Wednesday, July 27, 2011

An Author’s Persona…Cool or Just a Bunch of BS?

Do you picture an archetypal author as a bearded man who smells of pipe tobacco, clacking away at a typewriter in his lone cabin in the mountains? Or perhaps you envision a bluestocking woman in Paris copying memoirs by hand, a new man staying in her artist’s studio every evening? Who comes to mind when you picture the quintessential writer: Jack London, Virginia Woolf, Salman Rushdie or maybe Gabriel Garcia Marquez? 

Readers usually focus on the fictional characters within an author’s works, but oftentimes the writers themselves have an aura or mythos surrounding their real-life self. Take for instance the tumultuous lifestyles of artists like Hemingway, Pablo Neruda, and Silvia Plath, just to name a few. Some of the images we conjure in our minds may be accurate, but other elements of an author’s real-life “persona” include legends crafted by the media or even by the authors themselves. 

Would it change your reading of Ezra Pound’s poems to know that he was also a fascist? Or does the image of Jane Austen living out her days as a spinster effect the way we read her stories that tend to end in happy marriages? What do you think…are the personas built around authors themselves something to cultivate or is it all just smoke and mirrors?  


  1. I think those eccentric few built a perception of what an author is...then again, the author of today is a far cry from the past. Most of us can't make a living from writing, we can't disappear into a secluded location for weeks on end or spend our spare hours wandering the cafes of Europe or afford to be egotistical, reclusive, or overly eccentric. (then again, this is just my inner perception of the archetypical writer lol)

    Still though, it seems like in the past authors were allowed to be more "artistic" with all that entails...where today, it's more of a business. Sure, you can be a little "off" :D but at the end of the day, you have to make sure your book sells too. I don't think that was something authors had to worry about in the past. Their publishers took care of the business aspect of it for them and they were allowed to indulge whatever behavior called to them.

    Then again, cultivating that type of persona nowadays might help sales...all that "any publicity is good publicity" stuff. But I tend to think a lot of it is smoke and mirrors.

    I know I'm still surprised at how "normal" some writers are after I meet them...even though I'm a writer and so are the majority of my friends. It's also interesting, now that a lot of the writers I started out with are getting published and popular, how other people perceive them. It's funny to be friends with the "rock stars" when to me they are just the same old friend I've always had.

  2. I think the general masses like to envision a lone solider typing their way through a perfectly polished manuscript. But once they have read and loved the book I think they will take the author even with the flaws. (at least I will) Jane Austen for example, I love that she saw the happy ending even without having one. It doesn't matter to me that she was a spinster, her books took hold of the world and have never let go.
    I know I used to read books and care less about the who the author was in real life, I just wanted their dreams and wanted to horde them all to myself. It's a tough thing to pinpoint, but either way a person should like your writing for what it is, not who you are, but the two are most likely intertwined.

  3. Hello Mark:
    Our perceptions of writers is coloured by the many we have known personally and, overwhelmingly, we feel that the role of a writer is incredibly hard work above anything else. To achieve a novel, just even to construct all those words on the seemingly endless blank pages, requires tremendous self-discipline and a highly creative mind. Not easy.

  4. Michelle - Very good point about the changing times regarding authors, I hadn't thought about that. I do def think publicity plays a role in popular authors today as well. Just curious, who are these "rockstar" authors/friends? :)

    Jen - True, Jane Austen is good no matter what. I find it difficult sometimes to connect the real-life author with their books, but maybe that's just me.

    Jane/Lance - Excellent point, any author who gets a book out there has def worked very, very hard. Not easy indeed:)

  5. I know one of my friends loved a certain series of books--until she found out what the author looked like. It changed her perception of the stories.

  6. lol ahhh just a few awesome YA writers :) Definitely a blast to see their books hitting the shelves :)

  7. I think with the Internet, we see more into an author's life now. I try to be the same person online that I am in real life, so anyone that meets me shouldn't be shocked.

  8. Hey Mark,
    Well, artists are artists. If they had the same brains and behaviors as regular folks they probably wouldn't be artists. I can appreciate their work, but often have to really put aside some of their unsavory behavior (e.g. Frank L.Wright deserting his wife and children; Polanski raping a young girl; yes, it is rape when she's drugged and 13). So I don't get into cult admiration of a persona. I try to appreciate their work separately. That said -- thanks for visiting my blog. Yours is beautifully written and just the right length for posts! Drop by again!

  9. Do you picture an archetypal author as a bearded man who smells of pipe tobacco, clacking away at a typewriter in his lone cabin in the mountains?

    Great question! I think I do, only for me it is an author sitting in a french coffee house, arguing philosophy with friends or bent over a pad of paper furiously scribbling down their thoughts.

    Thought provoking post.

  10. I think what Lynda says is really interesting--those pictures of the author on the back covers look great for a reason. It would oddly spoil it if I saw my favorite, starry-eyed author unkempt and burping after snarfing down day-old cold pizza.

  11. When I think of an author I do picture an old guy with a beard. I wish I could spend countless evenings in a log cabin just writing away. Alas, in today's society that's impossible. The way an author chooses to live his or her life shouldn't affect how I feel about their writing. The most eccentric artists have painted spectacular art. Society might have scoffed at them, but not their products. If the final creation is an act of brilliance, nothing else should matter...and it doesn't to me. People are human. We can't expect them to be flawless. Often what we show the world isn't what's inside us anyway.

  12. I think every author definitely needs a persona! For some people it's wildly different than their actual self, for others there is no difference at all.

  13. Lynda - Funny, I guess that must have been quite a pic:)

    Alex - Always good to be yourself, and I think you have a point about the intrusion of the internet, but what can you do (shrug)

    Karen Walker - Will do:)

    Linda - Def good point about not going in for cult personas, at the same time I still find it difficult to separate certain authors from their work, but maybe that's just me.

    Karen Woodward - Actaully, I kind of like your picture of an author, good one:)

    Lydia - true a pic is worth a thousand words, but is that bad if I judge an author by their pic? Or just so long as I judge them by their book...and their pics? :)

    Laila - When you mention eccentricity it makes me wonder whether authors are eccentric because of their art or if it's the only thing keeping them sane in an eccentric world...I know a loaded question;)

    Peggy- It probably helps sell more books, but I suppose each author must be taken on a case by case basis.

  14. This is a great question - one that I haven't thought about before. I think non-writers view writers - no matter what their persona - as these awe-inspiring people who have tapped into some untappable world (namely, the publishing industry) and it leaves onlookers amazed. Unlike trying to become an actor or a model, which each carries prestige and notoriety with it, a "normal" person actually has a decent chance of becoming a writer. And the prestige and notoriety that can come with being a writer is fascinating for non-writers looking on (and even for writers themselves!)

    And thanks, Mark, for commenting on my blog and becoming a follower! It's always great to meet fellow writers! :)

  15. Wow… those are some serious responses.
    I can see how readers imagine a writer who crafts a glorious book; the author must be as glorious as his book right?

    It’s simple to put awesome writes above the norm, I am sure J.K Rolling is simple with tons of flaws, but for me she’s nearly a goddess.

    I don’t envision one particular author; I kind of create one based on the quality of the work.

  16. When I try to think of the quintessential author, I tend to have Edgar Allan Poe, Agatha Christie and Stephen King pop into my head. At the same time, I've found that I always sort of expect an author to look the way I picture their main character in my head, and it can startle me to see what they really look like. I've also found that, once I've met an author, their appearance intrudes into the story a bit for the MC. I'm a very visual person, though, so that may make a difference.

  17. I enjoyed this post. Writers true persona fascinates me, especially those whose life predates electronics and blogs. Nowadays when they put it all out there, sometimes I don't want to know. :)

    I've read a lot on Hemingway's life. I can't identify with his style except that he lived and wrote (for a while) in Paris. Well and Fitzgerald and Gertrude Stein seemed to have been his critique partner. That'd be nice!