Not Without Honour

After talking with other authors and members of the community devoted to the excellence of the written word, I've decided to tackle this topic head on, regardless of how close I may be to the issue.  I'm a person painfully conscious of etiquette and good manners, and I often think other people could do to be plagued by the same nerosis.
They took offense at him.  But Jesus said, "A prophet is not without honour, except in his hometown and among his own household."
I have noticed a marked distinction in the way readers treat dead authors and authors who are complete strangers to them, and how they treat authors who are acquaintances, or even friends.  It is painfully embarrassing and puts the contemporary author at a disadvantage.

If you happen to be a dead author, you are in luck.  Most readers will treat you more or less with objectivity and a degree of respect.  In fact, readers may even go so far as to give the author that sublime compliment and read the book for its own sake, ignoring the author altogether.  

If you happen to be a complete stranger to the reader, you are only a nebulous presence, a dim straw-man briefly torn down or a miniature house-hold god to whom passing honours are attributed.  Your work is viewed a little more subjectively than that of the dead author, but you still are afforded a decent volume of anonymity and respect.

Woe to the author who is known and alive!  At best, friends you know will be ardent fans and you can hope they will promote what (you certainly think) is a good work of literature.  At worst, people who think they know you will turn on you and tear you - you, along with your work - to shreds publicly.  At this stage, the reader who knows the author as well has difficulty (or does not try) to separate the work from the creator.  Any review of the work is also a critique of the author as a person.  And the more a reader thinks he knows the author, the bloodier that critique becomes.  It becomes personal, it becomes unprofessional, and any semblance of an objective assessment of a work introduced to the corpus of literature is not to be found.
the fire itself will test the quality of each man's work
When you read the work of any author dead or alive, you are not meeting that author: you are reading his work.  A good author is capable of writing characters, views, and circumstances which do not reflect himself.

It is embarrassing and painful to see authors sainted by nothing better than death, while living authors have to run a trial by fire already prejudiced against them by their readers.  It is not the business of the reader to critique the author, but the work in question.  This is a rule by which I read.   The excellence or poor quality of the work will reflect upon the author's ability to employ his craft, but it will not reflect upon him as a person per se.  It is not my responsibility to go so far, nor is it doing myself or the author a service.

It ought to be our first assumption that the author, doing what he does best, actually knew what he was doing, rather than supposing that we, as the readers, having put forward no work at all into the matter, automatically know best and could have done it better. This should be recognized intuitively as rude.

One final point.  It is possible to admit a work of literature is excellent even if you do not like it.  Contrary to what may be supposed, no one died and made the reader God, so that the reader's opinion is automatically the one right, true, clear view of a book.  Not mine, not yours, not anyone's.  As readers, we ought to be as objective and informed as possible, and even if, in the end, we do not personally like the content of a work of literature, we can still acknowledge that it was deftly crafted, artfully presented, a tribute to the phenomenon of the written word. 
tolle lege!

3 ripostes:

  1. I really appreciate your thoughts on this.

    I have to say, though, that I, as a reader, often experience the reverse difficulties: I have no problem with being completely honest in my opinions of either dead or very famous authors, because I know that my opinion will have small effect on their egos or chances of success. I can either state that I, personally, found their work to be rather rubbish, or I can state how I, personally, found their work to be admirable and uplifting.

    However, I truly have trouble when it comes to reviewing the work of up-and-coming authors, especially those with whom I am personally acquainted. How can I be honest AND kind? I worry that, if I am too kind and fail to point out the shortcomings I have seen in the work, I am cheating the author of feedback that could (potentially) push him/her to greater heights of achievement. On the other hand, too much criticism (however, constructively I may try to phrase it) could lead to discouragement. I have never engaged in personal attacks on an author, but as a small-scale scribbler in my own right, I realize how hard it can be to separate your work from yourself. To some extent, the praise of your story is going to come back and inflate your sense of accomplishment, and the critiques are going to bring you down.

    I always enjoy the perspective you share here, and I'd appreciate your thoughts, as an author and fellow Christian, on this subject.

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  2. In your first point, regarding dead authors, that is actually just what I mean. You aren't inhibited by the presence of the author because, at that point, he does not matter. All that matters is the work under scrutiny.

    Regarding your second point, I think I may write an entire post addressing a delineation that perhaps needs to be made (not at you, just in general). I hope that, in so doing, it will help alleviate some of the tension you feel when you go to review a living author's work, especially the work of someone you know. Stay tuned!

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  3. I love this post so much. I wholeheartedly agree. I also feel that way about musicians - I can love a singer's album without actually loving that singer, but many people I know don't think there is a difference. To them; Music is amazing = musician must be amazing. But there are some people who do great things, but they themselves are awful people. Also a while back, I was thinking about how classics have such prestige when not all classics are very good. Some classics are terrible books! And yet other genres such as YA have such a negative stigma... why? It's so bizarre.

    As to your last point - I recently read a book that I completely disliked, even though I couldn't deny it was a good book; the writing was solid, the plot was fresh and unique, and so on. I could see many other people enjoying that book. Just not me. So I agree that someone can appreciate or respect a book without liking it themselves.

    Thanks so much for sharing this, excellent article.

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