On seeing the author

I visited an exhibition today at Durham University Library called On seeing the author. It focuses on how readers in the middle ages imagined classical authors, such as Aristotle, looked. There is also a brief introduction to some newly commissioned work by photographer Julian Germain – portraits of modern authors. The exhibition might be considered a starting point in thinking about how readers see authors through time, including nowadays, rather than a comprehensive look at the subject. There is an interesting write-up of the exhibition in the Northern Echo.

I have a page on Pinterest where I ‘pin’ photographs of writers. I find it fascinating to see the writers at work or just to see what they look like. When I studied Literature many years ago it was always considered important to look at the work in context of the author’s life and consider how their life experience personally and culturally impacted their work. However, it’s an interesting conundrum – how much does what you know about an author influence your enjoyment of their work?

When studying literature I never found that knowing about the writer’s personal life changed whether I enjoyed their work or not. If I loved a work for the work’s sake it was enough. However, I did find that understanding the context (the time frame) in which a work was written enhanced my understanding of it. So, in general, I think that the work within its temporal context is enough.

I do remember though coming at this from the other direction in the 1980s. I read a number of horror novels by a writer (whose name I can’t now remember) and every book was dark and ended terribly. You knew it would happen because it always did. And then something happened around the eleventh book. Suddenly there was hope and the story ended positively. It was most interesting to encounter such a change in a writer’s pattern. For the first time I found myself thinking I’d like to know what happened in the author’s personal life that enabled them to tell a different story but I never did find out.

Authors nowadays cannot just write. They must be visible on social networks and are expected to share of themselves apart from their writing. Nowadays, an author is not just a writer, but a brand. It’s a difficult call at times to find the balance and how much of yourself to share. We live in interesting times indeed. There are all sorts of questions around the way we share and use information, including our written work. For example, consider these two recent articles:

What happens to our social media accounts once we die?

What happens when digitised information is lost because it’s the only record of that information there is and technology has moved on?

Looking back at the evolution of the book and the written word, the way that stories have developed, the way that we publish our work, how we are seen as authors and how we now interact with each other as well as with readers is fascinating. Whilst I don’t need to know about the personal lives of the authors whose work I enjoy, I love connecting with those authors through social media as well as in life (by hearing them speak at conferences or in libraries, for example) and this ‘new’ phase of how authors are seen certainly enhances my enjoyment of their work.