Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Do the author's politics matter?

The piece in The Guardian by Gunter Grass with the author outlining his defence of not only being involved with the Nazi party but then subsequently keeping quiet about it for all those years raises a broader question about the reader’s need for author integrity.

Each time a biography comes out about a well known writer there is always some sort of accusation in there about sexual perversion, anti-Semitism, political hypocrisies or some other twist on a character flaw. The result is that it causes the reader a dilemma. Does it make it more difficult reading The Tin Drum knowing that the author was part of the SS? Is it best to avoid T.S Eliot’s poetry because he was viewed as anti-Semitic?

Trying to get answers to those questions means taking a look at the relationship between author and reader. In those pre-wikipedia days of reading literature it was often a case of reading a book by somebody you knew almost nothing about. Apart from a brief biography on the back cover or just before the novel started that contained the usual dates of birth, marriages, list of published works and if it was relevant death there was not much more added. Now there is an opportunity to find out more than ever about authors because somewhere on the web there will be information that will fill in the blanks. Of course it might not be true but it is there nonetheless and that might have an impact on the reader's reaction and opinion to the written work.

Personally my take on it is that the Grass article might have been an interesting reply to his critics and an insight into the creative process that produced The Tin Drum but it does not reduce my interest or appreciation in the novel. Historians nearly always declare their point of view, Marxist, narrative etc in their introductions and their work can be seen in that light but a novel should not necessarily be about one point of view the best ones reflect life in all its varied colours. It should cover the spectrum of human emotions and views and when it does become too political – Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle is a good example – it becomes a preaching rant that has forgotten the human element that made it so engaging.

I’m not naïve enough to advocate a blindness about writers and their personal views but great literature has to stand and fall on its content and its portrayal of life. If it becomes political, racist or preachy then it will fail. After all who reads a political manifesto for pleasure?

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