Does an Author Have to Live It to Write It?
This is the third in a three part series of what part the author plays in the marketing of a book. In the beginning of Crystal Hubbard’s book, Mr. Fix It, Hubbard’s heroine suffers a crisis of confidence. She is a romance writer but has stopped believing in love, let alone romance. Because of this, she doesn’t know that she can be a writer of romance books anymore. She feels that she is a fraud, writing about love and togetherness and happy ever after when she doesn’t believe in those concepts anymore.
The question is a great one. Does an author have to be in love to write romance? Extrapolating this a little further, does an author who writes from a male point of view be a man to have an authentic voice; does an author have to be gay to write the m/m books for the stories to be authentically homosexual; does an author have to be married, wildly in love and a parent in order to write romance; does an author have to experience the out of the mainstream lifestyle in order to be able to write about those out of the mainstream activities (I.e., BDSM, threesomes, etc.) How much of a writer’s real life have to mirror the story in order for the reader to buy it?
First, my own biases. I rarely read books written by men, regardless of genre designation. I’d rather read a female author’s voice whether it is mother/daughter writing team, PJ Tracy, Julia Spencer-Fleming, and JD Robb in the police procedure sub genre or YA or it’s romance. I’ve read men before: Jeffrey Deaver, John Sanford, Thomas Harris, Brett Easton Ellis (I still have nightmares from reading American Psycho), George RR Martin, and a few authors. But it’s very few. As an aside, the creepiest books I’ve ever read were by men writing about characters doing horrible things about women. I stopped reading Deaver after A Maiden’s Grave and the milk/snake/deaf girl scene!
More importantly, though, I have a bias in that I don’t believe that a man can know, intimately, the female path to self actualization and thus articulate it in an authentic manner even in fiction. I think I can acknowledge from an objective viewpoint that it doesn’t really matter who the writer is as long as the writer is good, but I believe that is why I reject the male author. I believe that they can’t speak to me in a way that another woman can. I suppose that is how men feel about female authors. According to John Howell of Waterstone, “Subconsciously, I think men stick to male writers. They think that what women write doesn’t appeal to them.”
This particular study suggests (word doc) that male readers are more likely to dismiss an author based on gender than women. (read the quotes, it’s an article in and of itself). “While 40% of women surveyed said they would read books they believed appealed mainly to men, only 25% of men said they would consider a book they felt was for women.” In the romance genre, I’m guessing the percentage of women that would pass over an author based on gender would increase otherwise there wouldn’t be a need for the female pen name for male romance authors. Conversely, there are female authors such as Devon Monk and Rob Thurman or PJ Tracy and JD Robb whose gender seems to be disguised by their pen names to attract a broader male readership.
There was the discussion on the review by Jayne of Dangerous Ground by Josh Lanyon as to whether Laanyon was a gay male or whether she was a female author who has created a gay male persona to help sell books. Teddy Pig noted that
I think most people know I am a very nitpicky hardass reviewer who not only reads but likes Gay Romance which is written mostly by women but I also have some experience in the area of Gay Sex and being Gay and I must admit I am far harder in my reading of Gay male writers because I for one expect a Gay writer to have the total experience of being Gay and I guess I expect he probably should be able to riff on all that in unique but realistic ways even in a fictional story.
I for one would never say women cannot not write Gay men or even Gay sex well. They probably have to make more of an effort in framing the story and characters to get that authenticity and maybe they should get a little more respect for that when they do it well.
I think what TP said “I expect he should be able to riff on all that in unique but realistic ways” points out what I think is the difference in the authenticity of a story. Maybe it’s that a female writer writing about love and relationships from a female point of view can be less perfect, less articulate and still evoke a positive response. Maybe it is easier to write at a deeper level if the author has actually experienced what she is writing about and that translates into a reader (like me) thinking hey, this author person really knows what she is talking about even before the book is cracked open.
However, even as I say that I think of Kathleen Gilles Seidel, an author who has made me believe that she must have been an Olympic figure skater (Summer’s End), a soap writer (Again), a famous rock and roll band groupie (Till the Stars Fall), a well connected player in the film industry (More Than You Dreamed), and a former beauty queen (Don’t Forget to Smile) even though her biography states that she has a Ph.D. in literature. Part of Seidel’s gift is in her details. In Don’t Forget to Smile, the female protagonist thinks to herself how a young beauty queen in the making has to learn to do makeup for black and white stills and how beauty queens are rarely blonde. In Till the Stars Fall, Seidel includes excerpts from a biography of a rock and roll groupie that sound so authentic that you might as well be reading Rolling Stone. Summer’s End has the hero noting that the heroine’s training as a figure skater made her more athletic with better endurance, despite her small stature, than any other adult in the group. In reflecting on Seidel’s work, I can acknowledge that an author’s background has very little to do with her ability to make a story authentic, yet I am beset with certain prejudices.
The author bio and the author picture all feed into certain bias held by readers. They are designed to make the book more attractive and appeal to a reader’s desire for purchase. The author bio might sell to readers that the author is fully in love with her own white knight (you read alot of this in the dedications) and thus her true love story is really from the heart or that she or he has some degree on the subject matter in which she is writing to lend instant authority to the topic (even if there is a better written book by a less credentialed author). The ironic thing is that the more that an author’s life parallels her book, the less likely I am interested in reading it. Memoirs make me uncomfortable, I guess. (Although I love the “Based on a True Story” Disney movies – clearly I am a mass of contradictions). Generally, when an author’s biography closely tracks that of the storyline, particularly in terms of looks, I’m thinking that the author is inserting herself into the book and I’m reading some strange fantasy. I guess that is a bit how Robert Pattison feels about Stephenie Meyer’s books.
It’s hard to shake off those biases. It may be that these bias are inescapable. Over time, they become ingrained beliefs rather than loosely held opinions. The question might be how much those learned beliefs turn into expectations that effect the reading of the story. Obviously, my own feelings are conflicted. I want to not be biased and recognize that I should not be biased but somehow I can’t shake loose of at least the author gender bias (although it doesn’t apply for me in regards to m/m fiction).
Does it really matter, though? Should we, as readers, look at the book and solely the book without regard for the author in anyway? Isn’t that the true reading experience? To what extent does the author and the author’s experience affect your view of the book? Does it matter when you find out about an author’s background (either before reading or after reading the book)? What affects you, if anything, the most? I.e, gender of author, background of author, author looks, author bio? I’m interested in seeing whether we, as a readership, believe like Crystal Hubbard’s heroine did and that is the author must live it to write it.