Authors behaving badly: do you allow an author's personal life affect your reading or enjoyment of their books?

Yesterday I was listening to an episode of ABC Radio National's "The Book Show" in which a book entitled Writers Gone Wild by Bill Peschel was discussed with the author.

The books full description reads "Virginia Woolf is known for her modernist works: Orlando, Mrs Dalloway and To the Lighthouse. But something you might not know is that as an 18-year-old Woolf dressed up as an Abyssinian man and with five others duped the British Royal Navy into giving them a tour of one of its battleships. When it was all revealed in the press the navy was mightily embarrassed. This is just one of the anecdotes told in Bill Peschel's book Writers Gone Wild: the feuds, frolics, and follies of literature's great adventurers, drunkards, lovers, iconoclasts and misanthropes."

Toward the end of the interview, the interviewer Ramona Koval asked Bill Peschel a question to the effect of:
"are there any authors you can no longer read because of what you now know about their personal life?"

Before I talk about the answer he gave, I want to pause and consider the question first.

This is a question that most of us have considered at some stage; I know I certainly have and I have a good idea of what my answer would have been.

When I heard Romana Koval ask the question, however, my mind automatically jumped to an almost completely unrelated topic.


I know, seems weird, but bare with me. In Australia at the moment, there is currently a lot of debate around the all too common misbehaviour of National Rugby League players (the NRL, a national sport of Australia). There are constantly media reports and even criminal charges related to a variety of incidents involving players; players defecating in hotel corridors, drunken brawls, drug dealing, drug and alcohol addiction, wife beating and even sexual assaults. Many of these players face little to no professional consequences and are given chance after chance to keep playing because of their ability on the football field.

There is a debate about what impact their personal misdeeds should have on their professional career. Are their personal lives and their professional lives so completely separate that no matter what they get up to off the field, they should be respected for what they achieve on the field and be allowed to continue to play?

Or, does their position as a person in the public eye and as a role model for young children mean that the two cannot and should not be separated and they should face professional consequences for bringing themselves and therefore their team and the game into disrepute with their behaviour.

I personally have always been firmly in that second camp in relation to football players.

So, back to authors. 

When Bill Peschel was asked by Romona Koval whether there were any authors he could no longer read because of what he had learnt about their personal lives, his response was to the effect of "No, I think a great piece of literature will always stand alone." Before my mind drew parallels to the current debate around the bad behaviour of footballers I believe that I would have given the same response. Now, I am questioning myself.

Why would I excuse an author's bad behaviour because of the quality of their work, but not excuse a footballers bad behaviour for the quality of their work?

My initial reaction would be to argue that it is because a piece of fiction has the potential to have a greater impact on a broader scale than a sporting achievement. A brilliant piece of fiction might contribute something important to culture from which it comes. It might form an essential part of the development of a particular genre. It might even go on to inspire a new genre or a new style of writing. It might inspire other authors to other great works of literature. It might become a classic - with a message that is universal throughout the world and through time.

A good footballer is a good footballer. They're going to be great to watch on the field, and their achievements will mean a lot to the supporters of the team they play for. Otherwise, they are public figures who lack a broader influence on society.

Is that really a fair conclusion though? I can't help but wonder whether that argument lacks some perspective on what culture really means and just generally sounds a bit snobby and value laden.

There have been many magnificent sporting achievements that have gone into the history books as forming essential moments in their particular sports. In the example I used, the NRL is a national sport and undoubtedly forms a part of Australian culture. A brilliant player might go on to create new records, inspire new methods of play and encourage physical activity in an otherwise sedentary society (something that could have long reaching effects).

I should make it clear, that I am not talking about bad behaviour being swearing or even being drunk in public on the odd occasion. I am talking about more serious misbehaviour like drunken brawls, assaults and other criminal activity.

Am I being too judgemental to have different rules for authors and footballers?

As is usual for my posts, this has now spiralled into many more questions than I have answers for, or even that I have an opinion about.

What do you think? Do you allow your knowledge of author's personal lives affect your reading or enjoyment of their books? If not, why not and how/where do you draw the line? Would you feel differently if it was a sportstar or movie star who behaved in the same way that the author did? If you do allow your knowledge of the author's personal life affect your reading/enjoyment of their books, why do you and where you draw the line on what counts of misbehviour significan't enough to affect your reading of their works?


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