Can you read a book in a contextual vacuum?
Unlike non-fiction, one of the guarantees of fiction writing, as implied by the very use of the word itself, should be that the world of the book is separate from the world of the author. Fiction, by its very definition, is an invented story, an imagined tale. One should be able to read it without caring about who wrote it, because the words should provide the context themselves.
My best friend and I have had multiple serious discussions about books which inevitably led to a discussion of the author. When discussing the complicated political manoeuvrings of the characters in Game of Thrones, we will also discuss the habitual leaning of George RR Martin towards killing off major characters. In arguments about the manic pixie dream girl trope, we will predictably end up talking about John Green. These directions in conversations about the plot, setting or characters of fictional worlds into the real life motivations, opinions or histories of the writer are natural, and why shouldn’t they be? In this day and age of instant exposure to the author of a particular piece, it’s easy to know what the author was thinking at a particular moment of the story’s writing. All you need is an internet connection and a twitter account or the patience to read multiple interviews.
This obsession with the author is seen everywhere: From newspaper articles about Ismat Chughtai’s life to magazine features about Omar Shahid Hamid, from famous movies about the life of Jane Austen to documentaries detailing the writing process behind the seventh Harry Potter book . All these venues of art are their own versions of storytelling, telling us what happened in the background, and the existence of their audience points to one obvious fact: we want to know what the person behind the words was thinking as much as we want to invest in the words themselves.
Interestingly, the reflections of real life events in fiction can be fascinating in a number of ways, especially when they’re abstract ideas in the text which can be traced back to author’s experiences. A famous example is the depiction of the dementors, a type of black-cloaked hooded creatures in the Harry Potter world which are a manifestation of J.K.Rowling’s days of depression. Once one becomes aware of what these characters are a representation of, a million other analogies, theories and fan speculations spill forth, giving life to another version of literary criticism.
That’s not to say that it doesn’t have its critics as well. Perhaps the best known and the most vocal was French theorist Roland Barthes, whose 1967 essay titled ‘The Death of the Author’ (La mort de l’auteur) argued against the literary critics’ practise of ‘incorporating the intentions and biographical context of an author in an interpretation of a text’. Barthes stated that the process of writing and the creator were unrelated and should be treated as such. In his essay, Barthes talks about how relying on the different aspects of the author’s identity (political views, histories, religion, ethnicity or other biological or personal attributes) to extract meaning during reading is to ‘impost a limit on that text’.
Barthes insistence that the method of reading based on using the biases of the author as a definitive explanation of the text is flawed leads us to yet another, if not equally important question: If you can’t read books without being affecting by the author’s unseen presence, can you then review, rate or analyze books in a vacuum?
Very few people read within a limited circle of one. For most of us, even if we’re not actively writing reviews or rating books on websites such as Goodreads or Amazon, we are still discussing them with friends, telling our relatives what we liked, and sharing our dislikes with the people we know will be interested. This means that on some level all of us are pitching books to each other. And if the degree of our knowledge about the author affects our subjective reading experience, what does that overall mean? Objectively speaking, how are my reviews being affected...
...if I have met the author?
Back in February 2015, when the usual excitement about the Karachi Literature Festival rolled around, I decided to make sure I got at least one author to sign a book for me. After attending a Sunday afternoon session on ‘The English Language Literatures of South Asia: Do They Interact with Each Other?’ I had decided whose signature I wanted. I bought Home Boy, an award-winning book by H.M.Naqvi published by Random House in 2009, and marched up to him, nervous and resolute. He had been one of the speakers during that session. I gave the book to him, he asked me a few questions, he signed it for me, and we parted ways. But here was the important thing that came later on, the thing that affected my interpretation of my reading:
I hated H.M. Naqvi’s book. I loved H.M. Naqvi himself.
He was smart and eloquent during the session, funny and self-deprecating. It was the reason I went to buy his book, out of all the speakers in the session. Once you meet the author, it is like holding something someone you know has given to you, to find your opinion on it. Saying you hated it is tantamount to hurting the feelings of someone you know, not an unknown stranger out there in the ether.
Reviewing such a book, then, becomes a matter of conflict. How do you criticize the writing, without criticizing the writer? It’s a seemingly impossible task, to remove your memory of the author while analyzing the text, and while I gave his book a horrible review, the wording suggests to me that my first encounter with H.M. Naqvi might have very well been the last. That being said, the fact that I tried to be nicer because he had been nice had a definite effect on the final review.
...if I have seen the author?
Around the same time I was getting my H.M. Naqvi book signed, other sessions were going on in other halls at Beach Luxury Hotel, the location for KLF this year, and in one of these sessions, sitting in the audience amongst us, was Kamila Shamsie.
Listening to sessions with Kamila Shamsie in the audience is a weird experience, because a lot of times the speakers will be speaking about her books, and you have to wonder what it’s like to hear people so frankly discuss the words you wrote on so public a platform. She smiled during the sessions. She nodded along with a few points. She signed books for the people who randomly came up to her. And because it’s almost impossible not to make snap judgements from a distance, I liked her. I wanted to like her books.
How did this affect my final judgement of Burnt Shadows, her 2009 novel shortlisted for the Orange Prize for Fiction? My first decision after reaching the final page was that I loved it. It was a brilliantly written book, smart and intense, but here’s the thing. Would I still have loved it if I didn’t like her, even from a distance? If she said something during the session that I disagreed with? If even from a distance I made a snap judgement that wasn’t in her favour? It’s safe to say that ultimately, my snap judgement mattered. The book was great, but it still mattered.
...if I have heard about the author?
This is the category of the word-of-mouth reader, the one who relies on what their friends said or what their family recommended. My best friend told me that Omar Shahid Hamid, the author of his 2013 novel The Prisoner, was nicer than we would have expected. She had been attending a session he gave at her work place, and the first thing she said to me was, “He’s really smart!”
Keep in mind that we had heard he was a police officer, and for most of our lives we have expected those with the power to exert authority in this country to either be ludicrously corrupt or ridiculously inefficient. We didn’t know what to do with a police officer who was well spoken, sharp and who wrote a complete English novel.
“It’s actually a good book,” she told me a few days later. Imagine my shock. The only solution was to read it myself, to stack up my expectations against the potential of a smart police man, a hitherto unknown entity given our previous horrible experiences. And the book turned out to be amazing, just like my best friend said.
But the thing to keep in mind was that I wanted to like this book. I was very much invested in the idea that I had been wrong, or naive, or stereotyping all along all the police officers of our country. And although of course it’s not possible for every person of a profession to be one-dimensional, a little proof goes a long way. So I went in with hope, because she told me he was smart, and with exceedingly lowered expectations.
The main question of all this being, how did it affect my reading? Is it possible that I liked this book because it was recommended to be by a person whose opinion I trust? Was it because I knew he used to be a police officer and so I didn’t think it would be passably average, much less good, and so was pleasantly surprised? Probably yes. There’s a great degree of certainty that it was.
...if I know only slightly about the author?
Possibly the greatest number of readers exists in this category, where they know at least something or the other about the author before, during or after the reading process. That was me when I first began reading Nadeem Aslam’s short story Leila in the Wilderness, the first entry in the Granta 2010 issue. I knew he had written four other books. I knew he had won a few awards. That was about the extent of my knowledge. But even this tiny bit of knowledge can’t really be discarded for a number of reasons.
Established novelists with awards under their belts are judged differently compared to a first timer. Had the short story been an epic failure, my likely reaction would have been, “THIS guy won awards?” I would have judged the veracity of that award for all future books. I would have crossed all the authors’ other books off my list. I would have been surprised that four books actually got published.
It didn’t turn out to be an epic failure, thankfully. Leila in the Wilderness is absolutely wonderful, one of the most beautifully written short stories I’ve read in a while. That doesn’t replace the fact that my final judgement had its basis, in part, on Nadeem Aslam’s status as an award-winning author with four books under his belt.
...if I know nothing about the author?
Elena Ferrante, author of the cult ‘Neapolitan’ novels whose last part The Story of the Lost Child recently hit bookstores to huge clamour, may very well be the most popular author in the world whom no one knows anything about. Her best-known and oft-quoted phrase, “I believe that books, once they are written, have no need of their authors,” explains precisely how she works. That is because she is one of the few high-profile authors who reject all forms of publicity. She doesn’t do interviews, doesn’t join literary festival circuits, doesn’t sign copies of her books, or feature in any weekend papers. Simply put, most people don’t know much about her, much less what she looks like.
So how do people judge her novels? Her huge fan following in Italy as well as on a larger global scale suggests blind devotion to a novel whose author is a faceless part of the crowd, with pretty much her name being the only identity we know. I started reading Usman Tanveer Malik’s short story The Vaporization Enthalpy of a Peculiar Pakistani Family from the same starting point. That is to say, I knew nothing about him except for his name.
Names can be representative of a lot: gender, primarily. There was a reason women used male pseudonyms at a particular time in history. This was reflected in my reading of the short story. While I loved the story, a portion of my bias towards the author could have been the fact that the protagonist was female while the author was male, and so his depiction of a well-rounded, three-dimensional female character earned him brownie points. Certainly the story structure, plotting and writing itself had a huge part to play, but even knowing nothing about Usman T Malik’s past writing credentials, he managed to make a favourable impression.
All of this points to one overall conclusion: there can be no such thing as an objective analysis. A reader-writer relationship is a complicated one, dependant primarily on how the reader feels about the writer at specific points in time. And there’s no possible way to keep our biases out of it, unless we made it cold and scientific. In scientific research, to make sure that evaluations are error free and of the highest quality, the reviewing process involves never revealing the reviewers’ identity to the authors, to prevent author retribution. Take this a step further and you get double-blind reviewing, which involves not revealing the authors’ identity to the reviewer either, the purpose being to ‘focus the evaluation process on the quality of the submission by reducing human biases with respect to the authors’ reputation, gender, and institution.
That sounds all well and good, and also very clinical, and very detached, aloof. Art, I think, should be felt, with all its biases and opinions. Objectively studying a text which begs for multiple interpretations denies the reader the very pure pleasure of connecting with the reading on a level which feels personal. Maybe the only solution is to constantly be aware that, as we read through a personal lens of our own, so does everyone else.
And once we choose to accept that as the reality, maybe we'll learn to take each recommendation and review as an opinion, and not as a fact.