Author’s Life vs. Art – Question of the Day

I don’t have a fully fleshed-out post today, just a question for you all…

How much do you consider an author’s life while evaluating their fiction?

I have seen this go both ways.

For example, some will say it is fine to appreciate H. P. Lovecraft for his science fiction, while acknowledging his racist undercurrents. In a more recent instance, I was told by some readers to consider Josรฉ Saramago’s life and background, while I was expressing criticism of his novel Blindness.

My gut instinct is that there is no wrong answer here and that the appropriate response runs on a subjective spectrum. It’s subjective because we each have our own personal boundaries of what we believe is acceptable or how far we’re willing to explore potentially offensive material (let alone to justify time spent on that exploration). It’s a spectrum because the reading and reviewing of a book is as nuanced as its writing, and I don’t think we should discredit our own personal reading experience for the sake of a merely “checklist” style of review.

Mostly, I’m interested in how other people make this judgment call, as I’m preparing to review Blindness. I don’t think it will change my review (haha), but I’ve been puzzling over this question since it came up at the book club, and I especially welcome the wisdom of my blog readers.


  1. If you’re evaluating a work of fiction you’re doing exactly that. Personally I have very little interest in the life or beliefs of most authors I read. They are, by and large, irrelevant. If they can craft a good story why should I care about their lives or beliefs? Unless, that is, they *do* impact on the writing itself. I might complete a book with a character who holds what I think are obnoxious beliefs but I won’t read a book where those beliefs are central to the plot and are lauded. That’s a whole other issue.

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    1. Agreed… I go back and forth on this, but usually – I feel fiction should stand on its own legs, so to speak. I prefer reading a novel on its own, without any introduction or author’s bio, to see what message I glean from it alone. By the same token… if I dislike a book, I’m not inclined to use the author’s bio to try make myself like it more. Sometimes I will – I don’t claim to be consistent ๐Ÿ˜† – but I don’t feel obligated to, if that make sense.


      1. I was thinking about this today – thanks for that! [grin] Two things came to mind:

        Some time ago I posted a review of a Rousseau work I read and liked (I’m a fan of his stuff) and a commentator asked if I knew how badly he’d treated his children (essentially he had a number of illegitimate children who ended up in orphanages). I said that I did know, did not approve but that even bad people (I used the ‘B’ word) still have good ideas and that his personal life didn’t affect the way I thought of his philosophy.

        The other example is Picasso. Throughout his time he treated the women in his life badly and sometimes very badly. That didn’t make him any less of an artistic genius but being a genius doesn’t mean we have to forgive him his misogyny either.

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        1. With Rousseau it’s rather relevant, though – -he wrote a book on childrearing! I commented when reading Rousseau and Revolution at the absurdity of a man who abandoned his children writing a book on how to educate one.

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        2. These are such fascinating examples, because this feels like a gray area to me… Maybe Rousseau is more clear-cut (at least as pertains to his writing on children), but Picasso painted women, too. Does his personal life matter when evaluating those pieces, or is it completely irrelevant?

          I just finished re-reading the Alice books, and of course every time Lewis Carroll is mentioned, there’s the Question that comes up… It’s a topic I take extremely seriously; I have zero sympathy for people who prey on children. I have yet to find any compelling information to show that he did, but if I did, I don’t know if I could read the books in the same way again. Even though, after reading the Alice books and Sylvie & Bruno, they seem to me as pure as books can be. If I knew that much about the author, it would be too hard to separate them from their art, when the topic of the art has some relation to their personal life. But then, perhaps that would be a double-standard on my part, if I don’t extend the same evaluation to every author. And I’m back at square one… ๐Ÿ˜€


          1. The Lewis/Alice issue is an interesting one. There’s long been a suspicion about their relationship probably, to be honest, informed with our cultures present obsession with such things. Of course there are some obviously questionable red flags that kind of jump out at you – the fact that (I think) Alice’s mother destroyed all of Lewis’s letters to Alice and the fact that Lewis (along with other Victorians) did take photographs of young girls that, today, we struggle with. So some mud certainly did stick. However, I did pick up a book some time ago which challenges this idea. I haven’t read it yet (so many books so little time and all that!) but if you’d like to dive a little deeper into this it is:

            In the Shadow of the Dreamchild – The Myth and Reality of Lewis Carroll by Karoline Leach.

            I have no idea of the truth of the situation. It definitely does feel ‘odd’ to say the least but how much of that is myth… I guess I’ll need to read this book to see.

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  2. i don’t believe that an author’s work necessarily reflects his personal convictions, altho it surely can… people write to either make money or to influence others in some way. both reasons are often present in any given book. actually writing is a learned skill like many other occupations and a successful author does it because he’s good at it. I’m thinking of Mickey Spillane, who turned out books about Mike Hammer by the handful. I saw an interview with him once years ago and he seemed like just a rather ordinary person with a civilized pov, altho it was part of his schtick to appear hardcore… interesting question…

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    1. That’s a good point – knowing your audience and market. I’ve never read Spillane, but your comment made me think of the Sherlock Holmes series… Doyle eventually getting sick of his hero, to the point where what was once likely inspired by his own experiences became mostly a way to pay the bills. The contrast between Holmes and Doyle turning to spiritualism in later life is also fascinating. Just goes to show a great writer can hide themselves very well!


  3. Fascinating question, Marian, and challenging considering how much of an author’s being is put into genuine creative work. Even in novels with different characters, those characters have a little shard of their creator as their base. Most of the time, though, art is distinct enough that we can appreciate it on its own merits — and I think we should, if only to ward away the everconstant problem of inserting too much of ourselves into a reading experience. I’ve seen this in various communities — atheists debating Ender’s Game because its author was a conservative Mormon, for instance, some fourteen, fifteen years ago. I debate this with myself when considering Ted Kaczynski’s work: I want to read his original monograph, but given what he did to give it publicity, it’s a fruit-of-the-poisoned-tree dilemma.

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    1. I had a professor whose self-imposed method was to grade papers “blind” – he had everyone put their names on the last page and (presumably) kept himself honor-bound not to read someone’s name till he got to the last page. I almost feel that could be useful for fiction, maybe some kind of anonymous publishing (not even joking here!). Because I think it’s indeed possible, like you said, to project onto fiction characteristics of the author that may not be so apparent if we just read the book.

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      1. I struggle to think how ‘anonymous publishing’ could work… [grin] Interesting idea though! BTW – my last University had something similar to your Professor. Each student had a ‘Candidate number’. It was the only identifier we put on our papers. The Tutor’s *could* have discovered who was who but I think it worked in the main. At least it gives the impression/attempt at anonymity.

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  4. Something I’ve struggled with for decades, not just with books and authors, but with movies and actors and directors, etc. I have an easier time with fiction than nonfiction, as I can often enjoy a story without mentally letting the author’s behavior bleed through into the story. With nonfiction, which often has a lot of the author’s ideology blatantly put into it, sometimes that’s just not possible.

    If I could not read and enjoy books by anyone who has ideas that are distasteful to me or opposed to my own beliefs, I’d pretty much be only reading my own books. Which is not the purpose of books! We read to see things from other people’s viewpoints so we can evaluate things in a more fully rounded way.

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    1. Definitely! It is good to read broadly and can be self-assuring as well (as a form of contrast or counterpoint).

      Funny thing is I have the opposite reaction to nonfiction. ๐Ÿ˜€ I tend to give it more of a pass because I know it’s just another person telling their opinion point-blank. Fiction can make me more uncomfortable, probably because of the suspension of disbelief, which means I have to put some trust in the author, or at least humor their worldbuilding, if that makes sense…

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      1. Right — when we’re reading nonfiction, it’s usually explicitly for the author’s review of the facts and considered judgement thereof. That’s not to say all opinions are necessary: one can write an analysis of Congressional mishaps without being overtly partisan ,for instance. I’m currently reading a book that keeps flirting with partisanship, which is disappointing considering how promising the book as a whole is.

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  5. It took me a while to scroll down to answer because of all the intersting comments. I just finished reading the biography of Lewis Carroll In the Shadow of the Dreamchild. I think she goes too much the other way, but I also think that there is a drooling over possible sexual proclivities these days and frankly, I think we can conclude that “He without sin cast the first stone.”

    Having said that, however, I draw my own lines. I agree with Cyberkitten that if someone is trying promote deviant behavior or glamorize things that are morally wrong, I will certainly consider the source. Of course I read all sorts of books by people with different worldviews than mine, but as long as they don’t make me participate (writing graphic accounts of sin or child abuse or bad language) I can read it. Of course I’m thinking about most 20th century writers I like whose worldviews contradict with mine, but are brilliant writers.

    Good thought provoking question.

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    1. Yeah, that can be a problem, too… sometimes the biographer is hampered by their admiration for the subject. I was reading Huntford’s book on Ernest Shackleton and was really turned off when he started making excuses for Shackleton’s infidelity. ๐Ÿ˜›

      You bring up an interesting angle with the word “participate.” I’m going to ponder that some more, because I also feel there is a distinction between reading-as-observer and reading-as-participant, but I’m not sure where the difference lies.

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