Where Does Author End and Book Begin?

In late October 2012, I agreed to guest edit The Afterword, the online book section of The National Post.

The following essay originally appeared in The National Post, Tuesday, October 23, 2012.

A while back, a concerned Amazon.com patron remarked that Shelf Monkey (my novel set in the world of booksellers and bibliomaniacs) was nothing more than a left-wing screed, a bitter tirade positing that all the world’s woes could be placed upon the lower-class-hating creationism-advocating shoulders of conservatives. Implicit in this was that I personally hold these same values.

To which I respond: a) boo-hoo; b) I do hope this was a purchase and not a library copy; and c) please do not mistake fiction for reality. You’ll find existence much easier to take that way.

Yeah, this is a bit of a cop-out. All authors put something of themselves in their text (how could it ever be otherwise?), some way more than others. Ernest Hemingway loved bullfighting and war. John Irving is a fierce abortion proponent. Carol Shields loved Winnipeg. Ayn Rand was a selfish windbag.

And as a dyed-in-the-hemp vegan with two left wings, writing a manuscript I never supposed would ever get published, well, you’d better believe I exorcised a tonne of my demons while doing so. I based much of Shelf Monkey’s narrative on personal experience — news alert: most bookstore employees are leftists who are indeed judging you based on your purchase of the newest Glenn Beck rancidocrity — and by default my characters excavated enormous chunklets from my brain and absorbed them into their personalities.

So yes, Shelf Monkey is a part of me. Husk is a part of me. Every blog post, Facebook update, Twitter link to a HuffPo article, and Doonesbury cartoon on my fridge is a part of me. But they aren’t the whole of me. You can rail against what an author publishes; that is your right. Just don’t immediately mistake a work of fiction as an avatar for the author. That is what crazy people do.

Look, I am as much a snob about what I read as anyone else, more so than most. There are authors whom I admire, and authors who give me intestinal blockage. I will rant your ears off with epic tirades on my utter loathing of the James Patterson moneymill, and plead on bended knee with you to please, read anything by James Morrow.

But these are aesthetic choices; I try to live by the creed that it is not the story but how you tell it. If James Patterson could write (or instruct others to write) as well as he plots, I’d line up to shake his hand. But I don’t assume Patterson’s moribund fascination with human depravity as indicative of his desire to become a serial killer, or at least advocate for them. At the end of the day, I am sure Mr. Patterson turns off his computer and spends time with loved ones. He does not plot ridiculously intricate assassinations, dwell in a subterranean abattoir, or write pointed letters to the editor on how we need more murderous psychos in our lives.

Nor does Stephen King advocate killing children, Margaret Atwood long for environmental destruction, J.K. Rowling practice witchcraft, or I support book burning and the torture of talk show hosts. My characters may be extensions of some of my beliefs, but they are not me.

You may not believe any of this. You could decide I am a stooge of the NDP. You might conclude that I’d take a bullet for a giant redwood. You may even assume that I believe FOX News to be the most biased, racist, wilfully ignorant ‘news’ organization in the world (you’d be spot on there).

Or — and I’m just spitballin’ in the wind here — you could close the book and get on with your life. Just a thought.