The Personal Heresy: A Case Study

Last weekend I attended Book Expo America (BEA) at New York City’s Javits Center. One of the more interesting panel discussions I went to was on Book Clubs. I went to it, embarrassing full disclosure here, because I hoped I might learn how to get Zossima Press titles picked up by Book of the Month Club or Quality Paperback Book Club.

Whoops! The discussion was about neighborhood reading clubs, which proved to my delight to be much more interesting than what I expected to be hearing.

The relevant and disturbing thing I picked up that I’d like to offer here for your reflection and comments was the consensus of the five women on the panel and the moderator that what Book Club members really want to know — and what book club leaders are obliged to provide — is information about the author of the work the club is reading. Knowing that s/he lives in Long Island, is married with two children, graduated from Kalamazoo U, and has a dachshund and pet tortoise is not enough; a discussion leader is obliged to search and find personal data well beyond book cover blurbs. The home run is scheduling an appearance by the author at the club date — so members can ask him or her how much of the story reflects their personal lives.

These Book Club pundits weren’t uneducated women or desperate housewives, believe me. When an author in the audience pointed out, though, that better writers weren’t writing autobiographies in story they wanted readers to pick apart to discover the ‘real world’ referents, the panel seemed non-plussed. They weren’t endorsing or arguing that interpreting the books readers gathered to discuss in the light of an author’s personal history was good or bad; they were just saying it was certainly what members wanted to do, would do, and it was the business of the Book Club sponsor to foster this sort of literary gossip if s/he wanted a successful Book Club.

We see a lot of this in Potter Fandom, alas. No matter the depth of meaning that serious readers turn up using the text, other readers will accept the interpretation only if the author has somehow, even obliquely, confirmed that view as her own. A few readers have also chosen to interpret the series as Ms. Rowling’s wish-fulfillment projection or psycho-autobiography because she and Harry share a birthday, green eyes, and a few other traits.

No doubt my objecting to this subjective approach to literature will be seen as a sly way of suggesting that my interpretations of Ms. Rowling’s books are as good as hers or as sour grapes because nothing I do or say about her books will ever carry the weight that her asides given in interviews have in most readers’ minds. I can live with that. I don’t need to blush about taking the objective, slow mining, iconographical approach sans biographical concerns because it is the logical, respectful, and traditional approach. It is also the way that rewards re-reading with heightened aesthetic experience and appreciation rather than pre-occupation with celebrity and an individual’s history. (I urge anyone interested in this divide to read C. S. Lewis’ debate with E. M. W. Tillyard on just this subject in The Personal Heresy.)

I want to offer a case study of the two approaches to reading that I had myself at BEA that highlights the pitfalls and other consequences of reading a book when ignorant of an author’s autobiography and when aware of his or her personal history. I hope very much you will share in the comment boxes any similar stories about your experiences that are like mine, different from mine, and those you’ve had with the Potter adventures and the Twilight Saga, if you have read those books. Here’s my experience:

I was shopping at Goodwill the other day and marveling as always at the wonderful books that can be had there for less than a dollar. I picked up an Anne Perry novel titled A Breach of Promise because I had enjoyed another William Monk mystery she had written and the cover told me this was a book in that series. For three quarters, how could I miss?

If you want to read Breach of Promise and don’t want me to spoil the story, stop reading here. I’m obliged to tell you something about the William Monk series and this specific novel to make my point about reading books as personal projections rather than experiences of meaning and being into which we enter.

The William Monk novels are Victorian mystery-thrillers set in London for the most part. Monk is a detective and amnesiac. As his Wikipedia page recounts:

Inspector William Monk is a fictional character created by the writer Anne Perry and hero of a series of books. He was born in Northumberland by the Victorian Era, son of a fisherman.

He had a coach accident in 1856, after which he lost his memory. As he was a police officer, he had to continue with his investigations, without telling about his lost memory. After the accident he met Hester Latterly, a Crimean War nurse, in unfortunate circumstances. From that day on, Hester and Monk became closer and closer, as she was the only one who knew about Monk’s memory issues.

In the second book, A Dangerous Mourning, Monk was fired from the police for insubordination and had to become a private investigator. Lady Callandra Daviott (Hester’s best friend) financed his private investigations. Sir Oliver Rathbone was his love rival (he too wanted to marry Hester) and judicial adviser in his cases; finally Hester and Monk got married, and kept solving cases together.

To give you an idea of how good these books are, I read nothing else at BEA, though I was surrounded by free books being handed out by publishers and authors (and brought home a suitcase full). I was totally absorbed by the story of the brilliant young architect being sued for breach of promise by his wealthy patron’s family. As with Perry’s other books I have read, the novel turns on issues of memory, identity, and relationships that are treated with no little sophistication, if the plot here depends on the Dickensian coincidence that would not be credible outside a novel from or about this time period.

The coincidence in Breach is that Hester Latterly is nursing a veteran of the Indian wars who has been disfigured horribly by mutineers. His wife’s maid, in what seems a senseless tangent to the story of architect, patron’s daughter, and lieutenant with mutilated face, asks Monk to help her find her two nieces who had been abandoned by her sister-in-law after the unexpected death of the maid’s brother twenty some years ago. The nieces, like the lieutenant, had facial disfigurement, theirs congenital, that made them horrible to look at.

Long story short, the brilliant architect dies an apparent suicide when the court case goes against him — but it turns out, mirabile dictu, that he was a she! Sir Oliver speaks eloquently in court about the injustice of her having to have hid her genius under men’s clothing and that she was driven to suicide by the court case based on a simple misunderstanding.

But it wasn’t a suicide! It turns out the patron’s wife poisoned the architect because she feared that Monk, who was researching her family’s past to help Sir Oliver defend the architect, would discover she was the mother of the two disfigured nieces (I did say the key coincidence was Dickensian, didn’t I?). Making her death seem a suicide ended the case — but Monk perseveres, finds the nieces, and, with Hester’s help, reveals the patroness’ murder of her first husband (egad! she fed him glass pieces…).

As I mentioned, the writing is excellent and the exploration of identity, appearances, and social conventions about the roles of men and women as well as the usual thoughts on memory and how it shapes and sometimes disfigures our idea of who we are is grand. But my experience of the book shifted when I was a little more than half way through it.

Struck by the Book Club discussion of reader fascination with author biography in interpreting their work, I decided to google ‘Anne Perry’ both to see what I could learn about her and, more important, to see how it affected my experience of her work. I confess I didn’t expect anything like what I found: a tabloid murder case.

‘Anne Perry,’ it turns out, is a pseudonym or the adopted name for a woman born in New Zealand as ‘Juliet Marion-Hulme.’ That woman, as a 15 year old, helped murder the mother of her best girlfriend because their parents feared the friends’ relationship was lesbian and wanted to break them up. Here is a 2006 story from the New Zealand Herald, ‘We Were Not Lesbians,’ about Ms. Perry’s experience as a murderer, convict, and her life after prison as an “outsider:”

Juliet Hulme, of Hulme-Parker murder notoriety, has spoken out about the killing, saying she and Parker were never lesbians.

Hume – who became British writer Anne Perry – and Pauline Parker murdered Pauline’s mother in Christchurch in 1954 by bludgeoning her with a brick.

A film version of the story of the two 15 year olds, Heavenly Creatures, portrays the lesbian relationship between the two.

But Perry has told the London Times Saturday Magazine that although they were never lesbians the relationship was obsessive.

The schoolgirls lured Mrs Parker to Victoria Park in Christchurch, on June 22, 1954, where they hit her repeatedly on the head with half a brick in a sock.

Pauline planned the “moider” in her dairy. The girls wanted Mrs Parker killed so that Pauline would be sent to live with Juliet/Anne Perry.

The subsequent trial became one of the sensations of the time. The court was shocked with Pauline’s diary. An entry for June 22 was headed: The Day of the Happy Event.

The girls were jailed separately — they never saw each other again — and given new identities on release.

Perry said of her part in the killing that she “made a profoundly wrong decision.

She added that she feared Pauline would take her own life “and it would be my fault.”

She also says doctors tried experimental — now known to be mood-altering — drugs as part of her treatment for tuberculosis in a Christchurch sanatorium.

” A long needle in your behind every third morning. They’d catch you when you were still asleep.”

Perry became the only child inmate in Mt Eden women’s prison in Auckland.

She said she spent the first three months in solitary where she got down on her knees, cried and repented.

“I was guilty and it was the right place for me to be.”

During the day we did hard labour but I collapsed after two weeks and then I started sewing uniforms.

“The woman who kept that sewing room took a fondness for me; she wrote to me until she died.”

She was in Mt Eden for five and a half years.

Perry said the prison was raw and brutal — no fruit and no library.

“I memorised the few books I had; screeds of the stuff. In prison we got little time alone except the nights — nights were a great blessing, not having to share a room. And when the light goes out and there’s nothing, then the light goes on inside your head.”

Perry was released aged 21 and was put on a flight to Rome to be met by her father and taken to England.

She travelled and worked in a variety of jobs from air hostess to insurance underwriter.

She also attracted many boyfriends, but not daring to know anyone well enough to explain about her past.

“I do know what it’s like to feel like an outsider.”

Perry, now 67, is a prolific crime writer of more than 50 novels.

She lives with her brother, a retired doctor who is now her full-time researcher, in a stone barn — restored with some of the royalties from the 20 million books she has sold — in Portmanhomack on the east coast of Scotland.

She is also involved with the Mormon community after converting to the church 35 years ago.

“I like its doctrine that you have to keep learning and that no one is excluded, no one is penalised.”

Now re-visit Breach of Promise (originally titled Whited Sepulchres). Is it now Anne Perry’s story of her experiences rather than a story that stands on its own without knowing her history? Remember, until Anne Perry was ‘outed’ as Marion Hulme in the publicity wave consequent to Heavenly Creatures (1994), no one knew her history — and, it seems, she was afraid to share it with anyone, even with, perhaps especially with boyfriends.

In light of the murder of her friend’s mother, the cruelty of the world and its inability to accept people as they are — be they horribly disfigured through no fault of their own, be it a matter of not conforming to gender roles or class types — has much less a universal meaning than it did. It seems almost a personal complaint. And the theme of memory and identity, how much our past and our ability to understand and accept it shapes our understanding of ourselves, is less a brilliant literary exploration of our psychological foundation than Perry’s self-reflections in story form.

Perry’s novels can be dismissed as risible historical projection of PoMo themes of the evil metanarrative that Victorians would never have taken seriously. “Discrimination,” for example, as defined by political philosophers from Aristotle to Russell, was an intellectual virtue rather than a ‘PC Nazi’ touchstone and synonym for “evil.” But, given this almost inevitable failing in the genre, her work can be entered into easily, enjoyably, and to edifying effect. Suspending disbelief in our ego concerns and returning, if you will, to Victorian London, we are confronted by human questions about how we understand ourselves and experience thoughtful answers in an engaging story with believable characters, albeit more heroic than authentic.

That experience and the transformation we have consequent to it are lost, I think, or, at the very best, very different and much less powerful, when read through the filter of the author’s biography. I am not suspending my ego-persona and disbelief in the fiction to enter into the story when I am thinking about — in admiration or from a gossip driven fascination — the personal history of the writer.

Examples of biography driven interpretations of Breach of Promise:

*Are the disfigured twin girls in Breach that are forgotten by the world, abandoned and lost, helpless to care for themselves, the author’s self-pitying ideas of herself and her murderous friend?

*Is William Monk, the amnesiac struggling to come to terms with the person he is discovering as he recovers his memory, a story stand-in for Anne Perry and her struggle with her past and a positive self-understanding?

*Is the patroness who committed a murder as a young woman and then reinvented herself far away to become a wealthy, seemingly successful woman whose past was unknown to all (and desperate to keep her past a secret) also a Perry-Plume cipher?

*Is Hester Latterly, the Crimean War nurse whose strengths and troubles stem from her experiences of battlefield horrors, still another Anne Perry allegorical figure — the woman whose past makes her an outsider men cannot understand or embrace? Is ‘Latterly’ a reference to Perry’s faith as a Latter Day Saint?

*Is the brilliant architect who must hide her identity as woman to exercise her gift as an artist just one more ‘Perry picture,’ a barely disguised conceit for the writer who hides her criminal past to write murder mysteries? Is her death at the hands of the woman in the story concealing her murderous past a reflection of Perry’s fears that her work as a writer would be destroyed by the discovery of her personal history? (Breach was published in 1998; the New Zealand press ‘outed’ Anne Perry in 1994 when Heavenly Creatures was released.)

These are interesting parallels and possibilities, no? They are also distracting and demeaning to both reader and author, and ultimately, I think, disastrously dissipating. We cannot enter fully into a story we are holding up against historical events from an author’s life to find the tit-for-tat correspondences.

I once read an account of Aristotle’s life that said the only things it was important to know about ‘The Philosopher’ (as Aquinas called him) was that “he was born, he philosophized, and died.” Rene Guenon and Frithjof Schuon both expressed similar views about the need to read without knowledge of the historical person writing the work, especially when studying metaphysics. I think this is also true, perhaps as true and for the same reasons, when reading fiction; let the work stand for itself, if only because that is the only way to fully enter the book and experience its meaning and reflect on it as it is rather than as we speculate about its links to the writer’s life.

My questions for you, besides asking you to share your comments on and corrections of my opinions about Perry’s Breach of Promise, are:

(1) Have you had similar experiences when knowing about the author’s personal life or beliefs spoiled – or elevated — your experience of the book?

(2) Has your familiarity with Ms. Rowling’s life history — the Cinderella story, her mother’s death, the troubles with dad, her struggles with faith, the depression, her political views, etc. — changed your experience of the Hogwarts Saga?

(3) Mrs. Stephenie Meyer has been relatively open about her faith, home life, and family compared to Ms. Rowling; has knowing she is a Mormon homemaker and mommy helped or hindered your experience of the Twilight books?

(4) Would life be better for readers if writers were anonymous a la Austen or at least much less the celebrities and public figures that they can be today?

I look forward to reading your thoughts; thank you in advance for sharing them here.


  1. revgeorge says

    I can’t really comment on Ms. Perry’s works as I’ve never read any of her novels. Although I think it quite likely that many fine murder mysteries have been written by people who never committed any heinous crimes. So, actually having committed a crime makes one neither qualified nor unqualified to write crime stories.

    I’ll answer #3 first. Knowing all the personal information about Mrs. Meyer neither enhanced nor hindered my dislike of Twilight. 🙂

    On #4, I think life would perhaps be better for readers if not so much attention was placed on the authors that it distracted away from the works themselves. But in reality it’s probably not going to happen. Not with the Internet & even the old forms of media like newspapers.

    Although there are times when knowing an author’s background helps in figuring out the work, in the sense of allowing us a more enhanced understanding of what’s going on. But really I think a work should be able to stand on its own & be enjoyed & even interpreted apart from knowing an in depth biography of the author. What’s that old MacDonald quote Travis is always referencing, “If I have to explain the work to you, then I didn’t do a very good job as an author?” That’s a paraphrase, of course. If we can’t understand a work except by knowing every last little detail about the author, then doesn’t that work out to something similar?

    I’m just rambling, though. I’ll have to think more on Questions 1 & 2.

  2. revgeorge says

    I think another problem we can run into is spending most of our time analyzing, interpreting, & psychologizing the author rather than analyzing & interpreting the work itself. And we let the author dictate to us the meaning of the work rather than the work itself. And as we’ve discussed endlessly before, sometimes the author doesn’t quite remember things correctly or, for their own purposes, could be deceptive about their meaning.

  3. I have mixed feelings about it. It seems natural to have some curiosity about the person whose work speaks so deeply to us. It can also be more than a little problematic.

    Politics has been an especially difficult issue where HP is concerned. Some of my personal enjoyment of Harry Potter has been affected at times by the widespread appropriation of it, in fandom, by the gay marriage cause. Give a popular crusade an inch from the author’s comments, and they’ll take a mile. And they pretty much just call you a Death Eater if you disagree.

    Simple life story and overall worldview information doesn’t generally bother me. Stephenie Meyer’s status as a Mormon homemaker and mommy interested me, perhaps because as a Catholic homemaker who would like to be both author and mommy someday, I sympathize with her much as I might a character in one of her novels. I’ve certainly considered those things in reading her stories, but I think the books stand tolerably well on their own when they’re read seriously. Knowing every last thing I could find out about her doesn’t appeal to me, though, nor does reading everything I know about her stories into her life or vice versa.

    Harry Potter stands exceptionally well on its own. One can interpret endlessly without reference to Rowling’s life and comments, although knowing the basics of her life story is interesting. I think I read her books more comfortably before I got involved in fandom. You and Travis have the only two HP sites, other than occasional wrocker myspacing (being a wrocker myself), that I still bother to visit.

    As someone who writes, I think worldview and life experience make their way into a story in some form or another because we write what we know and what we feel. But I also think stories are bigger things than we who tell them, prone to get out of our control and tell themselves.

    I would certainly take your position that analyzing the author’s life for interpretation of a story can become downright demeaning. Celebrity culture is a cruel thing–it sets a person apart, removes their anonymity, opens every comment and action to public discussion and mockery, sucks the person’s creativity dry and spits them back out where they came from.

    Not that I have strong feelings about it. 😛

  4. Lily Luna says

    The Harry Potter series stands alone very well. The only aspect I apparently needed explained to me was that Aunt Marge is supposed to represent Margaret Thatcher. Never occurred to me until I read it somewhere. And knowing it diminished my enjoyment of the opening scenes of POA as I am a Thatcher fan.

    I only just finished reading Twilight and would not have guessed Meyer was a Mormon, which I did not know until I read it in the above post (actually I had an impression of the author as areligious or antireligious, given the implication in the story that becoming a vampire is preferable to death, with no consideration given to the loss of going to heaven). (I’ve only read the first book, so maybe this is considered in one of the later books).

    I am generally more interested in knowing what books that the author read influenced them, what their works might be reacting to. For example, some novels were written as deliberate reactions to or commentaries on prior works. For this reason I tend to organize my literature collection chronologically by publication date rather than alphabetically by author.

    I’ll have to think more on question #1 (aside from the Thatcher thing).

  5. This is my first post.

    I encounter this a lot when it comes to criticism of literature. Just look at what it has done to Shakespeare. Scholars read all sorts of “autobiographical” references in the plays, most of it speculation. Knowing the author’s background can help with analyzing a story, novel, etc but it should not take away from the actual story itself. Authors do not set out to write in autobiographical details into their works.

    The same thing happened with Tolkien. Some critics have taken some of his imagery and story to be autobiographical, especially his experiences in WWI. Granted, some authors have taken actual experiences that they have had and use them for their stories such as Lewis taking his experience harboring children who were fleeing London during WWII and using it to start out the Narnia books in the Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.

    It does take away a part of the enjoyment of books when the reader or critic takes to much time looking at the author. Some can be helpful but not when it is emphasized at the expense of the book itself.

    The Harry Potter series stands alone and will long after JK Rowling is gone. She can say what she thinks about her books but the interpretations will vary. What she has said about Dumbledore’s sexuality, etc hasn’t tarnished my reading of the books because honestly, there is truly no hint of it in the books.

    As for as some fans taking it as a crusade for “gay” marriage..well..that is their decision and not necessarily the decision of Rowing herself.

  6. LilyLuna you expressed disappointment on finding out that:

    “… Aunt Marge is supposed to represent Margaret Thatcher…”

    It might help you to know that the above is an assumption made by a number of well qualified commentators and is not, as far as I know, a hard and verifiable fact.

    I do agree that Aunt Marge’s views are typical of those held by a sub-set of old guard Conservative Party members and that JKR is no fan of Thatcherite philosophy.

  7. revgeorge says

    (2) Has your familiarity with Ms. Rowling’s life history — the Cinderella story, her mother’s death, the troubles with dad, her struggles with faith, the depression, her political views, etc. — changed your experience of the Hogwarts Saga?

    I can’t say knowing these things has changed my experience of reading HP. Sometimes it may have helped explained things or thrown things in a different light but I don’t think it’s changed my experience of the Saga in the sense of enjoying the series as literature. I suppose it’s changed the way I discuss it in scholarly forums.

    In regard to knowing such things or conjecturing such things like her political views, I think knowing such things takes away somewhat from the power of the work. That is to say, knowing such things can awaken sleeping dragons. The task of slipping by such dragons as Lewis put it is to keep the reader from automatically raising their shields against the points you’re trying to make.

    If Rowling’s political views or social views become the focus, then the effect of simply reading the way she’s worked them into her books is lessened. Because one’s filters are up & running. So, I think the conjectures about her political views & her comments on Dumbledore’s sexual preferences actually hurt the ability of her books to sneak her views past the reader & to get them to consider them without so many preconceived notions getting in the way. If that makes sense…

  8. An excellent case study here: How do we know that Aunt Marge is a story cipher for Margaret Thatcher?

    Is it from internal evidence? Yes.

    Is it from our knowledge of the author’s political comments? Yes.

    From which one, though, does the interpretation have it’s authority?

    And can no interpretation become “a hard and verifiable fact” if not confirmed by an explicit comment in speech or writing from the author?

    Please re-consider this point…

  9. revgeorge says

    (1) Have you had similar experiences when knowing about the author’s personal life or beliefs spoiled – or elevated — your experience of the book?

    I’m sure there have been plenty of times this has happened, either way, spoiling or elevating, but I can’t think of any examples off hand right now.

    There’s also probably been plenty of books I haven’t read because of knowing something about the author or about their views. I can think of Philip Pullman & Dan Brown as two examples. Stephenie Meyers is another one, but that’s primarily because of people’s reviews as to the quality of her work & not her views or life in general. I probably would’ve read Pullman’s work too despite his views except for the quality of the work which upon hearing from other people indicated to me that I probably wouldn’t like it based just on that.

  10. revgeorge says

    Elizabeth wrote: “(Eek, what a rant!)”

    But it’s a very good & useful rant. Thanks for posting it.

  11. Elizabeth says

    In my literature classes, I often have to invoke Lewis and his cautions against the personal heresy. So many of my college students have been immersed in our paparazzi culture that it is often hard for them to separate the appropriate use of relevant historical background of a text (i.e. knowing that Nathaniel Hawthorne struggled with his ancestors’ role in the Salem Witch Trials does help in understanding his work set in that period ) from scurrilous or nosy muckraking or, the popular thing these days, using fiction as some sort of Rorschach test on authors ( “I see you have a female dog in this story; therefore, you must resent your third-grade teacher, Mrs. Dogson….”).

    I do think it is useful and relevant to understand writers’ processes, and I am grateful to many contemporary authors (Rowling and Meyer among them) who are open about how they write. Such information really helps me to encourage my students (See, bestselling authors use pre-writing and revise their work! Look how this chapter changed! See Rowling’s nifty little notebooks!)

    It’s also appropriate to know that authors did their homework in researching their books. M y husband and I have had the pleasure of helping our friend Sharyn McCrumb with research (He has dressed her up in his Civil War clothing and allowed her to live fire a period-reproduction musket to give her a good sense of a Confederate soldier’s experiences!) While I love telling people how hard she works to “get it right” (whether she is writing about stream pollution or the American Revolution), I would be horrified if readers were trying to use her work just to dig more into her personal life or to create some false sense of intimacy. She has a wonderful section in Once around the Track in which a character speculates on the cruelties of fans who think they somehow have some kind of ownership over celebrities, giving them the right to make comments like “Boy, you played lousy in the game last week,” … “that attitude was the modern equivalent of bear-baiting; the poor celebrity was tied to the stake of public opinion and mauled to death by autograph hounds” (62)

    Sometimes it is better not to know “the dirt” on an author. I think it mostly comes down to our motivations. Are we learning this information to be inspired in our own lives and writing?–Wow! A single mother or busy housewife still managed to write a captivating book; maybe my literary ambitions aren’t so impossible! Or to better understand and analyze the text? In analysis of the influence of one author on another, one first has to substantiate his personal and professional passion for the work of the other author. It would be ludicrous to argue that an author was influenced by a text he never read or even heard of! If these are our motivations, then I think it’s great to learn all we can about an author’s reading, research, and background. But if we only want to go through people’s trash and see what is lurking under the rocks in their gardens, we don’t want literature, we want tabloids. (Eek, what a rant!)

  12. Most EXCELLENT line of discussion, and a perfect way to begin a weekend! Here are my humble thoughts in relation to each of the questions (but I must warn you that when I answer questions like this, I tend to reframe the discussion so I don’t have to answer the questions I don’t want to address! LOL) Anyway, here goes:

    (1) Have you had similar experiences when knowing about the author’s personal life or beliefs spoiled – or elevated — your experience of the book?

    MOST of my experiences of coming to know about an author’s personal life usually have little or no impact upon my experience of a FICTION book. Why? Because the reason I read the book (and kept reading) was because I was drawn to the story and the characters themselves–not the author. Now, NON-FICTION is different, as THEN the life experiences of the author DO have some importance, depending upon what they are writing about, so I have found that my enjoyment of a non-fiction book can be elevated (or spoiled) by information about an author regarding a non-fiction book.

    (2) Has your familiarity with Ms. Rowling’s life history — the Cinderella story, her mother’s death, the troubles with dad, her struggles with faith, the depression, her political views, etc. — changed your experience of the Hogwarts Saga?

    Ms. Rowling’s personal life history hasn’t changed my views of the Hogwarts series at all. Perhaps it’s because I agree with most of what Ms. Rowling writes? LOL But I think not. Actually, it’s because WHEN she writes something that MIGHT be a reflection of her own personal views (like Hermione’s thoughts about discrimination against house elves), it is SO in line with the character, that I don’t care whether it might happen to also be Jo Rowling’s opinion about discrimination as well, because what is shared is a natral extension of the character, so it is of no importance to me that the author might happen to agree.
    Of course, I need to write a caveat here–my comment applies ONLY in the context of GOOD (or excellent) story writing, as really BADLY written stories show VERY quickly when an author is merely using the story to express their opinions on things rather than tell a story… however, I probably wouldn’t have read (in its entirety) a REALLY badly written story, so the personal information would only validate what I already knew–the author had an agenda! LOL

    (3) Mrs. Stephenie Meyer has been relatively open about her faith, home life, and family compared to Ms. Rowling; has knowing she is a Mormon homemaker and mommy helped or hindered your experience of the Twilight books?

    Must agree with prior postings, had NO clue about Stephanie Meyer’s personal life. Partially because I didn’t care to find out, but mostly because who the AUTHOR is doesn’t make me care about the characters in a story that she wrote. I quite enjoyed the Twilight series, but they are NO WHERE CLOSE to the HP series. The Twilight books were an entertaining read, NOT something that I would go back to again to inspire and encourage me in my life journey–unlike the worlds created by Rowling, Tolkien, Shakespeare, or other great writers to whom I return as I regularly reread their works.

    (4) Would life be better for readers if writers were anonymous a la Austen or at least much less the celebrities and public figures that they can be today?

    Actually, I contend that this is the wrong QUESTION. A FAR better question would be “Would life be better for readers if READERS did not MAKE writers celebrities and public figures?” The ACCEPTED “reality” is that our society is obsessed with monetary success, so anyone who APPEARS to have achieved that kind of success is idolized and made to be more than someone who has not. However, ACTUAL reality is that writers are no better than anyone else, rather they just possess a different gift (which can happen to make them rather wealthy–however, I can point to NUMEROUS examples of gifted writers who are NOT wealthy and therefore tend NOT to be celebrities). Writers have an important gift to share with our society as they help to inspire or illuminate others through written language, but one can argue the importance of many other gifts, too.
    So I’ll end my post with reiterating a lesson(s) from Harry (and from the great religious traditions) that I shared at LeakyCon that we should remember–that EACH of us is unique and have gifts that belong to no one else, therefore, it is imperative upon us to use those gifts to accomplish the task that only we can accomplish, and in so doing, we hopefully will make the the world a better place.

    So that’s my humble two cents as we begin the first weekend of June. I look forward to continued discussion!

  13. Arabella Figg says

    So many thoughtful and well-thought out comments here. Coming late to the party….

    Re your “Examples of biography driven interpretations of Breach of Promise:…” The subsequent questions made me feel like “I’ve fallen down and can’t get up!” Such questions are paralyzing, dividing the reader from the work to the point that the work no longer has meaning in itself.

    1) Discovering years later that a favorite nom de plume author of first-person POV mystery/romance/adventure novels was a man writing under a woman’s name nonplussed and amused me, but didn’t affect my appreciation the books.

    2) To a degree, yes. I found it meaningful that Rowling had been through these experiences. It helped me understand how she could write such books. But I guess one could consider that as influences. Now, if she spoke specifically and emphatically all her political/personal/religious/cultural beliefs and made a thing out of it, to the point of practically telling me how to read the books–that I would find annoying and it would affect how I read the books. But the books stand on their own.

    3) No. Even her dream inspiration for Twilight is just a seed she built a story around. In her interviews (which I didn’t read before reading the books) at The Twilight Lexicon we mostly find either backstory/character fleshing out or irrelevant info. The books stand on their own.

    4) I agree with Semcsem regarding fiction and nonfiction. With fiction, I’m content with a paragraph bio on the back flap (unless the books or author are controversial). Only when I’ve read several books by an author might I be interested in learning more. Until then, the story’s the thing. With nonfiction, yes, understanding where the author is coming from, their agenda, etc., can be very helpful regarding interpretation, if it’s not obvious in the work. I rarely look up authors, though, unless I feel compelled to. Elizabeth is spot on about motivation.

    I agree with LibraryLily: “Celebrity culture is a cruel thing–it sets a person apart, removes their anonymity, opens every comment and action to public discussion and mockery, sucks the person’s creativity dry and spits them back out where they came from.” It’s a besottedness that permeates and degenerates both people and culture.

  14. Arabella Figg says

    There is a diagonal way to look at this subject, as well.

    Christians tend to revere classical music as being more “sanctified” than popular music (go figure). I’ve seen classical CDs sold in the most conservative Christian bookstores. But in reading about classical composers, you find the usual human foibles, often sexual, and sometimes very decadent behavior. Does knowing someone was a womanizing, carousing lout degrade the glorious music he composed? Or cause you to enjoy it less?

    Does gender, gender orientation, or personal behavior, detract from artistry? Does not God touch our hearts through the the gifts he gives through most flawed humans (those being the only kind he has)?

    The work must be able to stand on its own and not be demeaned or dismissed because one dislikes the artist’s personal life.

  15. I come to this discussion rather late, but wanted to join in, nonetheless. I think one can enjoy fiction on many levels. I always read a work of fiction the first time through for the story itself. If I enjoy it, I am likely to reread it, perhaps many times (ex. Pride and Prejudice and the Harry Potter series). However, having majored in English as an undergrad, I learned to appreciate the many influences on writers and the stories they choose to tell and how. Stories do not exist nor are read in a vacuum. The author brings not only their own personal history but that of the world in which they live to everything they write, even if they do not do so intentionally. It is part of who they are and necessarily influences how they think and write. By the same token, readers do the same. How else can you account for the varied experiences of each reader who reads the same novel. This website itself is a great example. I think that there is no “right” way to approach a work of fiction. While it is easy to overemphasize one aspect or another when reading/analyzing a work of fiction, all influences on a the development of a work of fiction can enhance a reader’s experience and understanding of works they love.

    The many essays and discussions here have enhanced my enjoyment and understanding of the Harry Potter series. I loved this series for itself without any knowledge of the author or her life. I still love it for the story alone. Learning more about Ms. Rowling and her life has had absolutely no affect on my thoughts or feelings about her stories, even though her life certainly influenced the characters, themes and various plots in the series.

    Knowing about Ms. Meyer, however, has helped me to understand the vehicle she has chosen to tell her story and spread her message, whether I agree with it or not. I did not particularly care for “Twilight” and felt that neither the story nor the way it was written can be compared to Ms. Rowling’s achievement in HP. Others, I’m sure will disagree with me on this point, but again, I am only one person with my own history brought to the reading of both.

  16. maggiemay says

    It’s already been a week since the last post, so this will probably be DOA, but I felt I had to read the Anne Perry book before responding! I would have never read it had not our fearless leader (John) recommended it. I tried to totally discount the author bio he provided and ended up summarizing the book as sentimental. The description of the disfigured twins and their rescue by an employee of the disfigured war hero, although sanctified by the “dickensian” description, seemed planned as a tear-jerker. Maybe my head is too full of all the warnings against sentimentality I just received in an online college course I recently completed (“Writing about Literature.”) In this case, when I considered the facts about the author provided by John, it made me appreciate the book much more, because it was a product of the mind of someone who had really experienced complete repentance of a verifiable major crime (which she committed partly due to a struggle with her sexual identity.) How often do we read fiction written by a woman who has committed one of the most heinous of all crimes (pre-meditated murder) and has also had a second chance at life with a new identity? I know the gift of writing is not necessarily bestowed on the most “worthy” characters, but now I respect this book much more than anything by someone like John Updike, who lived a spoiled rich-kid existence, and admitted as much in a series of interviews on NPR. Regarding HP and Twilight, however, I don’t think knowing about the authors’ private lives has influenced my perception of them. It wasn’t until after reading most of those series that I familiarized myself with the authors, but I honestly considered whether or not the timing had anything to do with that. In summary, knowing the author’s personal history has drastically improved my opinion of “Breach of Promise,” but has not affected my opinion of the Twilight or HP series. Maybe what I’m really saying is that, for me, the saga of an interesting author can save a disappointing book, but also that finding out an author is “boring”(sorry, Stephenie) does not ruin an interesting story.

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