9/10/2015. THE PRIVATE AUTHOR—GOOD OR BAD?
Once upon a time authors were mysterious people, stereotyped as starving artists scratching with their pens or pecking on their typewriters in lonely garrets. William Shakespeare, for example, is a shadowy figure. We know about the times he lived in, but not a lot about him personally. The best insights we have about him lie in the words he wrote—his plays and poetry. Then came newspapers, radio, and television, and authors had the opportunity to reveal more of themselves to their readers. Today with the internet and social media, authors can share everything—in real time, even—if they want to. But as a reader, how much do you really want to know about the authors of the novels you read? And how does knowing so much affect what you think of their books?
I can see a few pitfalls in knowing too much. Sometimes, when readers know a great deal about an author, they have trouble separating the author from the novel. Writers are inevitably asked if their fiction is autobiographical and their characters are people they know. If their backgrounds and interests mesh at all with their settings and characters—and their readers know about the similarities—readers may have a harder time understanding that the fictive world is a world apart from anything else. The protagonist is not the author.
We also know of authors who’ve gained or lost readers because they made their social, political, or religious beliefs known. In a blog post on DearAuthor.com a few years ago, a commenter said she loved Nora Roberts, especially after she read about the things Roberts was doing to improve the town in which she lived. In the same post another commenter noted that she couldn’t keep what she knew of T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound from interfering with her pleasure in their poetry. Lately there seems to be a rash of authors revealing their arrogance, which tends to make me shun their books. I’m probably missing some good fiction, but I can’t help it.
Porter Anderson, a journalist, critic, and speaker specializing in publishing, wrote on WriterUnboxed.com last year that he likes some mystique about the books he reads and social media could be draining that mystique. I like mystique, too. I’ve never understood why any reader wants to know about an author’s writing routine, things like whether the author writes in the morning or uses a pen for first drafts. Routine is routine—nothing magic there. Seeing it is like seeing the puppet master pulling the strings. The magic is in the words on the page.
Some of my favorite authors—Richard Russo, for example—share very little of their private lives, and that’s okay with me.
So, as a reader would you rather know the personal habits, likes, and dislikes of an author or approach his or her work as a piece of art fending for itself? Cecilia Galante, author of The Invisibles, said recently on BookClubGirl.com that she thought readers like to get a little glimpse into an author’s world so that when it comes time to read the words the author put on the page, they can feel as though they have just the slightest bit of understanding of where the author came from.
Is that true or do the words on the page do best standing on their own? What do you think? And if you want to know about the authors whose novels you read, what do you want to know?