Monday, August 29, 2011

Dissmissing Némirovsky - the influence of the author's personal life

When my mother says she wants to boycott a specific musician for his politics, I find myself getting annoyed. "Separate the man and his art," I say, justifying my admiration for the man's talent. But place a book by Irène Némirovsky in front of me and chances are I'll say "No thanks". Why? Because the author made a pivotal choice in life that has since been endlessly touted... and I just don't feel like it.

I just don't want to read it
A few weeks ago, Sarah at Bookworm Blues raised the fascinating discussion prompt of how much an author's personal opinions influence our desire to read (or not read) his/her books. And while I wondered at what my own policy is, I realized how utterly inconsistent it is.

I'm using Némirovsky as my example for a reason - as a wildly popular and well-respected author, it would make sense for me to have read her novels. But one small blip on Némirovsky's biography makes me take a step back and say, "Wait, if I can choose... why should I choose her?"

There are two ways to look at it and it turns out I'm a hypocrite. On the one hand, I listen to musicians and composers with dubious backgrounds. On the other hand, I avoid authors who may have made specific choices that don't quite fit in with my personal beliefs. Némirovsky only vaguely attracted me as a reader the first time I've heard of her and the more I learned about her history, the less inclined to read her novels I became.

Ultimately, I think the difference between music and literature is in the presentation. When a pianist has a controversial opinion, it doesn't really come across in his interpretation of Beethoven's sonatas. Meanwhile, authors can (and do) present their own lives and opinions easily in literature. So much of an authors personal experience ends up embedded in the story, imbued in the personalities of the characters. I've encountered very few books that included none of the author in their characterizations, enough to realize that when I greatly disagree or sincerely dislike the author, I am far more likely to dislike the book as well.

The problem is that it's not at all clear-cut. There are authors who say dumb things who I still love (Philip Pullman, I'm looking at you!) while there are authors who I don't feel like bothering with because of footnotes in their histories. And then there are authors who have said completely controversial and idiotic statements (V.S. Naipaul!) who I still might consider reading. Why? Why not! It's my choice. At the end of the day, I don't have to justify it for anyone.

So in answer, readers can be influenced by whatever they want. Sometimes it's the fact that an author sounds lame, sometimes it's the fact that an author writes in a funky style that doesn't sit well with the reader, and sometimes it's because the author has expressed certain personal opinions that turn them off for the reader. In the end, we can't read everything. If this is another weird and inconsistent way for us to sort through all those books out there, so be it. And if I'm missing out on a brilliant writer in Némirovsky... well, I think I'm okay with that. For now, at least.


  1. I think what happens with me is that if I have been exposed to, and like, the art prior to finding out bad things about the artist (and I include books and authors in these categories), I am much more inclined to overlook it than if I know about the artist being a bad person (or whatever) and THEN move affirmatively forward to check out the art. ....which is actually quite aleatory in the final analysis, but as you say, so be it! :--)

  2. am artists personal life does effect me. for example, I will never go to see another Woody Allen movie. I think he is scum, and will not support him with my money.

    to a degree, it get easier once they are dead.


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