Do I have to like an author to enjoy reading their work?

This week there was a big brouhaha over Philip Roth winning the Booker prize.

How could someone so unlikeable be celebrated in such a prominent way, many asked.

This made me think—does a writer’s personal reputation affect the opinions of those who read him or her?  Two examples came quickly to mind:

The first is Jonathan Franzen.  When I picked up The Corrections, it was right in the middle of Franzen’s refusal to go on Oprah after she picked his book for her book club.  How dare he?  But I read the novel anyway.  It was indeed brilliant, but I have to say that because of my take on the author’s arrogance, I didn’t love it.  And despite the fact that friends and colleagues have raved about Freedom, I have absolutely no desire to read it.

And then there is James Frey.  I never read A Million Little Pieces and after the news that much of it was fabricated came out, again, I had no desire to.  But I was curious about his novel, Bright Shiny Morning.  I did read the book, which I thought was interesting and well done, but I didn’t fall in love. I think one of the main reasons for that was the author’s personal reputation.

So what do you think?  With all the wonderful books to choose from, are you affected by the author’s notoriety?

14 Responses to Do I have to like an author to enjoy reading their work?

  1. Melissa says:

    I am, the same way I’m affected by an actor’s notoriety. (Don’t get me started on Mel Gibson.) Info I know about a writer colors how I read his work. If I know, for example, that the author is rabid about a particular political viewpoint, I’ll read that into his work. And if an author says or does something I find truly distasteful, I simply won’t read his work anymore (just like I won’t watch another Mel Gibson movie).

  2. Becca says:

    Oprah scares me. I don’t think I’d want to go on her show either. LOL

    Anyway, I don’t let my opinions of people affect their writing. For example, from reading posts from Charlaine Harris, I can see she isn’t exactly the friendliest person on the planet. I like some of her books though. The only thing that bothers me is that she seems to put a bit TOO much of herself into her character. By that, I mean the things that bother me the most about her on her blogs and such are traits that she gives her characters–so obviously I don’t like those things about her characters either. How avoidable is that, though?

    Anyway, no, I don’t just people’s writing by them. I also realize that just because they might get a bad rap in media, perhaps if I knew them personally I’d think they were rally great people–and all that time I would have been not allowing myself to love their book just because I saw one bad facet to them.

    We all have people who love us and people who maybe don’t like us quite so much.

  3. Becca says:

    I should add, everyone I know has (to my eyes) strengths and weaknesses. If I didn’t like books just because the author had a weakness that was highlighted in the media, then I probably wouldn’t do much reading.

    Of course, being a nice person certainly doesn’t hurt, either :)

  4. Catherine Whitney says:

    This reminds me of a favorite line from Yeats—“How can we know the dancer from the dance?” It’s human nature to associate artists with their art, but I think your distaste is warranted in Frey’s case, because his art was a lie. I saw him on Oprah last week, casually remarking that he didn’t feel any obligation tell the truth in non-fiction as long as people were captivated by the story. I’ll never read him again. And I agree with Melissa about Mel Gibson.

  5. I’m reminded of a quote I saw today on Twitter.

    “I’m not sure a bad person can write a good book. If art doesn’t make us better, then what on earth is it for?” Alice Walker

    I’m also reminded of Jim’s blog post about not being a jerk.

    The reputation can ruin a book true. But a book contains so much of a person that they never reveal that its not surprising that the two (liking them and their work) are connected.

    Thanks for the opportunity to ponder these unique insights.

    May you find more books to love than to just like.

  6. Authors and artists in general tend to do best with me if I don’t know much about them. If someone is a jerk, I don’t want to waste my free time in his/her world. I couldn’t even bring myself to read The Corrections and Freedom sounded equally blah.

    I really enjoyed Portnoy’s Complaint by Philip Roth, but I only learned about him being a jerk after the fact. So, I still remember that as the wonderful book that gave me fabulous images of a constipated father and introduced me to the phrase “dry hump.”

  7. Becky Taylor says:

    A good or great read trumps all for me. I don’t really care if you’re a jerk so long as I’m not married to you, work with you, or have to rely on you to provide education to my children.

    I hated A Million Little Pieces long before “the truth” surfaced and I loved Corrections before the Oprah incident. I thinks an author’s private life can add a bit of voyeuristic interest to any read…but the work should stand alone.

  8. Stephen says:

    I think the last handful of books I bought and read, I did so on someone’s recommendation, without knowing anything about the author. If the general reading public is as clueless as I am, I wonder if any of it really matters.

    That said, Frey has been on my radar for his Full Fathom Five contract controversy. While watching his most recent interview with Oprah, I noticed he seemed to say everything but, “Lying about A MILLION LITTLE PIECES made my career.” What’s the saying? All press is good press, even the bad.

  9. Gill Avila says:

    I once attended a book signing by Rudy Rucker at the (now closed) Future Fantasy in Palo Alto, CA. At that signing he copped to the fact that once he couldn’t make a signing and he had a friend impersonate him. I didn’t get to ask if he ever made amends to those he defrauded, but needless to say I will never read anything he writes.

  10. Tegan Tigani says:

    Finding authors who are beautiful human beings as well as great writers makes me want to sell their book even more (some examples off the top of my head: Matt Ruff, Stephanie Kallos, Jennie Shortridge, Garth Stein, Erica Bauermeister, John Wood, Greg Mortenson [no matter what the rumors say!], Kirby Larson, Heather Davis, Shauna James Ahern, Trent Reedy). A great person behind a great book gives me extra incentive to recommend. It feels like good karma.
    But I do think there are authors whose works I’ve loved who I wouldn’t want to go to a dinner party with based on their reputations(Martin Amis, A. A. Gill, Mr. Roth). Personalities help me prioritize books: if I’ve heard an author isn’t someone I would want to spend time with in real life, that may move a title down in my pile. However, since I’ve never met the authors whose attitudes might unsell their books, I honestly try to give them the benefit of the doubt. I was grateful to HarperCollins for helping James Frey (et al?) get the best fighting chance from me by publishing “I Am Number Four” under Pittacus Lore; the pseudonym meant I judged the book just on the reading experience, not my preconceptions about the author.

  11. Lisa Marie says:

    I once interviewed a Pulitzer Prize winner who was so full of himself, I was never even tempted to read his books. They are reportedly very beautiful. I’ll hang onto the signed first edition he gave me so I can sell it after he dies and make bank.

    Some celebrities reach such a criminal level of “odious,” I can’t enjoy what they do. Woody Allen lost me a long time ago. Humbert Humbert, anyone?. Mel Gibson always gave me the creepy vibes. Roman Polanski? A child rapist too cowardly to do his prison time.

  12. My perception of an author does color my enjoyment of their book. I think it’s just human nature. I remember being at a book signing once where a popular author was so antisocial that it completely turned me off to her work.

  13. Teri Carter says:

    Painful to admit, but yes, I am absolutely affected by how I feel about the writer’s personality. It shouldn’t be that way, and I don’t want it to be that way, but it is. Conversely, I find myself admiring writers I’ve met or seen in person who’ve been engaging and endeared themselves somehow, even if their work isn’t all that great.

    One of my most recent memories is of seeing Junot Diaz speak at AWP. He was so flip and seemed unprepared, shuffling paper through long silences. He kept mentioning that he needed to fulfill his 40 minute commitment. He read a short piece he “just wrote this week” that was terrible, and checked the time. Then he took a few questions from the audience, and checked the time. He closed by reading an old story I’d heard him read before, checked his watch, told us how he avoids writers conferences because they’re such a waste of time — after all, we’d be better off at home, writing! — and left the stage. I wonder if I’ll ever pick his work up again.

  14. Joelle says:

    I can’t think of a big author that has affected me that way, but I do own a copy of a book sent to me by an author I was casual friends with. Then, one day, she was extremely rude and awful to me over something that was a total misunderstanding, and even after I explained and apologized (even though I hadn’t done anything wrong), she refused to speak to me ever again. Her book has sat on my shelf unread for 3 years now. I can’t get rid of it because I am sure I’d like it, but I can’t seem to pick it up, either! Haha!

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