“You should never meet your heroes. Paul Newman... I was so excited about meeting him, but he turned up in shell suit bottoms, slippers, and a jumper.” – Alan Carr
“Reading is like the sex act - done privately, and often in bed.” – Daniel J. Boorstin
You shouldn’t believe what comedians say, they’re only doing it for effect (unless they’re Marcus Brigstocke) and anyone who says “the sex act” is automatically consigned to “advice for the previous century”. Nevertheless, reading is private, like sex – you’re allowed to talk about it, but doing it in company is frowned upon. Unless, of course, the company’s joining in. I still remember the guilty pleasure of that first evening when, instead of ripping each other’s clothes off and leaving bite marks on every fleshy body part, my new boyfriend and I lay on my bed and read together – both fervently hoping no-one would catch us in the act. With reading so private and heroes so disappointing - do we want to meet the author?
Since Roland Barthes announced the death of the author in 1977, the author’s been buried, dug up, framed, meta-framed, deframed, defamed, contextualised, deconstructed, most of which seems to me to miss Barthes’s very clear point: what we have is the book. It’s not the author. You can tell, because the book is rectangular and full of printed pages, whereas the author is fork-limbed and hairy in patches.
|A book||A person|
It’s not reality, it’s not the author. It’s a book. More than that, it’s my book. What the author meant hardly matters, when I have what they wrote. And in reality, you don’t want the author there while you read. Trust me on this. Because the author’s sitting there hugging her toes, eyes glued to your every passing expression, querying every frown or chuckle, saying “Where have you got to?” and “What do you think?” every time you get your flow of concentration back, then wandering into the kitchen, supposedly to make coffee, but actually to glance surreptitiously at the page number and nod knowingly.
I don’t want the author in my living room and I don’t want to see them in the book anymore than I want to see the boom swing into shot in a film. Meta- and pomo- be damned; I know this is fiction, now shove off and let me enjoy it. Authors have a duty to maintain a discreet absence, like excellent waiters. Let our anguish enrich our characters’ inner lives, let our hangups provide fuel, let our treasured anecdotes be picked at for raw materials, but the original anguish, hangup, or anecdote should remain strictly off-page. When you’re making magic, you don’t break the spell.
In erotica, you really, really don’t want the author there while you read. In fact, you don’t even want to think about them. I love Tilly (Mathilde Madden to you), but when I’m reading The Silver Werewolves I’d rather think about Alfie. Contrariwise, if I meet Tilly for coffee, I try not to think about Alfie, because my tongue would hang out. Book-readings and signings are even stranger. You stand in a queue to shake the hand that wrote the words that put your own hand firmly between your legs, and in the best British tradition, everyone pretends it’s a recipe book and nothing to do with sex at all, of course not, a-ha-ha-ha… When really, you all want to go nudge-nudge, wink wink, know what I mean, eh? Eh? Even for authors who don’t habitually make their readers masturbate, it’s a fraught encounter. Ten seconds, thirty seconds, a brief chat over the drinks at the end – how can that ever compete with the fabulous beast that is the book itself?
So – apart from me, obviously – which authors do you most want to meet? Which have you met? And did you ever accidentally insult them, like I did with Wilbur Smith?