, but to also see the work as separate from the person who wrote it.

    • Erin

      I agree — I like to know just what relates to the book I’m reading. If there is something, it’s always interesting to know but doesn’t usually ruin a book.

  • http://www.theliteraryomnivore.wordpress.com The Literary Omnivore

    It truly depends. I love learning more about authors who died prior to 1900, as well as authors who are firmly in the geek camp, such as Gaiman and Chabon. But I’m still hesitant to investigate Orson Scott Card and find out why people of my political persuasion don’t like him (because I liked Ender’s Game) and knowing that Diana Gabaldon thinks I’m a white slaver for writing fanfiction certainly colors my reading of Outlander.

    • Erin

      I’m learning all kinds of things about authors I didn’t know! I guess I’ve done a good job of keeping myself in the dark so far. I think if I ever do start reading up on authors, it’ll be the ones from the past I’ll explore. The contemporary ones get too messy.

  • http://www.fizzythoughts.com softdrink

    I’m not so curious about living authors, but sometimes I like to know more about the dead ones. That sounds weird, but for older novels, I think it can sometimes help to put the book in perspective.

    • Erin

      No, that doesn’t sound weird at all! If I do end up looking into authors’ lives down the road, I think it’ll be the ones from the past I’ll investigate. First of all, they’re more removed from me and, somehow, from their novels; second, I agree that history can put novels in perspective, which can certainly be useful.

  • http://www.ragingbibliomania.net/ zibilee

    I sometimes like to read about the lives an habits of favorite novelists, but I wouldn’t say that I delve very deeply into finding out all about them. One exception would have to be Charles Dickens. I do really find him to be an interesting man, and love to read about the man behind the books. I even read fictional accounts of his life. This was a very interesting question to examine, and it makes me want to try to explore some of my favorite authors more extensively.

    • Erin

      I’d not really considered fictional accounts of authors’ lives! I recall now that I read The Master by Colm Toibin, about Henry James, and really enjoyed it. I’ve yet to find those few favorite novelists, but I think when I do, I’ll end up digging more deeply into their lives. Habits are certainly fascinating, and they can be less polarizing than political or social beliefs.

  • http://jillianisreading.wordpress.com/ Jillian

    I love to dig into the author’s lives. I want to understand their perspective.

    • Erin

      I can understand the allure of author investigation, even if I habitually avoid it myself!

  • Paul

    I find that I really enjoy learning about an author’s life. I like to to try and figure out links between an author’s life and the stories they write, and there usually is one. Writing is such a personal thing based on our experiences.

    Unfortunately, as much as I try to avoid it, what I find out about an author can taint my opinion and affect my reading. Although sometimes if I find an author who seems a bit more off kilter than the others, I want to read more of their work!

    • Erin

      Interesting! Where I see learning about an author’s life potentially restricting, It sounds like you see it as a sort of puzzle. I certainly agree that personal experiences often seep into someone’s writing, but at the same time I’d hate to blame a story element on an author’s life when really it’s not at all related.

  • http://www.bostonbibliophile.com Marie

    I might read a Wikipedia entry about a novelist but usually that’s about it. These days so many of them are so active on social media that you can’t help but get to know about them, whether you want to or not! :-)

    • Erin

      Wikipedia is pretty much my go-to source if I want to know more about an author! I’ve managed to avoid most authors, apparently, so I guess I’ll just keep doing what I’m doing :-)

  • http://vishytheknight.wordpress.com Vishy

    I almost never read about writers when I read their books. I am scared that I will discover that the writer might turn out to be a wife-beater (or its feminine equivalent) or an unlikeable person in some ways and that might colour my opinion about the writer’s book. But once in a while, I discover that a writer has led a fascinating life, sometimes even more fascinating than the life of the characters populating the writer’s books. In that case, I try to read about the writer sometimes.

    One example of a writer I was disappointed with, was Herman Melville, who it turned out was a sad disappointment as a family man. One example of a writer whom I was thrilled to read about was Roberto Bolano, whose book ‘The Savage Detectives’ is a veiled memoir of his life.

    • Erin

      Exactly, Vishy, I agree! I haven’t found those authors whose lives I want to explore yet, but I think eventually I will. When I do, I’ll proceed with caution, especially if I love their works.

      I didn’t know that about Melville! I haven’t read him yet, but I do plan to. Bolano sounds like a good example of when learning about an author can work out to be a good thing. It’s so hit or miss!

  • http://www.lifewithbooks.com Jenners

    I pretty much NEVER read up on authors … but I do fully read introductions, acknowledgments and the bio provided at the end.

    • Erin

      I’m becoming a bigger fan of intros, etc., though I usually make a point of reading all the supplemental material after I’ve read the actual book. Those and Wikipedia on occasion are about all I do, too.

  • http://beloved-books.blogspot.com/ Peggy

    The Jose Ferrer version of Moulin Rouge includes a line that I’ll paraphrase – One should never meet anyone whose work he admires. What they do is always better than what they are.

    • Erin

      That’s perfect, Peggy — thank you for sharing!