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In Order to Appreciate Novels, is it Necessary to Know Their Authors?

By 18/03/2009September 20th, 2018reading
Reading novels and short stories

As a reader, when you read novels, short stories or poems, do you care who the author was or what sort of life they led?A passage on writers and their novels from the book I’m reading, Diane Setterfield’s “The Thirteenth Tale”:

“People disappear when they die. Their voice, their laughter, the warmth of their breath. Their flesh. Eventually their bones. All living memory of them ceases. This is both dreadful and natural. Yet for some there is an exception to this annihilation. For in the books they write they continue to exist. We can rediscover them. Their humor, their tone of voice, their moods. Through the written word they can anger you or make you happy. They can comfort you. They can perplex you. All this, even though they are dead. Like flies in amber, like corpses frozen in ice, that which according to the laws of nature should pass away is, by the miracle of ink and paper, preserved. It is a kind of magic.”

I do not know if the entire paragraph carried though the metaphor for writers’ perpetuation, because while they seem ethereally alive in “their tone of voice”, in the end, we see them as “frozen corpses”.

It is true that a writer no matter how mediocre or banal, is preserved in some way through his or her writing. Great novels survive, but so do shoddy ones.

As a reader, I’ve always taken books at their face value, never scratched the surface to try and find the writers themselves. That was not important important for me–novels needed to stand for themselves, and be judged on what lay between their covers.

When I read Updike, I do not try to find him through his writing, nor do I try to reach at Shakespeare through his plays or sonnets. For writers that are alive, it matters little to me whether they live in mansions or apartments, with dogs or cats or spouses. What matters is what they have written, not who they are as people. I would not like to know V.S. Naipaul personally, but I like reading his novels.

This is a subjective opinion, I know, because when analyzing a text in college we found it convenient to have read the writer’s biography, or a memoir, if available. Keats’s odes become so much clearer once you know the circumstances in which they were written. For some people it adds to the poignancy of those poems. To me, it takes away the magic.

As a reader, when you read novels, short stories or poems, do you care who the author was or what sort of life they led?

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Damyanti Biswas

Damyanti Biswas is the author of You Beneath Your Skin and numerous short stories that have been published in magazines and anthologies in the US, the UK, and Asia. She has been shortlisted for Best Small Fictions and Bath Novel Awards and is co-editor of the Forge Literary Magazine. Her literary crime thriller series, the Blue Mumbai, is represented by Lucienne Diver from The Knight Agency. Both The Blue Bar and The Blue Monsoon were published in 2023.

I appreciate comments, and I always visit back. If you're having trouble commenting, let me know via the contact form, or tweet me up @damyantig !

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  • Anonymous says:

    I must disagree with the initial quote… People live on, in the pieces of whom they leave behind

  • Damyanti says:

    I know, I was so angry with this professor and his economic theory, I wanted to shove something down his throat.

    Your novel sounds more intriguing my the minute. Can’t wait to read it!

  • Litgirl01 says:

    “That is all ye know on earth and all ye need to know.” 🙂 Sigh…

    Economic reasons? The poor guy was ripped to shreds in his lifetime. I don’t think he made a dime. Hmmm…I’m not sure about that. According to his leters, he had such a love of writing and such a natural talent. He was trying HARD to make a living on writing at one point so that Fanny’s mother would grant him her hand in marriage. I can see money and fame being Byron’s main motive! LOL

    Sad note…Fanny Brawne gave Keats’ letters to her children to sell for profit. This was only on her deathbed… so SHE never profited from them.

    I can’t wait to explore all of this through writing!

  • Damyanti says:

    I do remember visiting your blog and finding that you want to write such a novel. I’m intrigued, and will buy a copy:).

    I was so in love with Keats when in college that I once took on a visiting professor from London who said the primary motive for Keats’s writing was “economic”!!

    To me, I like the pure enjoyment of art without context. I want a poem to rip my heart out, but only with its words, how it makes me feel and think, and what or who it makes me think of. Not because of the poet’s background.

    To me Keats’s lines “Beauty is truth, truth beauty” is one of his best achievements, for the simplicity and veracity of his words, and nothing more.

  • Litgirl01 says:

    In Keats’ case, it added poignancy to his poems once I knew more about his life. I think this is why I am so drawn to him. In fact, I am currently planning to write a novel about Keats and his relationship with Fanny Brawne. It’s believed that the poem “Bright Star” was written for Fanny. I will never read the poem the same way again. It absolutely rips my heart out.

    Great post. The Thirteenth Tale seems interesting. Definitely something I would read. 🙂