I don’t read many living authors — not intentionally, it’s just that the current trend of a lot of fiction doesn’t intersect with my tastes very often — and so I’m saved the concern of how they comport themselves on a daily basis and how this impacts my feelings about them. But following a comment by Dan at The Reader is Warned about a comment made by John Dickson Carr in She Died a Lady (1943), I got to thinking about the above question.
Inevitably, an author and their work become very difficult to separate — “Oh, I love Georges Simenon!” — and for some people, among who I suspect I number myself, it can be difficult to want to engage with their work if the author in question seems like a complete tool. While it’s true that I’ve read books by authors who seem like nice people, hated the book, and carried on thinking they’re still a nice person, I don’t think the reverse is true. If I don’t like how an author conducts themself as person, I don’t think I have it in me to read their work. Take two examples:
The Irish writer Adrian McKinty has written a couple of novels in recent years that concern impossible crimes and so should be right up my street, but when I searched for him online several months back, the first thing I came across was this post from his blog in which he frankly comes across as a smug ass-hat. Now, he’s possibly a lovely man, and perhaps his lofty better-than-thou attitude when condescending to someone else on why he’s clearly violating a simple law is merely a result of him having a bad day — in fairness, he does say up to that he doesn’t come out of it very well — but there’s something about the arrogance of sitting down to write about the encounter (and then posting it on his own personal blog where, presumably, he is expecting to find fans and sympathisers and so be validated in his actions) that just doesn’t sit well with me. And, as a result, I don’t think I’d be able to — but which I mean I don’t want to, not that it makes me so angry I forget how to — read his books.
I am aware that this isn’t terribly rational. There is, after all, a separation of church and state in that McKinty’s books are fiction and in no way related to his daily conduct — it’s not like Russell Brand’s empty-headed misunderstanding of geopolitical influences and priorities being poured into a book that provides not a single answer and purports to be the solution to the Western world’s ills; McKinty’s 1970s-set crime thrillers are an unlikely vehicle to further his agenda on the cycle helmet laws of eastern Australian urban areas…surely I should just let it go, move on, and possibly get a great impossible crime in the process. And yet…and yet…there is that undeniable nexus between the creator and the product which I find it difficult to sever or ignore.
It’s for this nebulous reason that I refuse to pick up the Inspector Zhang short stories by Stephen Leather — once again, impossible crimes, about which TomCat was complimentary recently, which is good enough for me — because of his involvement in sock-puppeting (the practice of creating false online personas to praise your own work and/or lambast that of your rivals) a few years ago. This is a very different issue to McKinty, let’s be clear about that: Leather went out of his way to be malicious and to mislead people for, presumably, pecuniary ends, whereas McKinty is probably just expressing himself poorly on a matter of personal conduct. Nevertheless, they’re symptoms of the same problem from my perspective.
I have in the past followed on Twitter some four (or possibly five) authors whose work I admire. And, without exception, I no longer follow any of them because of the impression of themselves that came across 140 characters at a time on a very regular basis. I don’t want to know what shopping they did and with whom, I don’t want to know that they disagree with press coverage of some political event — these are not the things I buy and read their books for, there’s Sophie Kinsella for that — and sometimes discovering how juvenile people can be is a distraction I can do without. I read books for escapism, and I’ve come to the conclusion that I’m almost better off not knowing about the people who write them. I very nearly didn’t finish a series I was hugely enjoying because of how their author carried on online, and had to take a sizeable break between books to put as much of that out of my mind as possible in order to get through them.
Inevitably, there are then some additional considerations.
The fearlessly intelligent Christopher Hitchens — a man sorely missed, devisor of the greatest insult in history with “If we had given him an enema we could have buried him in a matchbox” — famously said in his memoirs that, while having dinner with Agatha Christie and her husband, ‘the anti-Jewish flavour of the talk was not to be ignored or overlooked, or put down to heavy humour or generational prejudice. It was vividly unpleasant‘. I’ve just read my 71st book by Christie and count her among my favourite authors, yet anti-Semitism is not something I admire in people under any justification. Am I happy to put this down to possible hyperbole or a misunderstanding in order to justify my continued reading of her books? Hitchens has a well-documented love of controversy, but I see no reason not to trust his word on this, and so some accommodation clearly needs to be reached.
I suppose there are two main ways to come at this. The first being that I’d already read and enjoyed a huge quantity of Christie’s works before I read this claim from Hitchens — whereas with McKinty and Leather I learned unpalatable things about them before reading a single word — and so there’s an element of Agatha Christie The Author already superseding Agatha Christie The Person in my mind; before having any personal knowledge of her, she was already first and so shall foremost remain the enjoyment her books gave me and it will take some quite significant evidence to undo that. There’s also an inkling of Famous Person Perception Bias about this; if you meet someone famous when they’re having a bad day and they’re rude to you, you’ll probably spend the rest of your life telling everyone how rude and unpleasant they were where you’d be more understanding of just some random stranger doing exactly the same thing. One stray comment or action is easily escalated in the mind (and, yes, I’m fully aware that I’m potentially guilty of falling into this trap with Adrian McKinty).
Secondly, I don’t believe from Christie’s writing that she necessarily was that much of an anti-Semite beyond the generational prejudice that Hitchens himself mentions, any more than she was a racist because she published a novel called Ten Little Niggers. This second point is harder to contest because it’s very much my impression from untold hours reading fictions which, as I say above, aren’t designed to reflect the author’s personal state of mind. I’ve written before about the importance of preserving these generational attitudes, and how a recognition and allowance of these attitudes from the time in which they were held is not the same thing as sympathising with or apologising for them. It’s not something I expect to be able to resolve here, but the Christie point bears raising — as perhaps will the conduct of Anthony Berkeley, who I nevertheless interred as one of the four most important male authors of the Golden Age — because inevitably our experiences are never as clear-cut as we would wish.
Does it make a difference that most of the authors I’m likely to be dissuade from reading are already dead? If it turned out someone whose work I really admire engaged in sock puppetry in the 1940s I’d probably be okay with that (hell, frequent swipes were taken at other authors quite openly in their books — see Carr in The Eight of Swords (1934) and, uh, some others I can’t remember at present…); however, if they turned out to’ve been the Grand High Whatever of their local Ku Klux Klan franchise, I’d drop them like a hot…something. A hot pot? Not the meal, I mean; an actual pot that’s been heated well past a comfortable temperature.
Anyway, I run the risk of losing my point, and there should be enough there to stimulate some discussion. Whaddaya say? Does your impression of the author affect your interest in their books, or am I just a weirdo who needs to get over himself? I mean…just in this case, obviously. Not generally — that’s absolutely the case in my day-to-day life — but I’m asking now just in terms of the topic of this post. You…you get that, right? I’ll deal with my problems in my own time.