I was in a bookshop-cum-coffeehouse the other day, when I couldn’t help overhearing a conversation between two ladies at the next table. Okay, couldn’t help is an exaggeration – I was actually earwigging.
They were discussing an author who publishes erotica and trying to guess her age from her photo. They appeared to be a little disconcerted that she writes candidly and graphically about sex, yet was at the older end of life’s age-range. One of them was so disgusted that she swore she would never read another thing the author wrote. ‘It’s like thinking about your grannie doing it,’ she said.
It has long been a tradition to put author photos inside the back cover of hardbacks. I remember seeing an early shot of Stephen King and feeling a little disappointed that he wasn’t more….more. I could happily have carried on reading his work in ignorance of his appearance. And ignorance about any other aspect of his life, for that matter.
This got me to thinking about the wisdom of readers knowing too much about authors. Surely it’s enough to enjoy the books they write? As readers do we have to know how many kids they’ve got, or whether they like oats for breakfast?
And does it matter how old they are? Sex sells sex – I realise that. And maybe if said author had posted a photo of a young, lithe, thing dressed in skimpy underwear and wielding a whip, in place of a real headshot of herself, then maybe readers would relate more to the idea of her, than to the reality of her. But shouldn’t her writing speak for itself? Does she have to be young and sexy to write about youth and sex?
Of course not! In the same way that authors can write young adult when their teenage years are long behind them. In the same way that an author can write about loss and heartache, and death and love, and envy, and rage, and altruism, and kindness – and all the other human emotions and conditions we all experience to some degree or another.
Yes, it does help an author’s writing if he or she has experienced what they are writing about for themselves, but that is what sets a good story-teller apart from the rest – they can imagine, they can empathise, and they can put all those emotions into words and get them down on paper.
It’s the story and the way it is told that counts.