Pulitzer prize-winning novelist Jane Smiley, in her wonderful book 13 Ways of Looking at the Novel, commented that “readers don’t care what the author thinks.” She meant, of course, that readers don’t want the author to intrude himself and his own beliefs upon the story. Indeed, isn’t one of the cardinal rules of fiction that the author must never make the reader aware of his presence?
In a word: hogwash!
At first glance, I suppose, it may seem I’m sticking my neck out to the ax. After all, who among us can flout the ironclad wisdom of novel writing and escape unscathed? But I guess I’m not flouting the conventions so much as I am attempting to momentarily redefine them.
The simple fact is that it is impossible for an author to remain inconspicuous. From the moment a reader glances at the names, in capital letters, on the book covers and selects his reading material accordingly, he has no chance of pretending this author person doesn’t exist. With every word he reads—no matter how different the worlds and lives they describe may be from that of the author himself—the reader is coming to a more intimate understanding of the person who wrote them. To say that the author must remain invisible is a ridiculous concept. The author is—and, indeed, must be—at the very center of his story.
As much as stories are about things that never happened and people who have never lived, they are also the tale of people who do live—people who have thought and felt and experienced life deeply enough to bring meaning to make-believe that would otherwise be meaningless. In short, readers had certainly better care about what the author thinks, because otherwise what point is there in reading the thousands of words that have flowed from this person’s mind and onto the page?
Is it even possible to read Dickens or O’Brian or L’Engle and not be fascinated by, not only the veneer of the story itself, but also the workings of the minds that hide behind the beautifully crafted false fronts?
So many times when I’ve read something that has deeply impressed me—with its wit; with its depth of feeling; with its brilliant, unswerving verity—I’ve looked up from the page to wonder What kind of a mind discovered this nugget? What events in the author’s life produced this thought? What personal convictions inspired him to write this?
Perhaps I am a strange breed of reader, but these inevitable intrusions of the author’s mind upon my own are far from unwelcome. If I care enough to pick up one of Dickens’s 800-page tomes or to read through twenty volumes of O’Brian, of course I must not only recognize the considerable personal force of these authors lurking behind their words, but I must also appreciate and be interested in the authors themselves. When I pick up a book, I want to experience the author’s mores and mindset. I want to learn from his own experiences as a human being, as viewed through his characters. I want to meet this person and—if all goes well—close the back cover on his book having made a new and respected friend for life. The characters become my friends, certainly—but is that any reason to overshadow the author himself?
Now, in fairness to Smiley—and the legions of writing pundits who spout saws about the author needing to keep himself out of his writing and completely clear of his readers’ consciousness—I am quite certain her intention in making this statement was directed to the problem of didactism and overbearing authorial flourishes. And, in that, I completely agree with her. To be beautiful, art must be subtle. But does that mean that when I stand in awe in front of a Da Vinci, I am not utterly aware of the artist himself?
So, in short, as an author, I cannot be afraid of releasing myself into my story. Indeed, the story is me. (Gustave Flaubert once said “Madame Bovary c’est moi.”) Whoever has read my story has met Katie Weiland. Whether they like me or my writing is entirely their own prerogative, but for better or worse their having read my story means my life has impacted theirs. And that is something all readers care about.