The author is alive (sometimes too alive)

Sometimes when I’m browsing the Internet (which is more often than I’ll ever admit), I’ll come across some new discussion about the “death of the author” idea. I’m not entirely sure where I stand on that debate. Right now I think that once a story is out in the world for general consumption, the author should fade into the background. Sure, an author certainly will intend certain themes or may be influenced by events in their own life, but I think a reader can still glean what they will from a story without considering those things. But sometimes I like looking up an author’s biography after I’ve read something by them. I did this after I read Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier, and I did find that it made me look at certain things in Rebecca differently. However, I don’t think a reader is under any obligation to do this extra reading or to consider author intention when assessing a story.

That was a bit of a tangent.

The reason I mentioned the “death of the author” is because I recently read a book that made me wonder how much author presence is too much in a book, both for myself and in general. I’m not talking about an author inserting themselves into a fictional world (coughStephenKingcough) or naming a fictional character after themselves (although let me say I find that approach suspect. As someone who struggles to name characters, I still haven’t resorted to naming one after myself). I’m referring to when you’re reading a story but you’re aware the whole time of how everything was carefully constructed to prove a point or work a theme. In fiction, a reader needs to be able to suspend their disbelief, and depending on the genre that suspension might range from a little (literary fiction that takes place in a version of our current world) to a great deal (a fantasy world with dragons and magic). It can be hard for an author to construct a story and successfully hide the brick and mortar that make up the foundation. Sometimes, leaving those things exposed is intentional. Other times, it’s a failed attempt to cover it up.

Personally, I need the author to be at least one step removed from the story. They don’t have to be completely dead, but in order for me to enjoy a story I can’t see the puppet strings being pulled from above, so to speak. If something about the characters or the story itself is always reminding me that everything has been highly constructed to achieve a certain outcome or make me feel a certain way, then my enjoyment plummets. I can’t lose myself in the story or characters when it seems like the author is constantly elbowing me in the ribs and winking, trying to show how clever they were when they put the story together.

Of course, when you’re reading fiction, you know at the outset that it is all a constructed story. Still, if the story and characters are interesting and well written, it’s easy for a reader to slip into the fictional world and pretend for at least the duration of the story (if not well after the story’s concluded) that it could be real, somewhere, in some universe. So where’s the line? When does it become too much?

It varies and can depend on personal preference, author skill and/or style, and a number of other factors (the factors themselves may change from person to person). Sometimes the expectations you had going into a book can influence how you feel when the story does—or doesn’t—become what you anticipated. But it’s interesting because I most often have a problem with author presence when it comes to literary fiction, and usually I notice it more with modern literature than classics within that genre. It’s most frustrating for me when I can see a writer has a lot of skill or I enjoy their writing style in general but the story or characters are so constructed I can’t immerse myself in the created world. An alert reader can tell when a story’s been constructed, or a character created, to make a very specific point, and that’s when it’s hard to keep any disbelief suspended. Although writers often compose stories or create worlds to explore questions or themes, there is a difference between those topics being an organic part of the overall tale and being forced into a story (or a story being built around a predetermined theme or outcome).

However, the writer’s level of organization or disorganization won’t necessarily influence the amount of author presence in a story. Some authors carefully outline their plot and character arcs before sitting down to write and others don’t, but an outline isn’t detrimental to a story’s flow. Similarly, I doubt that genre matters much beyond someone’s personal preferences. A reader can still be inundated by the author’s presence in the final product whether it’s literary fiction or a thriller and regardless of the writer’s methodology.

In the end, I don’t really have an answer to my question of how much author presence is too much in general. Something that works for one reader in a story may not work for another reader or even the same reader in a different context. There is one thing I can say for certain, though: if I can’t lose myself in a story, the odds of me enjoying it are going to be low. And that, I think, is a universal truth.

About Nicole DeGennaro

Burgeoning writer, insatiable reader, and continuous dreamer.
This entry was posted in Random, Random thoughts, Reading, Thoughts on reading, Writing and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to The author is alive (sometimes too alive)

  1. Matt P. says:

    At first, I wasn’t entirely sure what you meant about the author being overly present in their story. I also rarely do much research on the author, which may have something to do with it–the less I know about the author, the less I think about their presence. But then I remembered one particular series, The Inheritance Cycle, and I remember being struck by discordant lines throughout that just seemed completely out of place, the effect being that it pulled me from the story for a bit.

    On the death of the author: do you think that an author’s personal views or beliefs should effect someone’s enjoyment of a story (I’m talking specifically, of course, about Orson Scott Card)?

    • You made a good point about reading an author’s biography before you read their books. I only ever look up an author’s biography after I read a story, so it’s never influenced my initial reading, but I certainly see how the more you know about an author beforehand might affect how aware you’d be of their presence in a story.

      Oh no, you’ve brought up OSC! I have a lot of complex feelings about this. For me, there comes a tipping point where I can’t ignore an author’s personal beliefs anymore, and I’ve reached it with OSC. But Ender’s Game, and all the associated books, are some of my favorite sci-fi stories of all time. I still recommend them to people, in fact, but I make sure to tell them flat out to get the books from a library (and I tell them why). I mean, OSC sat on the National Organization for Marriage’s board of directors up until a few days ago (and he didn’t quit because he changed his ideology, that’s for certain), and he’s a well-known bigot. But I’m a firm believer in equal rights, so as I became more aware of his ideologies over the past six years or so I decided not to buy any more of his books. I don’t want to fund his behavior; I can’t support an author who doesn’t believe in something as fundamental as equal rights. However, I already own the Ender series, and I don’t plan on getting rid of the books. I would re-read them and probably still enjoy them (I mean, many of the other characters in those books are people of color and women, so they don’t entirely reflect OSC’s personal views), but my enjoyment of those books doesn’t negate his terrible behavior/comments, which I became unable to ignore years ago.

      • Matt P. says:

        Ah, sorry to bring up such a sore spot! It’s a tricky topic. I like to think that the author’s personal beliefs don’t affect my purchase/enjoyment of a book, but the idea that the funds could be going to a cause that I so completely disagree with gives me pause.
        Luckily: libraries!

      • Libraries are awesome for that reason (and many more)! Don’t apologize for bringing up OSC—I just had a hard time not writing an essay in reply. It is a tricky topic indeed.

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