Must writers be likable? Does it help if they are? And who the heck am I?

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Ask anyone who knows me well:  I have my flaws.  Here I am, for example, with my impatient face on, waiting for a berry to ripen.  Not any old berry, mind you, but the berry I want, which is taking its time in the sun.  (I may indeed be insulting the berry for its stubbornness, quietly, beneath my snappish tongue.)

Would my handful of very kind readers read me less (to continue) if they knew that:
  • I combine the impossible traits of seeking perfection, impatiently?
  • I write long books that become short books because so many of my original sentences are preposterously bad?
  • I want to be writing, I want to be finished writing, I want to be writing again?
  • (to be clear:  I'm inconsistent)?
  • I fall asleep during the runway portion of every single "Project Runway" show?
  • I create bullet lists pummeled by non-sequiturs (but not when clients are watching)?
  • I love animals and own no animals, which is to say:  I'm a neat freak who remains inconsistent?
  • I am mindlessly and heedlessly improperly punctuating this bullet list of flaws, because I think — no, perhaps I presume — that since it's my blog I have a right to do so?
These are among the issues that Jennie Yabroff does not exactly hit on in her Newsweek essay, "The Man We Knew Too Much," her thought-provoking essay on Jonathan Frazen, a man, she writes, who has critics praising his new book, Freedom, "without letting their feelings about the seemingly insufferably self-important writer color their views."  Will readers, she wonders, be as kind?
... the Internet has exposed writers to a level of personal scrutiny formerly reserved for pop stars and teen idols, making it difficult to separate how you feel about an author's personal life from how you respond to his work, despite your best efforts to read the writing, not the writer.  Gawker opines on which writers are "book hot," while publishing blogs report not just on how much authors receive for their books but also how they spend the money.
Yabroff is right, of course—it is difficult not to see, or to try to parse, the cults of personality now growing up among big-name, big-ticket writers—not just Franzen, but Gaiman, Green, Foer, Collins, and Rowling, to name but a few.  I remain, of course, under the radar, my flaws not subject to widespread discussion, my life not the stuff of Time cover stories or Huffington newsflashes.  But this question is interesting, and I present it to you:  Does what you know about who authors are influence your reading of their books?


Mandy said...

The one thing that bothers me and would turn me off of an author is when he/she is rude to fans or booksellers at events (I could tell you horror stories). Online or in the papers, it doesn't matter so much because we all know that comments are so often taken out of context.

And you, Beth, are even more wonderful in person than on the page so you have nothing to worry about. :)

Pam said...

I think it is great that YA authors are blogging, are visible on social media and are taking time out of their days to connect with the people who are reading the words they wrote. If you look to the most successful in the YA bookasphere their books aren't always the most concise, clear, or full of fantastical prose.
Maggie Stiefvater, Holly Black, Cassandra Clare, Laurie Halse Anderson to name a few best sellers (not all of whom I enjoy reading) are building a social platform for themselves. Then when a reader walks into a store, they are like Oh I have her on my Twitter/Facebook/ and are much more likely to pick up the book.

Amy said...

Yes, but not you. :) Well actually knowing you makes me love and appreciate your books more.

But yes this whole Franzen thing has made me not really want to read his book at all. I'm exhausted of hearing about him and he doesn't seem particularly friendly. Also while I know it's not a popular thing to say, I hate that all the attention is media driven and not because some readers enthusiastically loved the a way, I sort of resent being told I should care SO MUCH about this book over all the others.

On the other hand, reading Laura Lippman's thought on the subject made me want to read one of her books immediately. So as wrong as it is, the way an author presents themselves affects if I want to read their work, because if they are kind and genunine, thoughtful and noncritical of others I assume some of that worldview and outlook will seep into their books, making the reading experience so much better. If they are self-important no matter how sharp their observations of humanity or their beautifully constructed sentences, I suspect the read will be ultimately less satisfying.

I know this isn't fair! But I do think it shapes my perceptions.

Melissa Sarno said...

This is such an interesting question! If I felt that I connected with an author on an emotional level and really respected their thoughts and ideas, I would be very compelled to read their books. But, if I didn't, I would still read their books. I am much more interested in certain genres and subject matter to worry about whether the author is a person I would like to spend time with.
While I don't write them off completely, if an author starts to become somewhat of a celebrity, it does turn me off a little. I often question their motivations as their careers go on: do they make concessions in their writing in order to please their audience? But how should I know? Maybe that doesn't even cross their minds and they would be insulted just to hear it.
All this being said, my biggest influence when it comes to buying books is a recommendation from someone I trust.
Of course, there are exceptions. Knowing that you fall asleep while watching project runway, means I'll never purchase one of your books again. ;-)

Becca said...

I'm not sure what to think about all the media attention showered on writers now. I've always rather liked that writers had an air of mystery, and the only way we really knew much about them personally was if they decided to publish a memoir, or their letters or diaries.

Does it color my perception of their work, knowing what they're like in"real life?" I think it probably does, almost subconsciously. If I really like someone, I know I'm more predisposed to like their work, because it's an extension of who they are.

Kelly H-Y said...

I adore you and your list (I can relate to many of those bullets!). Now that Project Runway's on an hour earlier (isn't it?!), maybe you'll be able to stay awake through runway time! :-)
And ... yes, if they are very visible in the media, I think it does help if they're likable.

Beth Kephart said...

I am so appreciative of the thoughtful comments here. As always, my readers are smarter than me (and more patient, and don't fall asleep during the runway portion of Project Runway, which is the only reason I ever really watch the show to begin with...and I miss it every time).

Beth F said...

I like you even though I've never felt the need to watch Project Runway and despite your inconsistencies in your bulleted list. :)

If an author has a personality trait or belief that I find extremely distasteful, my inclination is not to shun his or her work but to not spend money on it. That is, if I really want to read the book, I'll check it out of the library but I won't put money in his or her pocket.

A stupid, minor thing but it helps me in my own hypocritical inconsistencies.

KFP said...

I have to say: the press on Jonathan Franzen has always bothered me and here is why:

I have met and had conversations with Franzen and heard him speak in public twice—once at the Free Library of Philadelphia, once at Swarthmore College, where he had come to speak in memory of a beloved professor of his. While I can’t pretend to know what he is really like from just these two encounters, I can say that both times I found him to be kind, generous, self-deprecating, shy, awkward, intelligent, witty and funny—not at all the “seemingly insufferably self-important” person he is characterized as being in the Newsweek essay and other places. I suspect Franzen as a person has been misunderstood and misrepresented—a lot. Thankfully, Lev Grossman’s 8/23/2010 cover story about Franzen in Time backs me up on this a bit (and also reminds us that in the Oprah incident, it was Oprah who uninvited Franzen, not Franzen who turned her down, as so many people believe).

I think, first and foremost, Franzen is a serious writer who takes his craft very seriously and wants to do serious and important literary work (don’t many of us?) — but that doesn’t make him “self-important,” just serious and ambitious. As a writer, I admire that seriousness and ambition, and yes, I want to read the book to see if he has succeeded in his goals and if so, how he did it.

Plus all the writing about Freedom, the book, itself, says it definitely is a book worth reading. Grossman says it’s a story “told with extraordinary power and richness.” The Time cover blurb says the book “shows us the way we live now.” I don’t care if there has been too much (and authors are so rarely paid attention to—do we really mind if there is “too much” written about any one author or book?) or too little coverage about the author himself, whether it's positive or negative, it’s the information about the book, not the author, that makes me want to read it.

For me, in the end: I can tell by the actual book whether an author has what I admire: art/literary talent, intelligence, heart, and something to say that could make a positive difference in the world. Reviews, word-of-mouth, blogs, books about books and writers, and my own searches in libraries and bookstores help me find most of these books. What is written about an author as a person—not so much. In the end, a true writer writes true to his or her core beliefs and personality anyway, so who that person really is should come through on the page

On the other hand, if I do read a profile of a writer and he or she seems like a kindred soul—that makes me want to read that author.

If I read something deprecating about an author, I try to take it with a grain of salt and let the book itself speak for itself. If a writer is a shmuck—I think that will eventually become clear in the writing.

If a book is about something I want to learn—the author’s personality doesn’t enter into it at all.

So, does what I know about who authors are influence my reading of their books?

I guess my answer is some, but not most, of the time.

Holly said...

Reading an author's blog does change the way I read their books. Muddling this over a bit.

Amy said...

You bring up a good point because that's exactly my struggle. I know media and even the way one presents oneself in social media can be faulty it is never the entirety of a person. but with so many choices and so limited time it ends up being a factor in the decisions that must always be made.

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