Can we separate an author from their work?

I wrote an Instagram post a few days ago about context and what it means to me as a reader. I separated out the issue of problematic authorship from this, deeming it a ‘separate issue.’ I retract that. Context and authorship are undeniably and intrinsically linked, even if I as a reader treat them differently. Let’s be clear- To me, context is understanding the time period the piece was written in, who it was written by and any facts pertaining to the content of the book, whereas authorship is knowing specifics about the author. These are linked but nevertheless something I have always treated as slightly apart but will do no longer. However, I still feel the need to explore these issues- where does the boundary lie between context, author and the separation of the author from the work itself?

I have always been a complete context nerd; I love knowing all there is to know about a piece I have read. I’m an English Literature student by day, so I suppose it is part of the parcel! But unless I am given the context or facts about an author beforehand, I prefer to wait until after I have read a text to do my own research. Why? I find separating an author from their work extremely hard. Once I know that an author used to work on a whaling ship, I can’t help but see the whole 500-page behemoth as an autobiography (think Melville and Moby Dick) and as a result, read with complete tunnel vision!

That’s a slightly amusing example but I think we all know it goes deeper. Sometimes I’ll be reading something by an author I know very little about and suddenly out of nowhere a suspect statement appears. Now the first question I always ask myself is- does the author really think this or are they trying to show this is problematic? This proves to be a trying question, so much so that I could write a whole other post on it! Despite my usual, waiting until after the book is read approach when this happens, I prefer to turn to the internet and see what I can find out about the author. Sometimes you strike gold, oftentimes you are left in the dark. But when you do find a nugget of information that answers your question something clicks and suddenly you have a whole new reading experience.

Two examples that particularly strike me here are Thomas Hardy and Lewis Carroll. Let’s take Thomas Hardy first. Poet and novelist, Hardy is most well known for his pastoral and idyllic poetry. He focusses on the past and nostalgia in many of these, mourning his dead wife Emma Gifford and the life they built together. The same Emma Gifford whom he cheated on and treated so badly during their marriage that she became a ‘virtual recluse.’ Once I knew all this it became increasingly difficult to separate out the poetry of an apparently heartbroken man from the man whom himself treated Gifford so badly.

Lewis Carroll for me is a whole other ball game. Alice’s adventures in Wonderland is one of my favourites but has been tarred for me by the realisation of Lewis Carroll’s paedophilia. I first read Alice properly as a 17-year-old. I loved it but something was niggling at me. Soon after finishing, I remembered that I had once heard rumours of Lewis Carroll being a paedophile. To cut a long story short I ended up writing a 5000-word project on Alice in Wonderland that included researching this uncomfortable subject further. The knowledge that the true Alice (Alice Liddell, around aged 7 when Carroll met her) was subject to a proposal from Carroll when she was 11, multiple attempts to kiss her and was also photographed almost nude by a man who proclaimed - A girl of about twelve is my ideal beauty of form and one hardly sees why the lovely forms of girls should ever be covered up- changed my view of the book forever. Love it though I do, it will forever be loved through the eyes of study and intrigue into how a man such as Charles Dodgson (Carroll’s real name) came to be such a highly regarded author.

Yet, as we have seen recently sometimes an author’s problematic behaviour not only arrives long after the works, they produce but are entirely unlinked. It doesn’t take long to work out I’m referencing the TERF J.K Rowling here. As someone who has never read Harry Potter, I was not privy to the many opinions and feelings this brought up for fans but I can imagine how it felt because it made me too regard this issue and think how I would react were this to occur to me.

So, does something like this happening after the text bring a new meaning? Does finding out that an author is problematic whilst or after reading bring new meaning too? For me, yes, but with the added caveat that reading becomes something new in this circumstance- reading with an awareness. An awareness of issues in the work we haven’t perhaps noticed before but can now question and ask whether this is ok, an awareness that for some these issues may be too much for them to even step near the text again and sometimes an awareness that the work is uncomfortably a reflection of a time period and moment wholly removed from our present. There is no right answer to this but there is a right way to read- with a conscience and an understanding.