Reading Living Authors, Reading Dead Authors

Have you ever been reading someone… when suddenly they died? That is, were you ever halfway through reading someone’s book when the news of their death reached you? I can only remember one time that’s happened to me — with Bruce Chatwin. Like many people, I read The Songlines first out of Chatwin’s books, then went on to read the others. I was reading The Viceroy of Ouidah when my mother brought me a newspaper clipping of Chatwin’s obituary. The immediate effect of this was that I stopped reading that excellent historical novel – although, years later, I started it again and read it all the way through, then reread it… it’s as if Chatwin’s being dead forced me to rethink my feelings about him before I could process that story.

This makes me wonder if we read living authors and dead authors differently: look at the weird way everyone rushes to reevaluate an author’s significance as soon as he or she dies…

Some thoughts from Caitlin Podiak — “… it’s so much easier for me to lose myself in a book if the author is dead and his or her genius is well established. Because with the author’s reputation as a safety net, I don’t have to trust my own instincts. I have the validation of countless literary scholars. And since a dead author only exists on the page and in my imagination, he or she can’t intrude on my reading experience. So it’s a bit like masturbating. I’m relaxed and alone and comfortable and the orgasm comes quickly and easily.”

“But when the author is alive and I don’t have years of critical context to fall back on, the experience is more challenging. I’m forced to confront the author’s continued existence. He or she is out there in the world, being a person, just like I am a person. The author is looking over my shoulder as I read, which makes me feel awkward and self-conscious and pulls me out of the book. I have to like and respect and trust the author before I can relax enough to let myself go. So it’s more like sex. Not so safe, not always so comfortable, especially when the author is new and unfamiliar. Things are more likely to go awry. Of course, when the chemistry is right, the experience is vastly more rewarding. But you have to take a risk.”

“So basically, what I’m saying is that canonical fiction is to masturbating as contemporary fiction is to sex.”

I disagree. Maybe we could say that the difference between reading an author you might theoretically one day have a conversation with and one you definitely won’t – the author in question being dead — logically resembles the difference between masturbating about someone you might theoretically one day have sex with and someone you definitely won’t – that person being dead. But emotionally the difference isn’t the same at all. In our ancestral environment, it was only possible to perpetuate someone’s genes if that person was alive — whereas it’s always been possible to perpetuate the memes of someone dead.

So I’d rather say that reading a dead author is like sitting around the camp-fire hearing stories first told by one of the ancestors, whereas reading a living author is like sitting around the camp-fire hearing stories directly from a contemporary. Are we wired to process those two kinds of story differently?
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  • Ransom

    No. We're not. Whether the author is dead or alive made no difference to my experience whatsoever… until I started writing books. Now, it's a collegial thing, like when I was a practicing particle physicist, if a colleague I didn't personally know died then it meant s/he wouldn't be contributing further. I would feel the loss in a remote way and other colleagues would share in it.
    Caitlin Podiak's response seems to me a variation of peer pressure. Why would anyone care in the least what anyone else thinks of a book? It's inane to allow another's opinion of a subjective work to pervert or convert your own studied position. To that end, I offer the author of my favorite book: The Harp and the Blade, by John Myers Myers. It's brilliant as adventure and commentary on everything from morality to music to drinking to literature to drinking to friendship to drinking. I love this book. If you don't love this book, then… well, you don't love this book. BFD. (On the other hand, if you don't like *The God Patent* you're clearly a heartless, half-educated, ignorant twit :)
    Worth noting here that John Myers Myers book has been out of print for 20 years. I found two copies through Amazon last year and gave one to James… have you read it? Isn't it the greatest ride you ever took on the page?

  • The other Olga

    I agree with Ransom — as long as I read as a reader, it didn't matter to me at all whether the author was dead or alive. Frequently, I had no idea whatsoever about it. The writing always happened in the world that was not related to my own. Later, I started to think that this attitude had a lot to do with growing up behind "the Iron Curtain." Cultural artifacts (all literature) seemed to exist without a specific time or place.

  • allherfathersguns

    Usually it doesn't seem to make a difference — indeed, some long-dead authors far more like contemporaries than do some living authors. And yet Chatwin's death in the middle of my reading The Viceroy of Ouidah changed the experience of reading it somehow.

    A character in Richard Powers's Generosity says, “Writing always comes from beyond the grave, anyway. I mean, either the author or audience is already dead, or will be soon.”