How do we judge writers?


Book image courtesy of Twice25, Wikimedia Commons.

This past week, I had the opportunity to talk about Edgar Allan Poe with two of my teenage relatives. Both told me they’ve been assigned to read a couple of Edgar Allan Poe’s short stories, such as “The Tell-Tale Heart” and “The Cask of Amontillado”, which led to a discussion about Poe and my blog post about his brief time at UVA. I’m glad for their sake that they’re reading classic American literature, even though it’s a school assignment and they’ll have to write essays on them.

Our chats showed that the three of us had different feelings about Poe. It’s interesting to hear others’ perspectives on the same writer, though. Some people will like the writer and others won’t, depending upon their own point of view. I find it fascinating to discover the reasons behind someone else’s viewpoint on the same author, even if that view isn’t the same as my own.

This Poe discussion got me to think about how readers judge whether a writer is “read-worthy.” Do we base the decision solely on the critics’ review of a book or the past work that author has produced? That depends. I like William Faulkner’s short story “A Rose for Emily” but I can’t stand The Sound and the Fury because I find it difficult to follow. (Faulkner fans, please give me a head start before you chase me down the library hallway and pelt me with literary magazines.)

Do we pay attention to what our family and friends recommend for us to read, thinking that we might enjoy it? I resisted one book my parent recommended for a long time, but then I liked it when I did read it. (Lesson learned: Mom knows best.)

Should we also take the author’s personal character in mind in choosing a book to read? Poe, for instance, had some personal issues (to put it politely), but that hasn’t stopped people from reading his work. I’ve also read two autobiographies written by an author who is a good writer but I can’t envision myself ever being friends with her in real life because she is too combative. (I’m more the mellow, try-to-work-problems-out negotiator type. Especially after chocolate.)

And should we judge a writer by the era in which they wrote? There are some books I’ve read that other readers may not like because of the way the author chose to depict certain characters as stereotypes. Should we pull out the “that author was a product of his or her time” argument?

Blog readers: Any thoughts here?



Filed under Writing

26 responses to “How do we judge writers?

  1. Servetus

    I will try anything; given my profession, and in the line of augmenting my learning, I also think it’s important to try to read things precisely because they exemplify a particular period or style or whatever and to persist when I don’t like them if learning is still going on. However, if I’m going to continue reading beyond the point at which I’m learning something useful/important/significant, it has to be for enjoyment. Re: Poe, we read a lot of him in middle and high school, and while I appreciated the artistry, I am just not a big fan of Gothic literature of any stripe. He’s not the only Gothic author whose works I am not a fan of — just the one with whom I am most often confronted.

    I feel the same way about “A Rose for Emily”/Faulkner as you.

    • Maybe literature has its own periods of fashion? I notice that certain types of movies and clothing go in and out of fashion, so I wonder if you could say that books do the same. That would make for an interesting thesis.

      • Servetus

        That’s absolutely true, particularly as regards school curricula, but I think in culture more generally. It’s always interesting to me *which* works of an author get picked up, remade as films, reread, and so on.

  2. I love this question, probably because I’ve thought a lot about the answer. My reading tastes are very eclectic, from Theodore Dreiser (every teen should be required to read An American Tragedy) to Truman Capote to live writers like David McCullough and Laura Hillenbrand. I get tips from NPR reviews, friends, and frankly, book jackets. The two elements I appreciate most in any writer are good writing and a book that teaches me something new or gives me a new perspective on something I thought I knew.

  3. I think it is important to consider the time in which an author wrote, for example, some language that was once acceptable may not be acceptable now. But I don’t believe it should be crossed out of their printed works because it is unproductive to deny the past.

  4. Great post – really made me ask myself some good questions. I rely heavily on the recommendations of others and have had some great moments of the likes of others leading me down literary paths I never would have gone on my own. One thing that always strikes me though is that my own state of mind can very drastically impact what I think about a book – good or bad. Sometimes it’s a great book but not what I needed right at that moment and it makes it difficult for me to fully immerse myself, no matter how well-written it may be.

    • Funny how the likes of others affect us. I got into reading Louis L’Amour westerns because my British friend’s father asked me to bring some of those books to him, since he was having trouble obtaining them. For something to do, I started reading the books while I was flying toward London and the rest is history.

  5. Driving home from posting quarter grades, I reflected whether how healthy it is to foist the ponderous reading weight of Poe, Hawthorne, and company on unsuspecting freshmen. They are creeped out by Poe, bored by Hawthorne, confused by Thurber, etc. Do they really get anything out of these “big names”? Some do, but mostly groan and wonder why we don’t read more lighter stuff like “Gift of the Magi”, at least that has a Mickey Mouse cartoon to watch. I am not sure how to answer your question. Common Core is built upon classics. I hope students will learn to appreciate literature. Even my AP students struggle with it at times.

    • In one of my high school English classes, we dressed up as different authors and did an interview panel, similar to TV show “The View”. Another one had us creating a video. I wonder if your students might enjoy these approaches? ๐Ÿ™‚

  6. Very interesting question and one that is difficult to answer because there are so many factors. Of course, the opinions of others are important. They steer me toward or away from books. The genre — I just can’t get into certain types of stories (romance–too predictable, fantasy–too many names I can’t pronounce and characters I can’t keep straight, violence–gives me nightmares). The reputation of the author as one who stands out among her or his peers. I like to read books that have been recognized as outstanding by the literary community, not just best-sellers. Sometimes just the cover will capture my attention and/or the description of the book. Even my mood at the time I’m searching for something to read.

    Not very helpful, huh? ๐Ÿ˜‰

    • Actually, I’d say your comments are VERY helpful. You brought up some other factors in judging if a book/author is read-worthy, such as the book design, the book’s blurb and your personal mood when you want something to read. Thanks, Lorna!

  7. Editor, one thing I’ve learned from our eclectic book club is that no two of us think the same in relation to books. I could not even begin to fathom all the different factors which make us begin to read a book–and then determine whether we like it. And we can like one work by an author, and not the next one. I need some chocolate to ponder this. ๐Ÿ™‚

  8. Hmmmm, is “It depends” a satisfactory answer? ๐Ÿ™‚ Any legitimate answer should begin with, “For me…,” because it’s so subjective.

    For me, the author’s personal character and life would be lowest on my list of factors. And while the power of a particular work might depend greatly on the context of its time and culture, some writing seems almost timeless in its value to any era.

    Because of the sheer volume of options these days, I almost always read things that have been recommended to me, either by someone I know or by a good review.

    • Good point about our judgment of writers being subjective, Elizabeth. And it’s interesting, isn’t it, how a writer’s personal character doesn’t always influence what they write?

      As Lector pointed out in his comment, wretched people can write great stuff. Somebody who is not so nice in real life can write exquisite material; it’s as if the nicer part of their character has been channeled into their writing. Such a dichotomy.

  9. lectorconstans

    Like Poe (and Richard Wagner, among others), what people write is much different than what people are. For the most part, I can do without knowing who a writer is. Wretched people can write great stuff.

    The problem with the Classics (like Poe and Faulkner and others) is that they wrote rather a long time ago, and in today’s world of 143-character messages and cutesy-poo abbreviations, long-ago writing is not that easy to deal with.

    That could explain the apparent popularity of the “zombie-enhanced classics”.

    I like Dickens. I’m starting to read “Vanity Fair” (the intro and chapter 1 are enough to keep me going). I also read Vince Flynn and Brad Thor. Maybe it’s a case of being able to “change gears”. I liked Nabokov’s “other” books: “Pale Fire”, “Pnin”, because of his wonderful use of language.

    EEE: “…a good book entertains and a great book educates.” (Haven’t seen a good apothegm in a long time.)

    And: “We dressed up as different authors and did an interview panel, similar to TV show ‘The View’.”

    Have you ever seen Steve Allen’s “Meeting of the Minds”? Some of them are on YouTube: This is one of the more memorable:

    The panel included N. Paganini and L. da Vinci.

    What are some of the oldest books you’ve read that you enjoyed? (I’ve read some of Plato. I like the Meno because Socrates talks about geometry, and discusses a question in geometry quite civilly with one of Meno’s slaves.) After that, a really long gap.

    • No, I haven’t seen Meeting of the Minds, but I love the video you provided. Leonardo da Vinci is one of my favorite people. Thanks for making me aware of it.

      It’s so true that long-ago writing isn’t easy to deal with but the themes in them show us universal truths about human behavior, which makes them fun to decipher and read. That’s why I like classic authors such as Jane Austen and Charles Dickens.

      I’ve read Homer’s “The Odyssey” and “The Iliad”, and Sun Tzu’s “The Art of War”. I should attempt Plato and Socrates one of these days, just to see what they were like as writers.

      • lectorconstans

        “… just to see what they were like as writers.” That may be difficult. All we get today are translations. Even if you read Greek, Plato’s Greek may be a bit different than what’s spoken today.

        Then there are the translations: One of the more popular translations of Homer was written back in the late 1800s (Samuel Butler). From what I read, Robert Fagle’s are the best modern ones (Iliad and Odyssey).

        Homer wasn’t much on character development and back-story. We jump right in to “Achilles was mad as hell because Agamemnon took his war-trophy, the woman Briseis, and goes into a deep funk and says ‘I ain’t gonna fight no more’, and by the way, his mother is the goddess Thetis …”

      • Noted. I will look for the Robert Fagle versions.

        Poor Achilles. Talk about having a rough day.

  10. Such a thought-provoking post! You mention taking the author’s personal character into consideration…I find I do this more when I like the author! I’m hugely intrigued by Hemingway the man, and find myself rereading his fiction because I so want to find him intriguing as an author, as well. It could also have something to do with wanting to understand the ‘literary hype’!


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