As I trip down the path to supposed enlightenment something has been puzzling me- how much does the author’s history matter to us in considering their work? I’m not talking about the person’s favorite color, what they ate for dinner last Tuesday or even what their favorite TV program is. I am talking about their lives as it pertains to their work.
I began wondering this for a multitude of reasons. The first reason was We the Living. Oh, I know that doesn’t sound like a reason but I assure you, it is. The second reason is more because of how wretchedly easy it is for me to take a lot of information a work of fiction can offer and actually have faith the author did enough research to illustrate their points with accuracy.
As for the first point: I reviewed We the Living a couple weeks ago and found myself shocked and horrified by the details of life in Russia Rand detailed. I don’t know if I would have been skeptical of the food rationing or the political upheaval and outright class war brought about by Lenin and his supporters if I hadn’t known the author actually didn’t leave the USSR until 1926 (the year the story ended). Before I decided to read the book I actually read it was “as close to an autobiography” as she would ever write so, knowing Rand’s black and white personality, I took her at her word. Of course, after all the emotional upheaval caused by such a gut wrenching book, I started doing an online search of Lenin and the Bolshevik’s food rationing.
To say I found little to no information would be accurate- which is quite distressing. [I now own a book called Life Under the Bolshevik Regime- I’ll be reading that sometime in the near future] Wiki didn’t mention it, unless you count a “drought” which supposedly occurred for one year, and only ever referred to the food rationing as a “war time” event. Doing a google search actually led me to find a helpful site detailing what rations the party members were allotted all the time so I knew Rand hadn’t been BS-ing. But the book, if I had been skeptical of her to begin with and didn’t know her history, would not necessarily have impacted me as much as it did. Now, part of that very much has to do with the author’s ability to spin a believable tale (which she does) but when it’s historical there’s a lot of faith involved- unless you’re an expert or at least have a good deal of knowledge from the outset.
The second speaks to my somewhat gullible nature. I don’t mean to say I’m not a cynic (I am- really) but when it comes to fiction, if the information is presented in a manner of which is believable I am bound to soak it up and think “Oh, my gosh those unicorns were EVIL!” Well, okay. Not exactly- but I think you get my point there. It’s about certain plausibility and a lack of dramatic (read:over the top descriptions) tone which gets me in both literature and film.
My faith really only goes so far- since I am such an information slut I tend to google, get books from the library (or Borders if I have a coupon- yeah, coupon!) and research it my damned self if I’m either interested enough or I think something is a load of hooey.
But still I’m left wondering how much the author’s history matters to the reader. We the Living struck me particularly hard due to my previous knowledge of Rand’s life and, honestly, thinking about people being starved like that almost always makes me cry. I took her word, on faith, that her book was an accurate depiction of life in Petrograd from 1922-1926. Something similar happened to me when reading Witch of Cologne excepting I knew (and still don’t know) hardly anything about Tobsha Lerner- this time about the Spanish Inquisition. Honestly, I care little about that time period in history except perhaps sport somewhat of an intellectual curiosity- it’s not something I’m going to write about any time soon and my historical interests just lean in a different direction (I also am really not concerned with an event such as that occurring again so I’m pretty lax in that area).
What about you? Do you flip to see the credentials of the author before picking up a novel? Just non-fiction? Not at all? If the novel was somewhat controversial in scope about a subject matter you knew little of- would you take care to ascertain exactly what knowledge that person had before they began spewing forth words and information which would wind up on a page?