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Does it matter what Jane Austen looked like?

Sunday, April 1, 2007
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I don’t usually post on Sundays, but my mom forwarded this link to me. It’s a nice op/ed piece on Jane Austen and if what she looked like and what she was like as a person have any effect on how we read her novels:

“It is a failing to read Shakespeare and feel impoverished by the lack of biographical detail. It is no less a failing to read Austen and wonder what the mirror said when she looked into it. I cannot think of anything that would make Emma richer than it is.”

Jane Austen

It’s interesting that this essay should appear in the NY Times today. I recently read another article (from the British Guardian) where the writer poses the idea that publishers are as concerned about what an author looks like as they are with the quality of the writing.

“Amid the pile of first novels in front of me, a handful of author photos proves her point: Ivo Stourton looks as if he has stepped out of Brideshead Revisited, snapped outside a sunny villa. His publisher makes much of his youth and Cambridge education. And an A4-sized photograph of a smiling Priya Basil slips invitingly out of the review copy of her novel as if to win favour.

That is not to imply that this is a talent contest – only that everything counts.”

This is an area long debated by literary critics—and something I had to learn about as an undergrad in my Literary Criticism course. Is it possible to separate the author from the work? The theories of literary criticism are vast and wide—and very similar to the theories of philosophy . . . and some are rather along the lines of “If a tree falls in the forest…”

For example: Is a poem good because of the response that readers have to it, or is it good because it has the potential to create a response in readers? Does the author lose authority over his/her writing as soon as someone else reads it (reader as authority)—in other words, does it matter with what intention an author writes something, or is it only what the reader gets out of it that means anything?

Wow—this has made me dig out my notes from that class, which was one of my favorites.

So let me as you—when you read, do you find out everything you can about the author? Do you try to figure out what the author is trying to say or do you read it looking only for your own interpretation of it? Does knowing about an author’s personal life enhance or detract from your reading experience?

5 Comments leave one →
  1. Sunday, April 1, 2007 9:25 pm

    I’ve found out a couple of disturbing things about authors I’ve enjoyed in the past. One of them I can’t read anymore, and the other, while it disturbed me greatly for a time, now only makes me sad and I still read her books.

    I read for escapism, and enjoyment, and I don’t look for hidden meanings. I guess I assume the author meant the story to be understood the way I’ve understood it. I know the setting, the characters’ features, the clothing, etc. can’t possibly look just the same in my mind as it did in the author’s, but I think that’s the wonderful thing about fiction. Wasn’t it Stephen King who mentioned that fiction is like a time-travel experience. He lived it while he wrote it, and every person lives in just that moment when they read it?

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  2. Sunday, April 1, 2007 9:32 pm

    I’m not really a reader who wants to know everything about the author. The only time that even matters to me is with my Nancy Drew books. They were written by ghostwriters and I have definite favorites and definite dis-likes in regards to which ghost I like the best. One of the ghosts and the original Carolyn Keene- Mildred Wirt Benson, lived a fascinating life. Arguably just as fascinating and thrilling as anything she ever penned in a Nancy Drew.

    But she’s really the only author that I know anything about and can sit and talk about her life in great detail.

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  3. Tuesday, April 3, 2007 7:28 am

    I’ve never thought about ‘knowing’ the author behind the story. It’s the story and the writing that draw me to a book. While I could list a long list of authors I like, I probably couldn’t tell you the first thing about the author themselves.

    For me the interest is the book, not the author.

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  4. Tuesday, April 3, 2007 10:49 pm

    I used to read purely for entertainment–of course now I study everything!! (I think you blogged about that very thing not long ago, too.) Anyway, if I’m enthralled by a book then I’ll look up the author, but usually not after just one good book. Maybe if I read three or four great books, then I’m interested to learn more.

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