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Authors And Contexts And Referenced Works Redux

A photograph of copies of Vanity Fair, Anna Karenina, David Copperfield, side by side facing outwards

Several years ago, when I was in the first flush of my ‘new’ reading style, I wrote a post about the impossibility of disconnecting an author from their work. I’ve posted on it at least twice since; it’s a topic that won’t go away.

I haven’t changed my opinion on it, in fact I’ve become more firm in my opinion – you can’t always disconnect the author, no matter how much you want to. You can, of course, in literal terms, but you’d get so much less discussion, thinking, and so forth from it I’d hazard to say that in terms of certain books (a good number) the discussion might be worthless. (I’m thinking here of the books I’ve read in the past, where my initial thoughts have become irrelevant when finding out about the author.)

I find the philosophy of reading in a vacuum fascinating – how would opinions of books be if people read without any context of anything, if they had no knowledge of the world at all, or only limited knowledge? The reality of such a concept is of course awful, and you’d need information to learn to read anyway, so an idea for philosophy it must stay: we can only imagine how opinions might change or be different with different knowledge. We sometimes achieve something similar, such as the point I made above about not knowing about the author before you read, and those times when you read a review and you finish it thinking ‘that’s all very well you didn’t like it, but you missed the point of the book entirely’. (Often those sorts of reviews are so well written and considered, that you really do wish the person had got the point or had the context necessary because their review would likely have been excellent.)

I’ve missed points before, and likely will do again. It comes with the territory; we can never read everything, and we can’t remember every single aspect of every single book.

This subject of contexts came back to me recently when I was reading Lady Chatterley’s Lover and seeing a – perhaps tenuous – link with Anna Karenina, the way both writers are pining for something that’s important in their lives. Would I have enjoyed Lawrence’s musings without being able to contrast it to Tolstoy’s? Probably, but being able to do so wasn’t just interesting, it was downright fun, tenuous or not.

I’ve found it interesting that reading in context covers all kinds of books – I think what I’d consider the problematic aspects of Outlander, for example, are somewhat explained by knowing the reason Gabaldon wrote and the ‘place’ she was coming from. Without that, I’d say it’s just a good book with a bit too much sex. now, I’d say that it has a bit too much sex regardless, but knowing it was a writing project and continued because a small group of Gabaldon’s fellow readers and writers wanted to read more brings a few ‘aha’ moments1.

In contrast, I found it fascinating to read Anne Of Avonlea, the second book in L M Montgomery’s Anne series, that I thought far surpassed the first book, and then discover that the author hadn’t wanted to write it2. Perhaps Montgomery’s feelings, and the little insight you get into the mind of her publisher via her written opinion on the whole thing, shows a publisher who had a belief in their author and knew she wasn’t yet at her peak. (And so then it’s interesting that she hated writing it yet it was so good.)

With my current reading ‘theme’ of reading around the subject, I’m seeing the advantages in taking author context even further. Researching Louisa May Alcott’s literary influences (I’m reading Little Women – it’s a horrible, wet, June, and feels appropriate) leads to seeing, for example, exactly why Jo March is reading a particular book. It’s seemingly the smallest thing: in chapter three, titled ‘The Laurence Boy’, which introduces the previously off-stage Laurie, Jo reads Charlotte Mary Yonge’s The Heir Of Redclyffe, and it makes her cry. If you hadn’t already heard of Yonge’s book, it was very popular in its day. This information, in the context of Jo reading it, is something I found out a few years ago; I had been researching Yonge rather than Alcott, so the path to the discovery was different, but the result the same.

However, whilst that fact of popularity accounts for Alcott’s using it as Jo’s reading material, what I discovered yesterday when having another read-up on Yonge’s book was that there was a lot more to it than popularity. (Spoiler incoming for Alcott’s series – skip to the next paragraph if you don’t want to know.) It has been said that Alcott uses Yonge’s book in this chapter as a sort of clue as to where Jo and Laurie might end up, not together. Apparently, The Heir Of Redclyffe features a similar set up to the place Alcott takes her story. Perhaps in years gone by, when the March sisters were first introduced, people found more in Alcott’s decisions about Jo and Laurie than we can today. Yonge’s book is mostly forgotten, and we can’t relive the literary world as it would have been when she was famous.

This of course all links back to what I said recently about lost contexts and authors of yore not necessarily thinking about the potential pitfalls of dating their books.

Reading related books is obviously difficult – as I’ve said before, where should you stop, and what path should you follow? – but gaining author and background context is generally easy, what with the Internet and so on. What I’m personally yet to decide on is what order works best – is it better to read the book and then find out about the author? Is it better to find out about the author and then read the book? Or is a mix of reading and research the best way? Each method will produce different thoughts and highlight different aspects of the book; I think the biggest thing to keep in mind is that once you’ve chosen a particular method, you’re not going to be able to go back and wipe the slate clean. Any thoughts you have of a book or of a part of a book will necessarily build on top of what you’ve already thought.

That is both compelling and kind of scary – you might still miss the little things. But without that vacuum it’s going to happen.


1 On her page about the background to the book, Gabaldon says: “I became a member of the Compuserve Books and Writers Community (then called the Literary Forum), somewhere in late 1986. […] So – with trembling hands and pounding heart – I posted a small chunk (three or four pages, as I recall) of the book I was calling CROSS STITCH. And people liked it. They commented on it. They wanted to see more!”
2 “I’m awfully afraid if the thing takes, they’ll want me to write her through college. The idea makes me sick. I feel like the magician in the Eastern story who became the slave of the ‘jinn’ he had conjured out of the bottle.” (Montgomery to Weber, 10th September 1908)


Tracy Terry

June 17, 2019, 5:16 pm

Hmm!Interesting. Thank you for such a thought provoking post

Jenny @ Reading the End

June 20, 2019, 12:42 am

I think learning more about authors can be risky in the sense that like, you might discover things about the author you’d much rather not know. Typically if I do learn more about an author and their Process ™, it’s because I liked their book enough that I wanted to feel more fully immersed in it, and I’m using author interviews and bios and things to make that happen. So for me it’s typically reading the book and THEN learning more about the author.


July 8, 2019, 11:43 am

Tracy Terry: :)

Jenny: Definitely; the wrong things, whatever they are (because some content can vary depending on what it is and who’s reading) can be a problem. That’s a good point about liking the book enough; so often it is that way, whereas with a book you don’t like there could be interesting information behind it but there’s too much desire to just put it behind you and move on.



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