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Reading Without Regard For The Author

A photograph of six books: Rebecca, The Snow Child, Quiet, The Fault In Our Stars, The Great Gatsby, and Suite Francaise

I want to revisit this topic, updating my thoughts due to the added reading experience I’ve gained since I last wrote about it.

Nicolai Houm’s The Gradual Disappearance Of Jane Ashland, my recent read, says this on page 58:

It was even in line with the dominant theory at the time, which insisted that reading must be done without reference to the lived life of the author.

It’s a fascinating idea to think about because putting a book in its context seems so important, the relation of a book to their life can be critical to understanding it. General historical context is good to know, but so often it’s the author’s context that’s important.

What would Tender Is The Night be without context? I’d argue it’d still be a bad book, but context does redeem it somewhat. The use of a mental health hospital, and alcoholism, wouldn’t be anywhere near as ‘good’ as it is in a literary sense if it wasn’t for that relation to Zelda Fitzgerald’s health and Scott Fitzgerald’s increasing dependence on alcohol. The author’s life, when set against the book, transforms it from a somewhat confusing look at fictional rich Americans in Paris to a semi-autobiographical novel.

Then there are books that go that one step further, wherein you can’t really read them without author context. Tom Malmquist’s In Every Moment We Are Still Alive is billed as a novel about the death of a wife and mother, but Malmquist’s own experience is so intrinsic to what you take away from it that the book would lose some of its impact without knowledge of it.

I remember well my first blogging years, when I had little knowledge in which to set my reading. I used to rail against context – I had never got on with it as a concept for study. My reviews and reading experience were adequate but I am aware of the difference between then and now, and vastly prefer where I am currently. And I know I wouldn’t have written as much as I have without it.

Not referring to an author’s life does ensure a particular sort of objective reading. Some books may be better for it – those books that feature ideas and values in their characters which the author themselves does not ascribe to, can not be confused as items that match their thoughts. But non-referral doesn’t have longevity beyond this – at some point knowledge of contexts will seep through; even without actively reading about an author, in reading their books you tend to gain an idea for who they are.

I think I understand why no referencing has been preferred – it could be easier that way, less ‘messy’, more escapist – but it prevents a certain progression of thought and may wrongly influence opinion. There’s something isolating about it. Perhaps this is a case for re-reading – read once without context, read again with it.

But I personally think knowing about the author in terms of a book’s content is a good thing.

Where do you stand on literature and contexts?



March 26, 2018, 9:11 pm

I’m all about context and knowing the author. My two most recent posts are about meeting the author and getting interested in the book that way.

Jenny @ Reading the End

March 30, 2018, 7:13 pm

Hahaha, well, it’s a mixed bag! I do like knowing about the author, but sometimes I enjoy a book before I learn things about its author. I read People in the Trees by Hanya Yanigahara and was absolutely blown away by it, and now I have also read her second book and watched some interviews with her, and I wish I hadn’t done any of that.

But that’s an outlier case. Mostly I like knowing what’s informed the author’s perspective and where they came up with their ideas and all that. I’m nosy. :p


March 31, 2018, 12:21 am

In general I don’t care much to be informed about the lives of authors unless I’m utterly fascinated by the era in which they live/lived and their works as a whole. I agree about Tender Is the Night (for example) being everything about context, but regardless of context it is an incredibly boring novel, unlike The Beautiful and Damned which really shines despite being weighed down by the same topics of madness and alcoholism.


May 12, 2018, 4:32 pm

I’m always really interested in context. I think it’s fascinating to look into the social, economic, religious and political meanings behind a book. Sometimes you just can’t help but spot these things and I think it enriches the reading experience.



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