‘Banned’ Authors

06d11e3a0263b62966ea48fc5e990cc3Earlier this week I was at a book group meeting where we seemed to be in pretty much unanimous agreement that the book we were reading (and don’t ask, because I’m not going to tell you) was superb.  The style was magnificent, the humour wry, but never overplayed, the characters well drawn and sympathetic and the themes to do with the importance of kindness in small ways to the general well being of a community.  It seemed as if we all felt better for having spent time in the world of the novel and in the company of the woman who wrote it.  At least that appeared to be the case until the one member of the group who so far had said nothing quietly commented that while she could appreciate the points we were making she knew the author to be a nasty piece of work who was the antithesis of everything she was endorsing in the novel and that this had completely ruined the reading experience for her.

Now I should say that this response was not based on spurious information gleaned from social media or the gossip columns.  This group member’s personal circumstances are such that she is in a position to know the writer herself and to have had first hand experience of her behaviour.  She normally speaks very sympathetically of the authors with whom she comes into contact, and consequently this reaction was all the more pointed.  And, of course, it led us into a discussion of the extent to which we are influenced in our reaction to any work of art by the knowledge we have of the artist who created it.  The most frequently cited example, I suspect, would be Wagner and there were people in the group who said that they did actively avoid his music because of his political associations.  Personally, I also avoid his music but in my case this is because I don’t like it.  What my reaction would be if I was to really enjoy his work, I don’t know.

Coincidentally, I was browsing through some old copies of Slightly Foxed yesterday and came across an article by Francis King which began

Once met, I rarely dislike a person.  But the idea of a person often fills me with dislike and even abhorrence.  So it was with Wyndham Lewis…  A supporter of the British Union of Fascists and of Franco, he wrote a laudatory book about Hitler…[He] always ended up by sinking his poisonous fangs into the hand of anyone who had helped him…kept his put-upon wife in purdah from his friends and frequently betrayed her with other women… [His] intermittent paranoia persuaded him that even his intimates were plotting against him and doing him down.

In the light of the above, it is hardly surprising that when…a friend of mine…pressed Lewis’s ‘The Revenge of Love’ on me, I read it with growing annoyance.  At the close of Part I, I gave up on it.

The point of King’s article is that in later years he went back to Lewis’s work and was able to read it without allowing his dislike of what the man stood for and of his behaviour towards others to colour his appreciation of his writing. Given my friend’s age I suspect she is not going to undergo the same transformation.

Whether or not you should read an author’s work in the light of their biography is a topic that has been much discussed over the years in academic circles, but I don’t think my friend’s response should be considered in quite the same way as the issue which is debated in university seminars.  She wasn’t suggesting that this writer’s life history was colouring her writing but rather the opposite, that the author was hypocritically championing a way of behaving towards others which she, herself, did not demonstrate.  Given that she knew this to be the case, she simply couldn’t respond as the rest of us had to the novel.

I wonder how you feel about this?  Do you think you would react in the same way?  Do you think it is a valid reaction?  I have a later novel by this same author sitting on my shelf as I write.  Until I have begun to read it I am not going to know how much my new ‘insider’ information has affected my responses.


26 thoughts on “‘Banned’ Authors

  1. It actually might make me more inclined to read the work just out of curiosity. But, I don’t really know, I think I’d decide on a case by case basis. I do think many fine writers express ideals that they themselves cannot live up to. In this situation, it sounds like it’s more extreme.

    1. It’s a hard one, isn’t it, Valorie? I think you’re right about it being a case by case issue. And I think it would also depend on what it was I knew. If it was a living author I might think twice before adding to their bank balance!

  2. It’s a tricky one – I think of Enid Blyton who I know has a reputation of behaving very badly in real life, but I grew up with her books and love them. So there is always a risk in finding out about an author and maybe we should just always read in a void and try not to find out anything about the writers at all!

    1. I don’t think I would go out deliberately to find out about an author because their characters are the people I’m really interested in not them. The trouble is when the information comes looking for you.

    1. Yes, my friend has no option but to know about this woman and at times to suffer from her behaviour. No doubt that has to make a difference.

  3. I do not champion ignorance, but it does make it easier to read Ezra Pound or Orson Scott Card. I’m not going to quit reading them after knowing more about them, but I am going to avoid any action that would personally enrich a living author whose attitudes I find problematic, like buying his books new.

  4. I remember how horrible I felt when I found out that William Faulkner, who is often quite sympathetic to the plight of African-Americans in some of his books, once said (apparently during some time of political unrest) that if blacks threatened his beloved state of Mississippi, he’d shoot them in the streets. My students were also shocked when I revealed this to them, and one of them was so disturbed that she came to office hours and asked me what I’d meant by telling them this. I explained that often a good writer or a writer whose work one admires or believes shows a positive perspective is in their own life not an admirable person. I believe I was teaching “A Light in August” at the time, which has a portrait of an eventually murderous African-American in it named Joe Christmas, who yet is surrounded in the novel, particularly at his death, with Christ imagery. The discussion was centered around what Faulkner meant by the imagery. Did he, for example, mean Joe to be a sacrificial figure because he’d been abused all his own life, to the point where he got things wrong in his head and killed a person who was trying to help him? Or was the way in which the person used him as well deserving of some sort of retribution? When I went to a teacher of my own with my troubles teaching the book, she said only that it was a very difficult book to teach. But someone else said to me, not about that book in particular, but about the experience of finding an author very different in person from what he or she advocates or seems to be advocating in writing that perhaps authors in general put the best parts of themselves into their books. Fans expect them to live up to these things, and of course they can’t. I don’t know if that’s true or not, but it reminds me of a saying of a medieval nun whose name escapes me at the time: “God sees us not as we see ourselves, nor as others see us, nor yet as we are, but as we would be.” Maybe reading a book is a chance to take the “God’s eye” view of the author and see him or her as he or she would be? (Sorry to be so wordy and take up so much of your space!)

    1. Never apologise, your comments are always interesting and always welcome. I can see what you’re saying here and I’m sure it’s true of all of us that we would like to present a better face of ourselves to the world than we actually manage. Perhaps that is the case here, although the impression I was left with was that this lady got a certain amount of pleasure out of being nasty.

  5. I’ve come up against a similar problem recently. An author whose first book I admired a great deal has been getting a lot of attention for her second book (which I didn’t like) and has made some public comments that I find quite distasteful and that have led me to think a little differently about that first book. I’m generally inclined to think that the work should stand on its own, but this author writes about some highly sensitive topics and she comes across as a really insensitive person (although how she comes across in interviews and how she is in reality could be entirely different). I don’t think I’ll avoid her work altogether in the future, but my frame of mind going into her next book may be really different having seen this side of her.

    1. Sometimes all it takes is being in front of a microphone to cause an author or celebrity to develop “foot-in-mouth” disease. Though not an author that I know of, Gwyneth Paltrow is a case who springs notably to mind….

    2. I think you make a good point here, Teresa. However much we decide that we are not going to let our reading be influenced by what we know about an author once you know something you cannot unknown it and it has to colour later experiences to some degree whatever we decide.

  6. I think that if we could only enjoy books by people who were nice through and through, the shelves would be pretty thin. People are people. They do and say things they shouldn’t, they believe things that annoy others, they act badly and act out. I’m not sure that anyone alive could honestly say they had never angered or upset another person in their lives and mean it. Maybe this author is a dreadful person (though I’m not sure I believe anyone can fairly be labelled a ‘bad’ person), or maybe she and the book group member have got off on the wrong foot and now upset one another. Who could ever judge these things and know for sure what the ‘correct’ reality of the matter was? If someone went around saying I was awful and people shouldn’t read my blog (and there are people who dislike me, I don’t doubt), I’d have to hope that others might still be able to read it without prejudice.

    I suppose all this wittering is to say that I’m not sure I could ever take one person’s word for the entirety of another person’s character. And even in the case of authors who went with the wrong side in politics, or ran through lots of wives, or neglected their kids, I’d have to go with Shadowoperator’s comment and think of their work as something to place on the other side of the scales. I suppose I would always rather be charitable.

    Of course if I personally disliked someone, I don’t suppose I’d feel inclined to read their books, but I’d think of that as a personal matter and I wouldn’t want to stop other people from reading them and gaining pleasure if they could.

  7. I think bad behaviour that affects people we know personally can definitely turn us off an author, I recall one very popular author who visited our town and was extremely rude and behaved rather badly with the entire audience and organisers. On hearing what happened, my freind and I who often use to read his books and thought it would be great to go to one of his readings, promptmy dropped him from our reading list. Life’s too short to indulge unaplogetically bad behaviour.

    1. I think you’re right. When you have had personal experience of a person’s ill manners then in a world where there is an excess of reading material you are less likely to make time for them, whether this is a good thing artistically or not.

  8. Hmm, that’s tough. No one is perfect and we all hold views that are likely to offend someone and on a bad day it can be even worse. I try to be forgiving and not let the author’s personal life get in the way of the book. That said, I still haven’t read Franzen because the more the man says and the more the media fawns all over him, the more annoyed and repelled I become.

    1. I think it’s quite easy to say you won’t be affected until it actually happens,Stefanie, then I think, as you’re finding with Franzen, that all too human nature takes over 🙂

  9. We’d all love to know which author you mean but appreciate you can’t tell.

    I have no idea what Jane Austen was like as a person but she made some pretty snide comments in her letters. I still love her!

    1. That can be a very upsetting experience although a writer that is simply a paragon is not likely to be very interesting. I suppose a well known example of this is the shock about Philip Larkin’s political and social views that were up for examination with the publication of his letters and Motion’s biography in the 90s. Larkin seems to have been a rather more nuanced figure than he appeared in these and anyone reading his jazz criticism could never believe he was simply “racist” or his response to Billie Holiday and Bessie Smith believe he was simply “misogynist”.

      1. The question of how we judge someone from a biography is interesting, Ian, because there is always going to be a second person’s ‘prejudice’ coming through. Where letters are concerned I can’t help thinking about those that Virginia Woolf wrote. She would often express one opinion in those and then an entirely different one in her journal. Perhaps the answer is that we can never really know what is going on in another human’s mind. Some days I would just like to know what is going on in my own!

    2. I suspect we all have it in us to be pretty snide at one time or another, Nicola. Like you it doesn’t stop me reading Austen. Maybe it’s because I assume we would be snide about the same people 🙂

  10. What a fascinating post! I don’t hobnob with writers, but I don’t expect anything from them, either, after doing some volunteer organization of readings. One of the writers I met was so cold and unkind to some of my friends that I never read any of his other books. I now realize personality has nothing to do with the book! Some good writers are kind people, others are quite nasty in person. But I must admit that most of the writers I have met are gracious to their readers, so the issue hasn’t come up again.

    1. I think I might have avoided your first examples books just to deny him the royalties, Kat, but then I’m not always the nicest of people either 🙂

  11. I think litlove’s comment says it all. I know it’s a hard thing to do, but I’m really in favour of not confusing the author with the text. Whether you go along with Barthes’ ‘Death of the Author’, or whether you take the view that writing springs from a level of creativity far deeper than any personal opinions of behaviours of the writer, it seems to me that books (or poems or plays) should be judged on their own merit.

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