Monday, 10 January 2022

Beyond the Author

How much do you need to know about an author before you can enjoy their books?

 As adults, it’s not uncommon to reassess art that has influenced us in our lives through the prism of experience and changing social attitudes. It’s a fascinating facet of our relationship with the works we engage with, and the more sober amongst us can do it with healthy detachment and curiosity. It can be a positive thing to recognise our erstwhile idols have feet of clay and, perhaps more to the point, that flawed human beings can still produce things of value and beauty.

I’ve certainly engaged in this reassessment where once-adored musical idols are concerned, and I can understand periods of reflection on books by authors who have fallen from grace. I think it’s important, though, to recognise the separation between a book and its author.  Reading a book is a creative activity and every reader’s engagement with a book will be dictated as much by their character as by the author’s. If that engagement has been joyful and productive it seems churlish to demand a reassessment based on an author’s shortcomings.

I know there’s nothing new in these observations, but it’s been on my mind lately as the author of some of my boys’ favourite stories keeps relentlessly hitting headlines for reasons which bear little relation to her published work. It won’t have escaped your attention that J. K. Rowling is embroiled in a bitter public debate about transgender rights and women-only spaces and that she has been adopted as a hate figure by some, and as a heroic spokesperson for others. As is the way these days, a topic which merits nuanced exploration and which shouldn’t be inherently frightening or upsetting seems to serve only to throw up banners for people to march under, with only the most strident and combative voices reaching the public consciousness.

 One result of the divisive tone of the discussion has been reasonable people, including many children’s authors, condemning not only Rowling herself but the works for which she is most famous. Some voices seek either to diminish the role she played in the books’ and films’ success or to simply talk the work down.

I would have no skin in this game at all were it not for the nature of my relationship with the Potter books. I was a sneering sceptic when they came out – I happened to be working in a university bookshop at the time, and I was scornful of the students who’d eschew the marvellous racks of grown-up books in favour if these derivative frivolities. That all changed, though, when I had kids of my own – I was finally persuaded that the series might constitute good bed-time reading, so we gave it a go and my two wee boys absolutely loved them. Each night we’d descend into this fantastical world, and while I might have been occasionally distracted by this theme or that character’s resemblance to  someone else’s work, none of that mattered a jot to Fergus and Robin who were uncritically caught up in the magic.

The memory of coorying in together by the fire and catching up with our friends in Hogwarts is one of comfort and joy, made ever more bittersweet as those days recede further into the past. I suspect all the parents among you can relate – is there any aspect of parenthood more wonderful than getting lost together in bedtime stories? The wonder at what might happen next; the cries for ‘one more chapter!’ when it’s clearly lights-out time. Special, personal, magical, perfect. And at no point did the author’s political views have any role to play in our evening ritual.

It’s because of this that the reaction to Rowling’s statements make me so unhappy. My boys are now old enough to have their own views on the issue in question, and like most of their generation that I come across they are generally wiser and kinder than their elders – but it troubles me deeply that the blight of toxic public discourse and our current fad for holding creative folk up to vastly higher standards than we hold, say, royals or politicians, should tarnish what was a completely innocent enjoyment of a body of work.

An author is a conduit for the stories they tell, and while it can be superficially interesting to learn about them as people, we need to recognise the distance between the artist and the art. When I send my stories out into the world I want them to manifest afresh in every mind that receives them – they belong to the reader or the listener, they exist in the moment they meet far more than in the moment I made them up. I would hate my manifold faults as a human being to impinge on those moments of meeting, to interrupt the developing relationship between a reader and a story, and I’d be suspicious of anyone else who sought to undermine them because of some perceived failing of mine.

I try to keep this in mind when I scan the fallout from another writer’s public statements on contentious issues.


Wishing everyone a safe and productive 2022 – all the best!



Joan Lennon said...

'An author is a conduit for the stories they tell' - you are a wise bunny, Alan. When I try to teach editing and get students to reconsider what they're passionately clinging to, I do try to get them to ease away from it being about them, and being about what the story needs. It's amazing I still have any teeth.

Rowena House said...

Milan Kundera in The Art of the Novel suggests at one point that all writers should work under a pseudonym and be otherwise anonymous. That could be a healthy thing in a celebrity obsessed aged, purging the shelves of slebs and forcing us both as readers and writers to relate solely to the story. I also wonder how many 'writers' might find other paths to fame were this the case.

Alan McClure said...

Joan, your students are lucky to have you!
Rowena, it's an intriguing thought!
Thanks for reading, both of you.

paraglider said...

Alan - you've highlighted one of the two main injustices commonly faced by writers. If we had to 'cancel' all writers who were imperfect people or even who held contentious views, there would be precious few books left on the shelves. The other injustice (which is also based on an unjustified readers' perspective) is that all writing is "really" autobiographical. This attitude is so prevalent in poetry circles that I have had to take recourse to a form of disclaimer:
The "I" of a poem is not necessarily me. For example, I am not a beached jellyfish, even though I may choose to write from the point of view of one such hapless invertebrate.

Alan McClure said...

It's a sair fecht, this writing lark!

Mystica said...

I like the post! Thank you. Good reading and plenty to think over.

Alan McClure said...

Thanks Mystica!