Tuesday, 14 September 2010

Should we infer the author from their work?

Toby Frost, popular author of the amazing Space Captain Smith series of books and secretary of Verulam Writers' Circle, recently raised on the VWC website the intriguing question of whether an author, or that author's beliefs and character, should be inferred from their work.

It is an interesting question and one to which I suspect there is no simple answer. My instinct is that it would be unreasonable to infer the author from any single piece, but perhaps if one were to look at a substantial body of work created over a significant period of time...

For instance, were anybody terminally bored enough to pick up a selection of my stories and dissect just one they might draw any number of erroneous conclusions, dependent upon which piece they chose. I would hope, however, that - taken together - they would reflect an average human male attempting to reproduce a wide variety of imaginary characters and situations for the entertainment of others.

Misinterpreted conclusions based upon a small sample can of course occur in any context. For example: at a VWC manuscript evening not so long ago I read a piece of off-the-wall Oscar-trash entitled Stitch-up. Now, I consider Stitch-up to be about as atypical of my work as any piece could be, it's poetry (of sorts) and it is somewhat sick in a tongue-in-cheek black-humour sort of way. But when I'd finished reading it a longstanding female member of VWC, whom I'd always considered to be a good friend, made it clear to me in shocked and disapproving tones that she considered me a misogynist. Ouch! I believe she really meant it, and I've not seen her since. For the record, I'm not a misogynist - far from it – I love women (Okay, not as often as I once did, perhaps, but that's another subject altogether). Neither am I a coal miner, an avenging spirit, a lesbian native American squaw, a Spitfire pilot, etc., etc... It's all only pretend.

So, from hard personal experience, I believe inferring the author from the work should be undertaken with considerable care, imagination, and a fair amount of empathy. We writers should critique, yes. But judge not...