Wheat from the Chaff – is it possible to differentiate an author from their books?

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.

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3 thoughts on “Wheat from the Chaff – is it possible to differentiate an author from their books?

  1. It is an interesting process – the fact of publication turning your ‘book baby’ into public property to some extent. I have yet to experience that with my novels, but I’m sure I will dislike it every bit as much as most other authors I have read discussing this issue. But as a reader, I also identify with the strong feelings engendered by the experience of entering another world – for good or for ill – and while I generally don’t share my most negative feelings online, I certainly sound off when I write my private notes.

  2. Hum: another good piece Vivienne! I think it is very ‘un-everything’ to ‘go after’ people who haven’t liked one’s books – as you say, they are only one person, (or several one persons) and they have their own reasons for not liking the book. A piece of fiction is likely to be disliked as well as liked, since it often disturbs emotions which lie inside the personality, by ‘touching a nerve’ (or two). I remember a person who came to my ‘ArtWeeks’ exhibition some years a go, and who shuddered, as she told her partner (who had arrived after her) that ‘all my life is in those paintings’. Of course, it wasn’t, as I didn’t know her and had never seen her, but she saw her life there. Possibly her unhappy life. I stared at my paintings, and became horrified at the thought that, in some of the family groups I’d done, she had seen something terrible, such as sexual abuse, whereas where I had painted young children with adults in close touch, for example leaning over a book together: they were happy paintings about my grandparents, and nothing wrong was meant. So there you go: we can’t know what our art will bring to mind in another person. And it goes for books, and all kinds of stories, told in all manner of ways. And then, there is style, ways of putting things, content, and simple dreary, prejudiced or whatever writing. I happen to dislike it when the author appears to be looking down on their characters, mocking, or being satirical. That’s just me.

  3. “Is it possible to differentiate an author from their books?” I’ve never thought about that before, but it’s got me thinking. When I find a book that I like, I usually google a little about the author as it’s nice to know some detail of the person behind the book … but I have never felt compelled to follow a writer on Facebook, Twitter or whatever. I do look at their websites though, to keep up with recent publishing news, etc. If I knew something terrible about an author … perhaps if they were a paedophile, animal abuser, child abuser, etc. and they had written their autobiography, I know I wouldn’t want to read it no matter how interesting their background may be … not sure if I would still avoid if the proceeds went to charity though. It’s a difficult one.

    On the subject of reviews – I feel that to retaliate over a ‘less than hoped for one’ is unprofessional and to do so would cause that person’s writing career more harm than the reviews themselves. I know if I saw that online, it would lower my opinion of the author as a person. I feel that books stand/speak for themselves. I often read reviews to get more of the gist of a story than the blurb provides and if I really want to read a book, I don’t let poor reviews put me off. And you’re right – a few lower-star reviews do not outweigh those of all the 4/5 star ones, and it looks more authentic anyway … it proves that not all reviewers consist of friends and family.

    On a lighter note, I remember a few years ago having some really good laugh-out-loud moments reading the reviews of ‘Fifty Shades’. With review titles such as ‘What a pile of poo’; ‘Holy Cow! Thank the Lord that’s over’; ‘She must be pretty sore! Ouch.’; ‘Oh crap, oh crapola and oh crap again’, things can’t be that bad for us. Then again, she did make a pile of cash from her crap but, we as intelligent and noble people, know that money isn’t everything (said tongue in cheek). I did read some of the parodies and they were worth every penny that I paid for them. 😀

    I think your book babies are doing just fine.

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