Earlier 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.