I was standing in the bookshop (otherwise known as Target’s book section) and trying to choose a book to take on a weekend away.
My choice was down to The Woman in the Window by AJ Finn and The Ruin by Dervla McTiernan. While I was interested in reading AJ Finn’s bestseller, I had just read a now-famous profile piece on the author (his real name is Dan Mallory) that exposed his bizarre and deceptive behaviour; he had even claimed his mother had died of cancer, even though she is alive and well.
In the end, I picked up McTiernan’s book, both because I had heard good reports about it, and on the assumption that her ethics were less questionable than Mallory’s.
But should readers’ choices be swayed by authors’ bad publicity? It is not the first time I’ve wondered whether the personality of a writer should play a role in my reading decisions.
On the death of VS Naipaul, news reports were divided in their assessment of the celebrated writer. Some considered him to be a literary master. Others were not so complimentary. Having enjoyed reading his A House for Mr Biswas and The Mystic Masseur, I was surprised to learn that Naipaul had been criticised for his racist attitude towards non-white cultures.
In an article in The Guardian on his death, critic Edward Said was quoted as claiming Naipaul became, “a witness for western prosecution”, making the case that “we ‘non-whites’ are the cause of all our problems”.
Similarly, Dr Seuss was criticised for the sexist and racist undertones of his children’s books, and in 2017, a library rejected the donation of his book Oh, the Places You’ll Go from Melania Trump. Librarian Liz Phipps Soeiro wrote in a letter to Trump that Seuss’s illustrations were “steeped in racist propaganda, caricatures, and harmful stereotypes.” Again, this is a book that I had read to my children, oblivious to the charges against its author.
It is hard not to feel a little disheartened when these claims are brought against a favourite childhood writer.
However, later in his life, Dr Seuss (Theodor Seuss Geisel) made moves to rectify some of the racism which critics identified in his books, removing the word ‘chinaman’ from And to Think That I Saw it On Mulberry Street, and many of his stories address social and political issues such as environmentalism (The Lorax) and racial equality (The Sneetches).
One of the reasons I love hearing writers talk at events or festivals, or on podcasts, is because they offer the opportunity to gain a greater insight into the personality of a writer. So many are warm and amiable – some of my favourite have been Josephine Wilson, Mark Brandi, Alexander McCall Smith, Richard Flanagan, Christian White and Emma Viskic.
Social media also offers an insight into the personalities of writers, with some revealing their gratitude to readers (and bloggers), while others use the channels to promote their political viewpoints. Quite apart from Harry Potter, I admire JK Rowling for her political stance, and the direct way she answers her critics and the politicians with whom she disagrees.
But others are more brittle and reserved. A couple of years ago, Joyce Carol Oates gave her interviewer a tough time at Melbourne Writers Festival and I got the sense that she was a woman that suffered no fools. Her tweets are similarly forthright and I would be reluctant to argue with such a sharp mind – I fear she would obliterate opponents swiftly.
The Corrections author Jonathan Franzen has a reputation for being difficult in interviews, but, in a Wheeler Centre event a couple of years ago, he was unexpectedly charming and forthcoming.
In a way, it shouldn’t be a requirement of authors to be personable, and I feel sympathy for those hoisted up onto stage, far out of their comfort zones, to talk to curious (but often adoring) readers. The works for which they have become famous should stand alone. After all, isn’t it a writer’s prerogative to be grumpy and remote, to look down on the mere mortals who receive their surly words with delight and eternal gratefulness?
However, in a social world in which we constantly accept or reject views or attitudes based on whether they are cruel or kind, or align with our own, it is hard to dedicate hours of reading to voices and views of those who have shown themselves to be mean-spirited or bigoted. I find it hard to forget what I know about a writer when reading their book, especially if that knowledge is of prejudice. As publicity activities, backed by social media presences, make the personalities of writers more transparent than ever, it is a reality that readers will make judgements about which voices they choose to hear.
It makes it easy to understand why Elena Ferrante chose to remain anonymous, letting her books speak for themselves and negating the need for writers to become celebrities in their own right, voted in or out of the jungle on the merit of their personalities rather than their art.