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Does An Author’s Personal Life Influence You?

Some of the most commented on posts at 101 Books are the post in which I ask a simple question. We usually have a lot of great discussion in the comments.

So with that in mind, I thought I’d make this a weekly thing. From now on, every Monday I will feature the “Monday Question” on the blog. It will be a simple, straightforward book-related question for you guys. I’ll give you some of my initial thoughts and then turn the floor over to you in the comments. Hopefully, it will provoke some new thoughts and entertaining discussions.

So let’s get started.

The first Monday Question is simply this:

Does an author’s personal life influence how you view his work?

For example, Hemingway and Fitzgerald were raging, obnoxious (at times) alcoholics, and Jonathan Franzen is a pretentious turd who judges you for using social media. Do you care?

My honest answer to that is no. I feel like I’m able to separate my feelings toward the author from my feelings toward the book. It does get difficult, however, when a writer inserts their political views into a work. That’s something I’ve seen with John Steinbeck in The Grapes of Wrath and Richard Wright in Native Son.

So what do you think—can you separate an author’s personal life and opinions from his art?

(Image: Wikimedia Commons)

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56 Comments Post a comment
  1. No it doesn’t. It might be bad of me to say this, but authors’ personal lives almost never interests me. I can absolutely separate them from their novels.

    Liked by 1 person

    October 20, 2014
  2. It depends on whether the author and I share enough “core values.” I just finished listening to “A Farewell to Arms,” as read by John Slattery, which I found intensely moving (I had read the book as a teenager and missed almost everything it had to offer). While I might read a bio of Hemingway, knowing more about him is unlikely to change whether I find his words beautiful or evocative. By the way, I drink one or two glasses of wine a week, as compared to Fred Henry’s alocholic intake.

    Like

    October 20, 2014
  3. Reblogged this on Author P.S. Bartlett and commented:
    I would say I hope it doesn’t in my case, unless being a doting grandma and occasional soap box speaker sways your opinion either way. 😉 Speaking for myself, I’m of a rather grown up age and no author’s personal business has influenced me yet so I don’t think it ever will.

    Like

    October 20, 2014
  4. My answer is no, as well. And I do agree with you about Jonathan Franzen. The one thing from the writer’s life I am influenced by is his/her commitment to their craft. When I read a biography about a writer, and I don’t do it often, I am after that, and the question of how they overcame whatever they needed to overcome to become the writer they became.

    Like

    October 20, 2014
  5. It can. Knowing something about an author’s personal life can give me some insight into the motives and message behind the story.

    Liked by 1 person

    October 20, 2014
  6. I don’t usually know anything about their personal lives.

    Like

    October 20, 2014
  7. Absolutely. I am sorry to say i cannot read a book if i know something about the authors life that disgusts me. I simply can’t.

    Liked by 3 people

    October 20, 2014
    • What if you had already read the book before you found out about the author?

      Like

      October 21, 2014
      • That’s happened to me a few times. If I like one book I want to read more about the same author; i.e. Orson Scott Card: I loved Ender, not quite the rest but the ones I read were ok. Then I read a few interviews…. and that was it for me.
        It is not a personal choice I don’t like (Artaud or Bukowski) it’s the harm they’ve done to someone else either a person o an attitude towards a group.
        (Sorry if I’m not being crystal clear but english is not my mother tongue).

        Like

        October 21, 2014
  8. Yes, it absolutely does. However, I’m rather patient and understanding when it comes to human foibles. Often these are the things that give writers their flavor. I don’t expect to discover perfect lives.

    For me, it’s a bit like looking at Hitler’s paintings. He may have been an artist, but I simply can’t see the beauty in something produced by a horrible human being. What he did weighs so heavily over the top of what he created, that I would prefer to just look away.

    Liked by 1 person

    October 20, 2014
    • That makes sense, because (besides the fact that anything remotely connected to Hitler is going to remind you of his crimes), there cannot be any integrity in the work if there’s no integrity in the person, can there? I’ve never seen any of Hitler’s paintings, so for all I know, he might have been Michelanglo, but no matter how skilled he was, the heart behind a piece of art has some bearing on its value too, doesn’t it?

      Liked by 1 person

      October 20, 2014
  9. I’ve recently learned more about Hemingway through reading about F. Scott Fitzgerald and Zelda and now want to reread the one book of Hemingway’s that I have read and perhaps read a few more. Not because I liked what I learned about him but because I think it will be more relevant, more intriguing, perhaps more insightful. Oddly enough, I’m almost finished reading Carlos Ruiz Zafón’s book The Shadow of the Wind in which a young man reads a book by a particular author and spends the rest of the book trying to learn more about him (a mysterious shadow who has taken on the persona of one of his own characters) and history comes close to repeating itself. It’s been fascinating.

    Liked by 1 person

    October 20, 2014
  10. Not really. I don’t care much bout some authors til after I’ve read their books. Oh, I’m talking bout the YA novels btw. Because when it comes to Christian books, I check on the author’s life first before reading what he/she wrote.

    Like

    October 20, 2014
  11. It really doesn’t. In most cases, I am least interested in the author’s life. Enid Blyton wrote the most enjoyable children’s books and later I read about how she had strong racist feelings, it still doesn’t figure in how i read the stories.

    Like

    October 20, 2014
  12. For the most part no but if I happen to find out an author or artist or whatever is really crazy in a bad way and would use the money he/she makes off their books to support causes I have huge issues with than I would probably steer clear of their work.

    Liked by 1 person

    October 20, 2014
    • This exactly.

      Like

      October 21, 2014
    • I would probably agree with this too. I think it would have to be a really extreme situation, but I can see that.

      Like

      October 21, 2014
  13. Suzi Godwin #

    I have loved books by people who are not terribly likable. And in some cases, knowing about the author’s life has helped my understanding of the book. But I have to say that I don’t want to read something by someone who did something really repugnant. Would never read something by an unrepentant murderer. And, in a different medium, have never felt the same about the movie Manhattan since I learned too much about Woody Allen

    Like

    October 20, 2014
  14. hmm…trying to figure out if you have actually suggested that neither Hemingway nor Fitzgerald inserted political views into their writing, or if you were suggesting that you had found their views more to your taste- because really there is politics in everything- sometimes more blatant, other times more covert, but books that disclose to the reader how/why people are behaving/misbehaving are also sharing a personal political outlook. Grapes of Wrath remains powerful because it stuns- that poverty created both misery and enormous generosity…
    So too, Daisy Buchanan (Fitzgerald) is definitely representative of a privileged class…and the tenacity of the “old man” in Hemingway’s Old Man and the Sea represents a value system equally tied to economics- economics and politics- …isn’t this what much of ‘great literature’ is actually illuminating?

    short answer: book first – author’s personal struggles etc. maybe – but since we still don’t even know for sure if Shakespeare wrote all that “Shakespeare” is credited with- perhaps author’s personal life recedes in favour of the “story”.

    Liked by 1 person

    October 20, 2014
  15. Somehow, it does, yes. I try to keep in mind what kind of person has written the book I am reading, just to see it in the right context. But mainly, this doesn’t keep me from reading a particular book. Of course, there is an exception to my rule, like all rules do have an exception. It is Günter Grass. This German author received a lot of honors and awards, for example he got the Nobel prize for literature in 1999. But I just can’t forget that he was part of the Waffen-SS in World War II. Even though he was young (17) and claims that he never committed war crimes. It doesn’t matter to me. It was wrong and disgusting and I can’t forgive. That’s why I’ll never read one of his books.

    Like

    October 20, 2014
  16. I suppose it matters if the nature of their written works are a lie. What I mean by this is whether or not their literature is an honest and truthful portrayal of their principles, values or emotions. If a writer attempts to present anguish, giving us context and circumstance, the reasons behind this human suffering and this is a genuine expression of their perspective and understanding, then it is honest. I believe this is also the case when a writer tries to make clear the way they hope to see the world, or how they view the world as it is. Yet, when their written work intends to cover up or subscribes to the myth of the ‘artist’ or ‘writer’, without showing their authentic selves through their work, it becomes insincere and in a sense, a lie.

    It is not a sin to be damaged and to ease your pain through alcohol. It is a sin to hurt others but often people act out of their own fear and pain, past and present. Writing is regularly prescribed by psychologists as a cathartic exercise, to help ease suffering. So long as writers are truthful in the essence and purpose of their story, the works remain important and sometimes great. Their personal lives do matter because it is a part of their own personal story, the ones which enable them to produce literature, but we don’t need to condemn them for their actions. So long as they don’t murder anyone, of course.

    Liked by 1 person

    October 20, 2014
  17. I have thought much about this question. I will answer it on my own blog and link back to your post. I will also put my response in the comments. My childhood heroes were authors and one in particular “let me down”. I still love his works but it was hard to recover from the shock

    Like

    October 20, 2014
  18. When I read Mary Higgins Clark’s biography, “Kitchen Privileges”, I was thrilled to learn that she had struggled to get where she is now (wealthy), More-so than if she had been handed the luxuries that she now enjoys. She truly has a talent.

    Like

    October 20, 2014
  19. Ah the old can you separate the art from the artist question? The egalitarian in me wants to say no it doesn’t matter a jot but I think i’d be lying if I didn’t read some of the person into the novel. Once you ‘know’ something about a writer I guess it’s hard to read their work in a value free way.

    I’ve read a bit about this question in the context of art (as in paintings/sculpture) and film, and I think it can be more difficult to separate them when the artist is still alive. I don’t know too many people who turn their nose up at Caravaggio because he may (may not) have been a murderer and yet recent allegations about Woody Allen prompted many to turn away from his work. In part this might be to do with the fact that you are funding and in someway supporting the artist when they are alive and maybe it’s the same way with writers.

    Dead writers who lived questionably I might be able to overlook but maybe I’m less than keen on funding a turd’s turdy lifestyle.

    Like

    October 20, 2014
  20. It doesn’t for me. For me, it’s about the quality of the book, rather than the author’s own personal views. Now, if the author’s personal views deters the book’s theme, then that’s a different story.

    Like

    October 20, 2014
  21. I would be a hypocrite if I answered this question simply with a yes or no. It depends on whether the author’s views or the essence of their views leak into their work. If they do, then, yes. That’s one reason why I find it difficult to read Hemingway. I listen to Wagner, yet the beliefs he espoused were repulsive. I wouldn’t read the book of a murderer unless there was cause to believe in his/her innocence. There are so many authors that we could stand in judgement of for being less than perfect parents, spouses, family members, human beings, that we’d spend more time judging than reading. So unless I find the narrative/characterization/language of the book repulsive, I could, for the most part, read it.

    Like

    October 20, 2014
  22. No, an author’s life does not make me think of him/her in a different way than I would anyone else. We all have a right to live our lives as we see fit. I judge his writing, not his life.

    Like

    October 20, 2014
  23. I think it depends on the book. As it relates to fiction, it doesn’t really matter. I can still appreciate the work.

    Like

    October 20, 2014
  24. Marie #

    I read this earlier and was going to reply that no, it doesn’t. Then I came across an article posted by an author this week, in which she talks about becoming obsessed with bad reviews, to the point where she actually tracked down and called to the house of one particular reviewer. So, now my answer is yes. Certain behaviour will most definitely put me off an author.

    Like

    October 20, 2014
    • Wow, that’s really bad. Wouldn’t read anything by her for sure. So maybe I take back everything I said!

      Like

      October 21, 2014
  25. Bah. It depends. For example, Bukowski’s novels have a lot of value to me just because they were written by him. The author brings charm to the novel; another touch, if you will. This is not always, though. At least in non-fiction this is usually the case. For me.

    Liked by 1 person

    October 20, 2014
  26. Maybe, I think this depend of the author. It’s impossible that won’t be influenced the Bukowski’s work by the Bukowski’s life.

    Like

    October 20, 2014
  27. I guess the authors themselves do have a lot to do with the way I view a book. Sometimes, if you truly want to understand a work, you have to know a little bit about the author’s worldview and opinions so that you will know where he’s coming from. I may interpret a work differently depending on what I know about that author and his/her life. However, if you’re asking whether the author’s personality makes a difference to me when I’m reading, not at all. At least, not in fiction, because in fiction, the author has less of an opportunity to show what he is like, since the point is to show what the characters are like.

    Like

    October 20, 2014
  28. And I meant to add this to my comment: I love the idea of Monday Questions! I can’t wait to see the next one!

    Like

    October 20, 2014
  29. I would say it all depends on the profile of the author. I think I’m fairly good at judging novels on their own merits rather letting who wrote it influence me. My favourite book is Dubliners by James Joyce and yet I detest Finnegan’s Wake, so I based that solely on the work itself.

    But to turn this question around: Does an author’s writings affect how you think of them as a person?

    Best example I can think of is Vladimir Nabokov. Can you read Lolita without questioning the mind that novel came from?

    I’m not suggesting Nabokov ever did anything vile or inappropriate like Humbert Humbert but still, he went to a pretty dark place when conceiving that story.

    Like

    October 20, 2014
    • Great point. And, yes, I do I have to consider that in regards to Lolita.

      Like

      October 21, 2014
  30. What a great question! I think I can also enjoy authors even if their personal lives are out of sync with my own ideas. When you think of all the creative people out there, you have to allow for strong opinions, personalities, bad decisions, etc. It’s a great way to get inside other people’s heads without paying the price of living with them! But we all have our limits and the freedom to choose what to read is ours.

    Like

    October 20, 2014
  31. jamieaaron03 #

    I try to, L.M. Montgomery didn’t have a very happy life and died of an overdose, when I found that out it put me in a gloomy place reading her books, but since she wanted to leave something good behind so I’ve kept reading.

    Like

    October 20, 2014
  32. When it is fiction, I can put aside their personality. But when it comes to memoir or a collection of essays, I find it much harder to leave my feelings at the door. When I read “Movable Feast” by Hemingway, including the apology to Haley, all I saw was a desparate man writing a self serving explanation of his many faults. I put it down with no regrets. On the other hand, I still find “The Great Gatsby” to be one of the finest novels ever written.

    Liked by 1 person

    October 20, 2014
    • Yes, I’m thinking fiction only when asking this question. And you have a great opinion on The Great Gatsby. 🙂

      Like

      October 21, 2014
  33. This depends on the question whether the protagonist of the work shares his/her core values with the author. If they do, then yes, personal life of author interests me, but if they don’t then author is totally different entity from his work and his/her personal life may not be of any interest to me.

    Like

    October 20, 2014
  34. Some authors personal lives intrigue me, for example, the few days where Agatha Christie went missing. When I think about it though, the only authors lives I’m intrigued with are the authors who are no longer with us.

    Like

    October 21, 2014
  35. That depends on how heinous their personal life is (personal views are). Sometimes I can separate the two and I’m good with it, and sometimes I refuse to look past who they are. If spending my money on a nasty author’s book will help them further their awful agenda or opinion, then I steer clear.

    Like

    October 21, 2014
    • Right. For me, I think I can mostly separate the two. However, I see a big difference between an author who had a crappy life based on self harm (drugs, alcohol) versus an author who was awful to other people. Many times, the two go hand in hand but it is something that would affect the way I viewed the author…if I was affected at all.

      Like

      October 21, 2014
  36. I would have to say no. However, as an avid reader I very rarely no anything about an author before reading the book. I have only every read 2 author biographies, and only look for information about authors who I have read and reread their work several times. I have found that authors whose work I enjoy the most share similar core values which always reflects in their writing.

    BTW thanks for following my Blog I am returning the favor.

    Like

    October 21, 2014
  37. BWB #

    I’ve never felt compelled to read Ender’s Game because of Orson Scott Card’s homophobia, I’m all for the separation of art and artist but can’t make the effort to read a book when an author like that is in the back of my mind the whole time.

    Like

    October 21, 2014
  38. I don’t like romans a clef, where a lot of the interest of the book depends on knowing something about the author and the characters he or she is (usually) taking revenge upon.

    Like

    October 22, 2014
  39. Well, this is a hard one. I’d say no, because usally I don’t really care about the author’s life and opinions when first going into a book, however sometimes if I start to read more about a certain author I do kinda search some info about them. My opion on their work hardly change, tho.

    Like

    October 22, 2014
  40. It’s an excellent point and, at the risk of self-promotion, one I discussed myself:
    http://goandgettheguitar.wordpress.com/2014/06/25/separating-the-personal-and-the-talent/

    It would be great if people could take a look at my blog and follow if they like it!

    Like

    October 23, 2014
  41. No. It doesn’t really make a difference to me if the author was an alcoholic or if their political views were drastically different from my own. If I’m reading for fun and they crafted a good story, then I don’t really care. If I’m analyzing a book, on the other hand, then knowing about the author’s opinions or past is more relevant to me. For example, understanding Upton Sinclair’s politics makes it easier to understand The Jungle. Also, understanding that J.K. Rowling was grieving her mother also explains why motherly love was so important in the Harry Potter series.

    Like

    October 23, 2014

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