Weekly Geeks:Secret pasts and peculiar presents

Bernadette at Reactions to Reading asks these questions at Weekly Geeks :

A couple of incidents have prompted this week’s topic.

  1. I very much enjoyed the two Susan Hill novels that I’ve read and already have the next book in her series Simon Serrailler series on my audio book playlist. Then I discovered, via the author’s opinion column in a UK newspaper, that I don’t particularly like her personality (this piece is an example of what I found mean-spirited and inaccurate about her rants but there were other articles too). Suddenly her books did not seem so appealing any longer.
  2. Craig Sisterson’s excellent blog Crime Watch featured an article about historical mystery author Anne Perry who, as it happens, committed a particularly grim murder many years ago (at the ripe old age of 15). “Thank heavens I’m not a fan of hers” was my first thought.

So I have been pondering the issues of whether it is possible to separate an author’s non-writing life from the books they produce and thought I’d throw these questions over to you. Feel free to answer one or more of these and give examples if you have them.

Does an author’s politics matter to you? Do you have a favourite book or series written by someone you know to be your political opposite? Or have you stopped reading works by a particular author after discovering that their politics was radically different from your own?

What about their personality? Have you ever stopped reading an author’s work after seeing or hearing them talk because you didn’t like what you saw or heard?

And how about that secret past? How would you feel if you found out your favourite author was a murderer or some other kind of criminal? Are there some crimes that you would be OK about and others that would stop you following their work? Do you know about the pasts of ‘your’ authors? Do you want to?

I’d like to say that a writer’s personality and/or past life crimes don’t affect my reading their work and that I judge it on its own merits. But of course it does. It hasn’t actually stopped me reading their books but I find it means their books have to be sufficiently absorbing for me to disregard what I know about their authors. The only way to avoid that influence is not to read anything about an author.

With regard to Susan Hill, I like her books and had read those comments and articles she published, plus her blog. I don’t agree with everything she writes by any means, but I did find her blog entertaining, perhaps more so when I didn’t agree with her views, and I went to hear her talk at Abingdon. She is not an easy character, in my opinion, certainly not very comfortable speaking in public and she had some very sharp words to say about e-books and book bloggers. But I still enjoy her books and won’t stop reading them.

I’ve read one book by Anne Perry, which I didn’t think was very good and based on that book I decided not to bother reading any more of her books. I didn’t know anything at all about her, but when I saw other bloggers recommending her books I checked them online and read about her crime. I did wonder whether that would have affected my decision if I’d known about it when I chose her book to read but I suspect it wouldn’t have put me off. There are plenty of films and books about real-life crime and I have no qualms about watching/reading them.

Non-fiction is different. For example, I want to know that an author’s credentials are genuine when reading books on health, diet, exercise and so on. I used to go to a book group where one person always asked these question about an author – “Who is the person and why should we take any notice of what s/he writes? “.

Unfortunately I haven’t always asked myself those questions. I picked up Bad Science  by Ben Goldacre this morning, which my husband is currently reading. Ben Goldacre is a qualified doctor working for the NHS, so maybe I can trust his book. There is a chapter on “Dr. Gillian McKeith PhD”, which reveals that she is neither a medical doctor, nor is she qualified as a nutritionist. Her PhD was  bought from a non-accredited correspondence course college. I had watched her TV programmes, You Are What You Eat with interest and I even bought her book, which has since sat on the bookshelves unread, along with other books such as Carol Vorderman’s book Detox for Life – both of them totally useless books, Carol’s because, as my husband points out, I didn’t follow it, but then I didn’t want to spend loads of money on all the supplements she recommends, although some of her recipes are good. As my bookshelves are groaning under the weight of too many books I think it’s time to get rid of at least McKeith’s book.

9 thoughts on “Weekly Geeks:Secret pasts and peculiar presents”

  1. Margaret – You give some very good examples of why it’s important to think about what the background is of an author, especially of a non-fiction book such as the ones you mention. It’s one thing to be interested in a fiction writer’s background; very often it’s relevant. But it’s even more important for an author who’s set up as an expert.

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  2. Like you I’d prefer to think I am broadminded and that an author’s background doesn’t matter a whit to me. But I suspect it does if it affects or emerges in their writing.

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  3. I very much agree with you on non-fiction books – there seem to be so many written by people with dubious credentials – pity you can’t return the McKeith book and get a refund directly from the author.

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  4. I was a big fan of the American writer May Sarton until I read a biography of her. Her non-fiction books, especially Journal of a Solitude & Plant Dreaming Deep were wonderful diaries of living alone on the Maine coast with just a cat & dog & a few good friends. Turns out the solitude wasn’t quite so solitary & MS herself came across in her letters etc used in the biography as a really unpleasant person. I still have her books (she wrote fiction & poetry as well as diaries) but I can’t read her anymore. I don’t think it would matter to me as much with a fiction writer.

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  5. I read Hearts and Minds by Amanda Craig last year and enjoyed it very much despite the fact that it deals with some pretty grim realities of London life.
    Since I also very much respected her young adult book reviews, I looked up her blog and rather wished I hadn’t because the tone of it (the posts I read anyway) was decidedly superior, snobbish and more than a little snippy, although I suppose it is to her credit that this doesn’t come out in her fiction.

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  6. Very interesting topic. For my part, I often love books written by people whose political views are very different from my own. I think it would be sad to be turned off certain books simply because one disagreed with their political standpoint.

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  7. I wish I could say that I am not swayed by personal prejudices, but I know that I am. It doesn’t stop me from reading and enjoying books written by people with different political viewpoints to my own, although I suspect I am more on guard and more inclined to be critical. For instance, I have read most of Evelyn Waugh’s books and I do think that my assessment of his novels is adversely affected by my perceptions of him as a man. (I wonder if the reverse is true – whether readers seek out writers they personally like or whose opinions they support?)
    Your comments on the credentials of non fiction writers were very pertinent.

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