The writer’s persona – does it matter?
Often when you pick up a new author (or, more preferably, their book ;)) you don’t know anything about them beyond the carefully-agonised-over bio (which might make them sound fabulously witty, fabulously whacky, or fabulously normal) and perhaps a mug-shot. And so you come to the text without any author persona pre-colouring the page. This is how I’ve done most of my reading; I was never particularly interested in the person behind the text. I always read for the story.
But I’ve had a couple of experiences that make me wonder about how much that author persona can affect the reader’s experience of the text.***
The first was at the Brisbane Writers Festival a few years ago when I saw John Ajvide Lindqvist on a panel. I’d never heard of him before, but he was funny and engaging and I liked him as a person. I immediately bought his book (Let the Right One In), and long before it was made into a movie or I knew anything about it otherwise, it was one of my favourite books. It remains there today. Another author whose launch I went to a few years ago was lovely, and I still have a positive vibe about their book, even though I didn’t actually like it. Which is a bit odd.
Flash-forward a couple of years and I was at AussieCon and eagerly went to a panel with fantasy/urban fantasy authors. I had my finger on that purchase trigger again. And I was actually taken aback at how poorly presented two of the newish authors on the panel were, both in actual dress/grooming and in speaking. I know people roll out of bed and straggle into cons in trackies and T-shirts, but they’re usually in the audience. Alright, I don’t remember actual tracksuits, but I do remember ungroomed, untidily dressed and timid. I can certainly understand finding that kind of situation daunting; but for me, it didn’t matter how much those authors flashed the covers of their books – I just wasn’t interested. Persona said boring … so the product was boring. And this was despite them already having impressive sales. I can’t even remember their names now.
Now, I might be being unfair – after all JAL was a stand-up comedian for a number of years. He was used to being in front of a crowd and making them love him. But that’s not really the point. I think that the author persona can be so powerful an influence (at least on me) that maybe it’s best left a secret if there’s a chance you’re going to make a bad impression on the audience. Tricky though … if you don’t turn up at all, the audience doesn’t even see you. Maybe the best thing is just to make sure you’ve bothered to dress properly – including brushed hair – and fake enthusiasm if you need too. That might have been enough for me.
***Here I’m not including cases where you already know about the book from the rumour mill; that seems to quash the persona influence for me.