What’s Really Important

Authors aren’t really important.

This past week, I finished a novel that had been separately recommended to me by two friends.  (Thank you, Sally. Thank you, Yvonne.)  Because these days my time to sit and read has been limited, I’ve been binging on audio books.   When I found my library had the book in question as an audio book, I downloaded the MP3 file.

A Bookish Person

A Bookish Person

I liked this novel well enough to recommend it to my pen pal Paul Dellinger in the letter I wrote him last week.  I thought he might particularly enjoy it because the setting is a fictional town in the Virginia mountains where we both have lived.  (He still does, actually.)    My letter said something like: “The novel’s called The Raven Boys.  Because I downloaded it as an MP3 audio file from my library, I can’t remember the author’s name.”

Later that weekend, I recommended the same book to some friends who share my liking for good fantasy.  Again, I gave the title. As they were scrawling away in their various digital note-things, Tori said, “Who’s the author?”  I felt a bit sheepish as I said, “I can’t remember, but then authors aren’t really important.”

Funny statement, I suppose,  coming from an author, but on some level I think it’s true.  On other levels, it’s completely untrue.

Before I get into why, let me tell you the name of the author of The Raven Boys.  It’s Maggie Stiefvater.  The book is the first in “The Raven Cycle” but I can assure you that this novel, at least, stands on its own.  I’ll be reading the next one, too.

Coincidentally, as I was thinking about the relative importance of authors, I opened the latest issue of Smithsonian magazine to  a short article in which Mark Strand discussed a photograph of Walt Whitman.  The article begins with a telling thought:

“When we look at photographs of authors, especially of famous authors, we scan their faces, hoping to find some connection between the way they look and their work….  Even if we have numerous photographs of a single author, as we do of Whitman, it would be impossible to find that revealing feature or gesture that would establish the connection we seek.”

Oh, boy…  If that’s why people look at photographs of authors, about the only thing you’re going to learn from photos of this author is that somewhere along the way she became pretty darn camera shy.  (I suspect that happened about age eight, when I started wearing glasses and suffered a major crisis of self-image.)  Anyhow, even the best, most recent photos are just frozen images of a fragment of a moment in time.

And why is the author important anyhow?  Isn’t it the work that’s important?  On one of my copies of the collected poems and plays of T.S. Eliot, the author stares out almost defiantly, as if challenging the reader to find a connection between him and the complex works within. Eliot’s essay “Tradition and the Individual Talent” had a huge impact on me when I read it sometime during my undergraduate college years.  In it, Eliot argues for his Impersonal theory of poetry.  A complex discussion ends with: “the more perfect the artist, the more completely separate in him will be the man who suffers and the mind which creates.”

I loved my professors of Modern Lit at Fordham.  The enthusiasm they instilled in me is largely the reason I went on to graduate school.  However, we read a lot of author / poet biography, along with the actual stories and poems.  Sometimes, even back then, I wanted to say “Can’t we leave the lives of Yeats and Eliot and Auden and all the rest out of it?  If Joyce’s work is only interesting because of the veiled autobiography in it, well then, why don’t we just read a biography of him without wading through the padding?”  I’m not saying that cultural context for a piece isn’t important.  Far from it!  But surely the author shouldn’t become more important than the work.

So when is the author important?  I think the author is most important if you want to find other works by that author.  As I have mentioned elsewhere, I never realized that the same guy wrote The Chronicles of Amber, which I loved, and Lord of Light, ditto, until I finally moved into an apartment big enough to hold bookshelves in which I could arrange my fiction in alphabetical order.  When I did, I started in on the other books by that author – one Roger Zelazny – as quickly as I could find them.  I discovered I’d already read a lot of them.  But, well, the author hadn’t been important, just the story.

I’m not going to pretend that I’m not thrilled that there are readers of my fiction who have liked what I write well enough to take the time to read the non-fiction I write in these weekly wanderings.  Actually, I’m  so pleased that I’m a little sorry I can’t live up to my characters.  I’ve run with wolves, but I’m not Firekeeper.  I’ve commanded a spaceship, but only in a game.   I’ve done archeology, but never found that buried pyramid.  I am a myth, but not a god.

What I am is a storyteller.  And one thing that’s made me pretty sure of is that it’s the stories that are important, not the author.

I’ve had fun talking with authors about their work.  A couple weeks ago, I shared with you my enthusiasm about finally getting to ask Tim Powers questions about the sources and allusions in various of his novels.  But I don’t think I asked Tim anything about Tim.

So, when do you find the author important?   Would you rather have a discussion about a book with the author present or absent?  If you could ask this author a question, what would it be?

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13 Responses to “What’s Really Important”

  1. Nicholas Wells Says:

    Like you said, much of the time the author matters because of the style. You like one story by them, so you go looking for more work by them. That’s how I discovered the Honor Harrington book (I still blame you for that). I’ve been reading the Treecat books, and I noticed on the shelf at Barnes&Noble other works by him. Well I liked the Treecat books, so I thought I’d give them a try. I am now inhaling each Honor Harrington book my tiny budget will allow.

    That said, this is not an absolute, and it can go the other way. My mom tried Steven King once, never has since. I loved your Firekeeper books, Breaking the Wall books, and “The Buried Pyramid”, yet I could never get into “Smoke and Mirrors.” In the former, the style of the author mattered, where as with the latter, the story was the problem (for me anyway).

    As for discussions, I would say some of both. Sometimes it’s nice to hear other people’s views, but also at some point it’s cool to hear what the author intended. I’m betting there are undertones in your work you never placed there. They just grew out of it.

  2. The Other JMoore Says:

    Interestingly enough, a friend of mine recommended a book to me several months ago – “The Scorpio Races”, also by Maggie Stiefvater (sorry, I don’t know how to underline when typing on my phone).

    I have never thought looking at a picture of the author was important, but knowing the name is handy for the reasons already mentioned. If you enjoy a novel, you might be tempted to seek out other novels by the same author. Or, as just happened, two people may recommend different novels, and then you realize they were written by the same author.

  3. Michael Wester Says:

    It depends on the reader, but knowing about the author (for me, at least) provides a deeper context into how I interpret a piece of fiction (or nonfiction for that matter). There will be things I would miss otherwise if I didn’t have this context. Of course, a piece should stand on its own, but I find it fulfilling to understand more about the origins and intent of a _good_ work, and knowing more about the author is often a gateway to this understanding. Reading a piece provides the “what”, while knowing something more about its background (which includes its author(s)) yields some clues on the “how” and “why”. Also, personally, I think it is important to associate people with their writings as these works have to come from somewhere and should reflect in some minimal way their origins.

    When I was editing a (mathy) book a few years ago, I insisted that all the contributors provide a short autobiography and that they avoid abbreviating people’s names in their citations (unless the original article also abbreviated the names). I wanted to retain a connection between the writings and the people. I note that some of the biographies were quite a hoot, and endeared me to people who later came to know much better as friends and colleagues.

  4. raartori Says:

    For me the author is important, but mostly for the purposes of finding other works by that author. Or to avoid them, in some cases.

  5. Louis Robinson Says:

    A contrary view, of sorts: yes, the author is important!

    First, authors – any artists – are people, and thus important in and of themselves. That’s not to say I have the patience or tolerance to treat everyone I meet with the same respect and consideration, but that’s me, not them. So, although we’ve not met, I very much appreciate the bits and pieces of your life and person that make it into your postings, particularly since you often mention things I wouldn’t have the nerve to ask about if we did meet. It gives me the chance to know Jane Lindskold, at least a little.

    Second, the author, as author, is not merely important, but essential: there is no creation without a creator. Stories don’t tell themselves, even if it sometimes seems that way to the story-teller. Without the author, a book wouldn’t exist; with a different author, _that_ book still wouldn’t exist, because no two writers will ever tell the same story in exactly the same way. Often a single writer can’t tell the same story the same way twice, because they have grown and changed and see it differently.

    That said, am I particularly interested in dissecting a story for the authors psychological hoof prints? No, most certainly not! In fact, it’s an exercise that I detest to the point that I didn’t finish high school because the one, single required course in grade 12 was English Lit [since I in fact read rather well, and rather a lot, I was already aware that I didn’t have to, since if I did other things for a couple of years I could get into university as a mature student]

    I do enjoy discussions with authors and others, because I’m aware that there is a lot that goes into crafting the story that doesn’t fit into it, and doesn’t ever make it onto the page. And that leaves out everything that does get written down that I simply don’t notice until somebody else points out the obvious 😉

  6. Dominique Says:

    I think that remembering the author’s name helps to find their other works, if you decide that you enjoy his or her writing style.
    It’s interesting what you say about looking at pictures of authors and wanting to connect with their work. For some reason I feel like, you, Jane might be one of the few authors who’s photographs do bring feelings of recognition or connection to your novels. Perhaps the best example is the picture on the homepage of your website 🙂

  7. Chad Merkley Says:

    The internet must have really changed the way authors and readers interact. I don’t think I’d ever take the time to try and contact an author through snail mail. But this kind of format makes it ridiculously easy.

    Jane brought out an author/story dichotomy above. The story (or any work of art) can be enjoyed independently and singly, without context. But once you recognize it as a piece of art or craft, all of those little contextual details start to matter and make a difference. So it depends on if you view as story as an entity or an artifact.

    I’ll share an example of how learning something about an author changed how I viewed part of her work. Elizabeth Moon is an SFF author who has a fairly extensive blog about her life. She’s often talked about her horses and her experiences riding. Learning that changed how I read some of her scenes involving riding. There are little tiny details about posture, shifting weight, and sending signals to the horse that I had previously not noticed. But recognition that she’s an authority as well as an author sent me out searching to understand what some of those little details actually meant. Did you guys know you can train a horse to gallop left-leg or right-leg first? And then make it switch in mid-stride? It apparently makes a difference in how quickly a horse a can turn in a certain direction. Those kind of details can show up with knowledge of the author’s background.

  8. janelindskold Says:

    Gosh…. I thought it was my English major background that made me enjoy the sort of details people mention above. It’s a real eye opener to know they give pleasure to readers in general.

    That said, as Chad noted, the internet has really changed how authors and readers interact. I’m not making an original statement in saying that the SF/F community has had this for a longer time because of the vital fan conventions that have brought authors and readers together for many years now.

    However, now it’s more regular and more intense.

    I’ll be honest. I had to be gently shoved into doing these Wanderings but, although sometimes finding a topic is a struggle, I do enjoy them, especially where there is back and forth.

  9. Other Jane Says:

    I’m with Louis. The author is important to me. While I do want to follow that author and look for other works, I also like to know about the author for context. I find I’m also interested in when works were created. Both in the sequence of the author’s work and how it relates to the history and culture when it was created.

  10. Paul Says:

    Not sure what it says about me, but I always found the author important (maybe even in my teens I was aspiring to be one). I absorbed every detail of those brief little bios appearing on the backs of those 25-cent paperbacks. When I got to a WorldCon in 1963, I probably just gazed in awe at those authors I’d been reading (“Those were giants walking by,” as I once heard the late writer Andy Offutt say, describing a similar reaction at his first). That said, I find I don’t go to their blogs or Facebooks ot twitters at all, as available as those things are nowadays. Maybe I just don’t need to know that much to continue to enjoy them, I don’t know.

  11. Laura L Says:

    I was a voracious reader as a child, with limited access to TV or Movies. So I learned that the author was my key to more yummy books and to the mental movies of a good story. As I grew older, I never lost the understanding that the author was the creator of my favorite characters and stories, even if an actor was a physical representation, so I was never a ‘fan’ of actors, like some of my friends. I was a fan of the characters, and the author was the wizard behind the curtain.

    As a young fan, I would wait patiently (or impatiently) for the new adventures of my favorite characters – or of new characters in books from my favorite authors – in a vacuum as it were. But as an adult, I came to understand that books are not created in a vacuum, and that the author is not ‘behind the curtain’. So my interest in authors expanded to the individual, and in some ways, waiting for the next book has become a pleasurable experience – in being able to observe the process to the extent that authors choose to share that.

    Somehow, it makes the waiting easier – to be able to observe the process, and anticipate the reward.

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