Wheat from the Chaff – is it possible to differentiate an author from their books?
Some years ago, I read a book by a big name famous author and was fairly unimpressed by it. I’d read pretty much everything else by this author and enjoyed most of it but this one fell short of even the least enjoyable of their books. I mentioned this sense of meh (there’s no other word for it) on Twitter. Now, bear in mind I don’t follow this author, nor the author follow me, but within an hour or two, they tweeted back rather aggressively. This suggests that said author has various alerts set up for mentions of their name and their books and may well do searches randomly on Twitter to see what’s being said. You can tell by my use of a neutral pronoun that I am keeping the identity of this author very quiet because I really don’t want to have them come after me again. Subsequent observations have shown that I am not alone in being targeted by this author on social media, and that it’s surprisingly common behaviour, even among the big names.
I get it: it’s never nice to get unpleasant, negative reviews. But I didn’t review the book; a quick scan on Amazon showed I was far from alone in my opinion of that book. It’s a rare occasion when a book by a hugely popular and almost iconic author has almost as many 1 star reviews as 5 star ones. To go searching for the people who didn’t like your book seems to reveal a vast insecurity that is shocking considering the numbers who did like it.
This post isn’t intended to be solely about this sort of behaviour but a wider issue instead. How much can you separate an author’s character and behaviour from their books? Having recently published Little Gidding Girl, which is partly inspired by T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets, I am acutely aware of Eliot’s feet of clay. His treatment of his wife (who shares my name, oddly enough) is not edifying (in brief, when her mental illness became too much for him, and he declared their marriage over, her brother apparently had her shut away in an asylum and Eliot never saw her again https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vivienne_Haigh-Wood_Eliot ). There are many criticisms that can be made of Eliot, for certain, but I still revere his poetry. Yet the dissonance makes me uncomfortable at times.
It’s the same with a lot of authors and poets whose work I have been enthralled by; some have held opinions and beliefs that I shudder at, yet which I can ignore or not even notice within their works. It’s quite rare that an author is a completely nice guy or gal; I wonder also if the tension of personality flaws, weird beliefs and a history of trauma and difficulties may be a large part of what drives creative endeavours? Of Eliot, it was said that Vivienne ruined him as a man but made him as a poet.
In these days of instant access to authors via social media and the ‘net generally, it’s pretty hard to hide from your readers. Authors are required to have a public presence and a public persona; it’s part of the deal, especially with traditional publishing contracts. You are encouraged to find your USP (Unique Selling Point, for those, like me, who don’t speak Marketese) of things that will draw an audience to you, whether that’s an interest in shoes, cupcakes, animal welfare or whatever. Potential authors who cringe at the concept of putting yourself out there will usually remain just that: potential authors. Refusal to accept this side of things is almost always the end of your career before it even starts. It’s intrusive to the author and it can create intolerable pressures and tensions. You cannot be a completely private person and an author, unless you have created a completely “other” identity that is used for your author profile. This is far harder than you would imagine; if you interact with fans, your real nature will eventually slip out because lies are harder to maintain than truths.
My own author persona has been cobbled together from useful scraps, rather like the way a caddis-fly constructs a shell of bits and bobs to protect itself from being eaten. I’m definitely a soft-shelled sort of person, easily hurt, but the bits and bobs are true reflections of the nature within the armour. When I first began to get my books out there, I was naïve but thankfully I was also intellectually aware that one should not take things personally. A 1 star review is, after all, solely the opinion of one person, and cannot outweigh the dozens and dozens of 4 and 5 star reviews. I’ve cried at negative reviews. I’ve raged, but I’ve (mostly) done it privately and unlike many authors, I’ve never gone after the reviewer. They, like anyone, are entitled to their reaction to a book, but I do sometimes wonder if they realise that authors do read reviews (even though some would suggest we ought not, even the good ones) and have feelings and can be gravely wounded by the personal attacks that some reviews employ.
Some authors refer to their works as their book babies, and the analogy is quite an accurate one. They are the products of our hearts, minds and imaginations and our aspirations, as well as of long hours of hard labour. But once those book babies are out in the world, they can and almost always do take on a life of their own, and while we may own the copyright, in subtle ways we no long own the soul of that book. People who read find their own understanding of the story, of the characters. We as authors cannot control that or dictate what readers can and can’t do or feel. Some books take on a life that is distinct from that of the creator, so distinct that on reading them you can’t help wonder how someone like that could create something like this. It cuts both ways: unpleasant or even evil people writing inspiring, powerful, poetic and life changing books, and deeply good, kind, decent and caring people writing books that are disturbing, frightening and altogether horrible books.
One can never entirely predict how one’s off-spring, whether flesh or mere words, will turn out. This makes the process of creation so much more chancy and ultimately more exciting, because you cannot tell how something will develop, both in the writing and in the reading.