Friday, June 10, 2011

On author power and influence

I started reading this Forbes post about "the 10 most powerful women authors" and my first reaction was surprise. This is because based on the first few names, it appears as though Avril David mistakes "powerful" with "bestselling".

Perhaps my issue is with the use of the word "powerful". David meant influential - but use of the word powerful alters the meaning. Regardless, reading over this list, I'm somewhat disappointed from a strictly literary perspective. Influence has a lot of forms, but how exactly does Danielle Steel challenge her readers? Does the fact that Stephenie Meyer can capture an audience mean that her message has necessarily resonated with readers? J.K. Rowling, even as author of one of my favorite series ever, isn't exactly my first choice when it comes to influence perhaps because her incredible ability to tell a story doesn't mean that I'll jump at her every word.

David's list becomes a little more interesting once we get to the award-winners. Once she stops focuses on the monetary value of the author (and more on the accolades), there's a little more... weight. But even so, I'm still left somewhat unsatisfied. True, authors like Maya Angelou, Jhumpa Lahiri, Alice Walker and the rest deal with interesting issues and broaden readers' minds. That is clearly influence. But would I choose these women?

The better question is: would I choose anyone? The more I think about it, the more I realize that the answer is no. I can't think of very many authors - male or female - who I would call powerful or influential, perhaps because these are some pretty strong words by themselves. Maybe there are authors who are fairly influential within a specific field - literary criticism, for instance - but to say that they're powerful... I can't do it. I can't put that kind of label on authors.

David doesn't pretend that the list is anything other than her personal opinion - a mix of bestselling authors, award-winners and familiar literary names. She doesn't shy away from the fact that this, furthermore, a very limited list. Similarly, my opinion is that a list like this doesn't say very much. It doesn't sit well with me. I'm not even certain why.

What do you guys think? Do you like David's list? Are there authors (male or female) who you think are, indeed, clearly powerful or obviously influential?


  1. Interesting question! I don't think authors have that much influence on me. A few can persuade me to buy other books and some have altered my perspective on a specific subject through reading their books, but as to any greater influence I'd say it was fairly minimal. You're right about JK Rowling - I love her books, but don't think she's done anything other than persuade me to read the rest of the series/watch the films.

  2. I guess I would disagree that "best selling" doesn't translate into "powerful." I think these women have a large impact on socialization: which values are transmitted, which social memes gain currency, and what sort of ideas are presented to the largest number of readers. A lot of this stuff probably takes place on a subconscious level, but I believe that it does, nevertheless. Take a series like the Twilight Saga. You have a gazillion teenagers looking for how to think about life, exposed to ideas about, e.g., what attracts boys, and what kind of boys are the most attractive. In Harry Potter you have a lot of ideas about good and evil and what constitutes heroic behavior being promulgated. And other popular heros: Lee Child, whose books about Jack Reacher valorize a certain kind of macho-ness. One reason I like to read best sellers even if they're sort of horrible is because I like to know what kind of ideas are being pushed to great numbers of people!

  3. I think it's a mistake to label an author who is merely a "bestseller" as influential, so that would bother me too. I can't exactly say that I find any author influential to society at large, though I do think a few of them are influential in my life personally. This is a very interesting question to ponder. I am going to have to think about this.

  4. I think a sign of influential would be a book's staying power. How can we know if Danielle Steel is influential if we haven't had the chance to see whether people will still be reading her, loving her, ten, twenty, thirty years from now?

    Using the words influential and powerful is just a weird way to talk about books in the first place, IMO. Why not enduring or beloved? Or, like you said, bestselling?

  5. I think it absolutely depends on your perspective of power.
    Authors who include important moral and life lessons in childrens and even YA books are powerful because they often help young ones to better grasp those lessons, through the emotions and experiences of a character.
    Authors who write books that inform and enlighten their readers on cultures, lifestyles, illnesses, addiction....the list goes on and on, are powerful because they're teaching. And knowledge is power, whether it be fiction or nonfiction.
    If it's written well, and is able to touch people.....powerful. Just my opinion though...Great post :D :D

  6. Interesting post, and an interesting article in Forbes. I'm glad the list wasn't entirely about bestsellers, although it's strange to see Maya Angelou and Danielle Steel sharing the same list. I think making money definitely CAN be powerful (Oprah and Rowling are probably the most powerful women in the world) but wish this article had clarified more what was meant -- literary vs. read-by-the-masses. I read both MH Clark and Danielle Steel as a girl, so maybe that is power. Was sad to see Margaret Atwood left off the list.

  7. I agree that bestselling authors are not necessarily powerful, although I do think that they are at least culturally influential, certainly in the case of Rowlings and Meyer. I've never read Twilight, but I know quite a bit about the plot and its implications for women, for example. I do, however, believe that some authors actually are powerful, those that have used their books to send a specific message or support a platform and who are also social activists. I would put Alice Walker, Maya Angelou, Toni Morrison, and Jonathan Safran Foer in this category. I would (and have) given weight to what they have to say.

  8. 1. Virgina Woolf
    2. Anne Sexton
    3. James Joyce
    4. Diana Gabaldon
    5. Kurt Vonnegut
    6. Joseph Heller
    7. Rainer Maria Rilke

    I am not a fan of itemized lists but these authors changed my life. By change, I do not mean that they were simply touching. I mean to say that they influenced my perspective, gave me relation or epitomized my anthem. I believe that literature has the same power to influence as people do. It has less to do with there ability to sell copies and more to do with their ability to touch the soul at the exact moment that a soul needs guidance.


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