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There is a certain book which I picked up second hand some years ago, and very much enjoyed. I've read a lot around the subject, and find very little in the book that does not tie in with what I've read in many other sources, some of them interpretive, some of them first hand. There's a good bit of gossip, but the central theme does not contradict what is known of the personalities involved.

I have never, as far am I am aware, noticed who wrote this particular book, but today, for various reasons, I had cause to look up who wrote it, and found it written by a particularly obnoxious person, whose views on various contentious subjects I reject utterly.

However, I cannot, in all honesty, agree with rejecting this particular book, which does not touch on those subjects for which this particular author is infamous.

Which brings me, I suppose, to the point of this post: how much should the personality and beliefs of a writer affect your judgement of a particular work? With non-fiction, I quite often have no idea who wrote a particular book when I am reading widely and omnivorously for research purposes, or simply do not remember. I am content that the book itself should cite its sources.

On one hand, how can you trust an author who has lied or falsified research on other occasions?

On the other, brilliant books have been written by totally obnoxious writers. Some of those books have had a lot of truth in them.

I don't know the answer but it makes me uneasy.

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As you know, I've wondered along the same lines and posted on this subject. If any of your readers are interested, here's the link to my earlier blog post:


That was mostly about fiction. For non-fiction, I think I'd have to respect an author's point of view.

I'm not going to name this particular author, but I doubt you'd want to respect his pov on certain subjects... I can't think of many people who do.

The thing is, I mentioned this book in passing on someone else's LJ without a thought, because I couldn't be bothered to check who wrote it. I hope the LJ owner does not. Really. I must admit that the reviews of it are almost uniformly good, but these are the internets...

I have a friend who refuses point blank to ever read a Terry Pratchett book because he finds him unpleasant... Personally, I have no problem with reading a book by someone I dislike or whose views I despise - although, if I dislike/despise the author that much I might be looking to acquire the book in such a way that I do not actually contribute to that person financially!

Knowing that someone has falsified evidence... that would be a red flag for me and I would probably reject that book out of hand. If I am deciding whether to read a science book or not, I do pay attention to the qualifications of the writer and to any other books they've written. I will give most weight to someone with a Doctorate in the area they're writing about. I won't reject a science journalist out of hand, but I'll be a bit more sceptical, especially if his/her conclusions lie outside the mainstream. I will rarely read a science book by an enthusiastic amateur. Actually the same goes for history.

Hmmm... except for Bill Bryson. I'll read anything of his.

When I picked up this book I looked at the title and the subject, bought it for a few bob, read it, and put it on the shelves. I'm not sure I looked at the author, and, if I did, I think this was before the storm broke...

I'm very careful about science books. I don't normally read books by people with no qualifications in the field the book is about. Some science journalists are, however, excellent. Yet it depends on the subject. Matt Ridley has written some superb and highly recommended science books (in particular, The Red Queen, The Origins of Virtue and Genome, all recommended/reviewed at the time of publication by scientists whose views I trust) yet his latest book, a defence of right wing economic policies, is one I have personally avoided.

Other fields, and you don't have experimental evidence or, indeed, peer review.

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But there is a difference, I think, between authors whose views reflect their times, and people writing today.

It's an interesting point. I have no problems in accepting that books are of their time, and can forgive some casual racism and the attitude to women and gays in any number of works written in the past, so long as the work is, like, you know, good. It may make me wince, but I can skip over that if I am really interested.

On the other hand, I hate the Raffles books because of their casual cruelty (particularly of Raffles to Bunney) which is not acceptable by the standards of the time. It's a very personal thing.

Yet I love 'the Baroness', the some-what-right-of-Attila - monster of the detective novels of Ruth Dudley Edwards, and find, at times, some sneaking agreement with her, particularly in Murdering Americans and The Anglo-Irish Murders. I'm not proud of it, mind....

I think inevitably your views on the author will affect whether or how you read a book. And when it comes to 'so many books, so little time . . .' I may well decide not to bother if I don't care for the author.

And it reminds me of a very left-wing friend of mine intoning lugubriously, when we had this conversation some years ago: "Wagner wrote a damn good tune . . ."

And remember that Wagner's most passionate defender is Bernard Levin.

True! Whose theatre reviews I disliked from the age of about 14!

There's a great defence of Wagner - and, indeed, of artistic freedom, and divorcing the author and his/her work - in Edmund Crispin's excellent detective novel The Case of the Gilded Fly. I am happy to stand behind Crispin and his creation, the wonderful Gervase Fen.

Crumbs, I haven't read that for years! And I have a feeling my copy is in store . . .

I think even that nice Stephen Fry chap cedes Levin that particular crown, but Fry did do a very good Wagner documentary the other year.

There are a couple of fiction authors whose books I won't buy except secondhand, because they're good writers but execrable people. (There are a couple of others whose books I simply won't buy at all, because I found out what kind of people they were before I'd bought anything by them.)

Non-fiction gets trickier. Clearly, someone who's been caught falsifying information in one book can't be trusted in another without independent checking. But if you've done that independent checking (or at least enough to be comfortable) and the book seems valid, I don't see any reason to cull it; just take that information into consideration in the future.

Yet authors have blind spots. They can be sound in one area and hopeless in another where their emotions are engaged. I think this is true of Matt Ridley, as mentioned above.

Ooh tricky. I can read fiction written by complete swine, but think it's important to remeber and acknowledge that they were complete swine. I read TS Elliot despite his anti-semitism, but I'd not pretend it wasn't there.

But factual stuff... if it was in an area I was competent in, I'd know whether they were factually correct or pulling a fast one. In another area, I'd treat them with caution and poke round some other books first.

I think I'm quite sharp at picking up when someone is trying to pull a fast one, even if their views do accord with mine.

And I'm all interested to know who the author is.

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So I gather! She's such a tease.

Brian true may's guide to the cotswolds? David Icke's guide to football?

You are. I'm already embarrassed.

Actually I have to take that back. George monbiot wrote such a dreadful article on corporation tax in the guardian the other day that I cannot trust anything he writes ever again. He revealed himself to be so utterly incapable of logic, fact checking or realising when id was out of his depth that I wouldn't believe him if he told me gravity existed.

On one hand, how can you trust an author who has lied or falsified research on other occasions?

You can't. What you can do in non-fiction reading is check the data from other sources, and be aware that every author is going to have an agenda of some sort. Josephine Tey is NOT a reliable commentator on Richard III - and is the reason why we have a number of works on the shelves which have been selected precisely to check/refute her facts.

As you say, if the content of the book is verified from other sources then you can accept the content without accepting the author's personal views.

Not forgetting that detective novel (To Prove a Villain was it?)that was written simply to counter Tey's version!

My academic rule of thumb has always been to check how close to their home field someone is writing. There are scholars out there who are total a-holes in real life but good researchers. There are egomaniacs who believe they are always right. There are nice guys who get it wrong. The a-holes I avoid in person but read with care. The egomaniacs I read in their own fields but check the reviews and the competition -- and am sceptical about their works on areas on which they are *not* specialists (whatever they think). The nice guys... I read and chat to but don't necessarily use in my own research.
I am deeply sceptical about history written by non-historians and tend to have my antenna on high alert for agenda, biases and convenient thinking.

Most factual books have an agenda. They are arguing for a 'cause' or to support a particular point of view. Quite often, you follow the chain of facts and logic to more than half way through and then think, "Hang about, where did that come from?" (This happened with Stephen Gould's Wonderful Life and Dan Dennett's Freedom Evolves, the first a book that had won numerous prizes, the second one by an author for whom I had - and still have - the utmost respect.)

With science books, in particular, the author may argue a good enough case to convince - but only up to a point. It's always the case that there may be more evidence or a better theory along in a short while. If reviewing them here, I generally note that.

With history, I have a fondness for the practical - for, say, Ann Hyland, who took a look at the statues, coins and pictures that showed Roman horse tack, rebuilt same, actually put it onto her (long suffering) horse, and attempted to reconstruct the military training and tactics from the texts that survive. Likewise Peter Connolly, who built most of the weapons he was going to talk about in Greece and Rome at War before he illustrated them. Also for texts that rely heavily on contemporary material. I can also spot an agenda a mile off...

Edited at 2011-03-17 11:24 am (UTC)

There are nice guys who get it wrong

With regard to fiction, I learned the hard way that just because I like someone when I meet them or they come across well and sound really intersting when talking about their books and characters doesn't mean I will actually like the story. :(

Oh yes.

Ken Bulmer was a mate of mine, but...

Oh, and welcome, by the way.

Edited at 2011-03-17 11:58 am (UTC)

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