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Viewing Books As Separate From Their Authors: A Discussion Of Both Sides

A photo of the Bronte parsonage

This photograph was taken by John Burke (no longer on Flickr).

I have always taken issue with the idea that you’re supposed to view a book as a single entity rather than in conjunction with the author. I do see the reasoning behind it – for example one could make some disturbing assumptions about writers of crime fiction if you focused on the connections – but I cannot, in most cases, accept the notion.

To use a rather obvious and perhaps extreme example, one cannot separate Charlotte Brontë’s work from Charlotte Brontë herself without leaving lots of questions unanswered and the reader very confused. Most apparent in Villette, the hatred of Lucy Snowe of Catholicism leaves no room for doubt no matter how much or little you know of Brontë – the author’s own hatred of Catholicism is the catalyst for Lucy’s feelings. Separating author and text here would severely limit the discussion and the study one could undertake into the work. And surely such discussions are of paramount importance in literature classes. Whole lessons revolve around themes and how they relate to the author’s background, and in this not only are you learning about literature but history and society as well.

Writers are told to write what they know. If they write what they know, then surely we should be putting two and two together. Though of course there is an issue in doing so when this ‘knowing’ comes from hours of research. Research creates a fuzzy line between knowing and not knowing. When using research, a writer is writing what they know, but they only know it because they specifically researched it in order to write the book in question. Perhaps research could be considered a crafty way of getting around the ‘know’ advice, but then there would be a whole heap of problems in literature if there was no research, no matter the works being non-fictional or fictional.

My last point is ironically the one most in opposition to viewing a book in conjunction with its author. If we view every book as part of the author then we would severely limit what the author would be comfortable writing. If we saw a work as being so important to the author in a particularly intimate way, then few would write about controversial points of view they do not actually share themselves, and there would be no fun in fiction. People would be wary of Charlaine Harris by default1, no one would ever sit down for fear they were encroaching on Aimee Bender’s personal space2, and Eloisa James would find voicemails from her doctor concerned about her bare-handed cowpat discus3. These are of course, again, extreme examples, but the idea should be clear. If everything an author wrote was looked at as the ultimate extension of themselves there would be fewer books, fewer subjects, and less to discuss. Not every author would worry, indeed maybe most would shrug their shoulders and continue writing despite the ‘silly’ readers, but there would be a shift in the literary world.

These reasons are why we cannot afford to throw a blanket over the notion – whichever way it fell. It is, I believe, impossible to view a book as separate from its author, just as much as it’s impossible to take everything as an indication of the author’s self. There must be a careful balance, a case-by-case review, every book examined to see which is appropriate.

But I cannot agree with the assertion that books should be viewed as a single separate entity each and every time.

1 Harris writes about vampires.
2 Aimee Bender’s The Particular Sadness Of Lemon Cake includes people turning into chairs.
3 Desperate Duchesses features the hero and heroine throwing cowpats in a field.

What’s your take on this subject?



July 8, 2013, 5:34 am

Well said, Charlie!


July 8, 2013, 9:02 am

Esencally it is impossibly to study a book without taking into account the author, as whether they like it or not their social, cultural and political situation and beliefs/ideals will be reflected in the novel. Take a Dystopian for example, how on earth will that make sense without knowing what the author wanted to say and then analysing it to see if they put anything in subconsciously or if they failed to make their point.

Anyone academically not including discussion about author intent and reflection, probably isn’t the best teacher.

vicki (skiourophile / bibliolathas)

July 8, 2013, 9:29 am

You’ve put that so well, Charlie. Thinking about *Lolita* is perhaps a good example of this? One slightly tangential thing that strikes me is how so much is expected from the living author of a favourite book at, e.g., a book festival: in the sense, perhaps, that readers seem to think they have a right (or some sort of knowledge that supplies the right) to the author because of the book/s. It may be a mild sociopathy on my part (!) but I’m not terrifically interested in the author as private person – yet fans seem (as the case of the stalking of Charlaine Harris []) to lose sight of the reality of writer as a form of production (not perhaps the word I need her, but I hope it makes sense).

Rebecca @ Love at First Book

July 9, 2013, 2:08 am

Good points! Sometimes books need to be entire entities, and other times not.


July 9, 2013, 8:50 am

Beautiful post, Charlie! I have mixed feelings about this. I think it is extremely difficult to see a book as separate from an author. I loved your comment on Charlotte Bronte’s ‘Villette’ on this. However, seeing a book as an extension of the author has its own set of problems. Finding the balance is important, though it is hard, as you have put it so beautifully. Another perspective I have on this is that what happens if we discover that the author is a different person from what we imagine after reading his / her works? I used to like V.S.Naipaul’s works but after I read excerpts of his biography and read about his thoughts on women writers (he said women writers are not as good as men writers) I stopped reading his works. But my reactions on this issue were not consistent and were contradictory. When I read that Hemingway had a string of affairs while he was married, it didn’t affect my opinion of his writing. And when I read that Herman Melville was nasty with his own family (the story was that he used to buy a bag oranges and go home and while his wife and children were looking, he used to eat every one of them without sharing), that didn’t change my opinion of his writing either. So where does one draw the line? I don’t know the answer. But it is interesting to think about this interesting topic. Thanks for writing about it.


July 9, 2013, 11:36 am

Ahh! Yes, I do agree that of course everything in a book extends in some way from the authors view or experience or a corner of imagination fueled by factors he/she may not even understand. The mistake as readers is when we look to interpret every thing as a version of autobiography. But I think this is why we do love to learn more about writers – helps us put their work in context and also sometimes inform us a bit on how they did it.


July 9, 2013, 4:56 pm

Another great topic Charlie. I can’t say I’ve thought about this in the way you’re discussing. I can’t say I’ve ever thought that specific events in books must have happened to the author. I do agree though that I don’t view a book as separate entity from the author. Especially for authors I really enjoyed I like to read all their work, and will compare them to previous books I’ve read by them. It is nice to see the journey and the different choices the author makes during their career.

Jenny @ Reading the End (formerly Jenny’s Books)

July 10, 2013, 2:41 am

I have thought about this a lot, and I still haven’t sorted out my ideas about it all the way. I know that I do take authors’ lives into account when I’m reading their books, and I’m never sure if that’s cool or not cool.



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