How honest should a writer be about themself?

Judging a work of fiction

There’s a book, I can’t recall which one at present, but it won a major award for fiction.  The Miles Franklin or the Man Booker, or something like that.  It was a memoir.  After it had won the prize, the memoir was exposed as a fake.

My memory is hazy.  I thought the whole kerfuffle happened last year.  (I also thought it was Norma Khouri but her book was written back in 2004 and she didn’t win any major awards that I can see.)  Google, normally reliable, couldn’t help me.

I still can’t find anything about it, so maybe I imagined the whole thing.

What I remember was the fuss that surrounded the outing of the memoir as a fake, and the calls for her (I think it was a her) prize be taken away.

At the time I remember thinking, hold on, this is a prize for fiction. Why should exposing the story as a piece of fiction make a difference to whether she won the prize or not?

It would be different if the prize had been awarded for a memoir rather than fiction.

Surely a work of fiction should be judged on its literary merit.  Shouldn’t it?

And yet, as readers, we can’t help judging the author

There are layers of—let’s call it understanding—between the author and the reader of his/her book.

There’s the reader.  There’s the story they read and interpret.  There’s the story the author thinks they wrote—which can be very different to the story the reader takes away.  There’s the reader’s opinion of that author, based on what they read in that story. And there’s the author him/herself.

As a reader, you start off with little to no idea who or what the author is, except by their writing.

If you like them enough, maybe you go onto the internet and do some research. Read their blog, follow them on social media sites, even interact with them. If you follow them long enough, eventually you get an idea of who you think they are.

If you’re not honest, expect an impact on your readers when they find out

A well-known m/m author who writes under a male pseudonym recently admitted that ‘he’ was a ‘she’.

When I heard, I shrugged, and said to myself, “So what.”  It wasn’t even unexpected. Most m/m writers are female, and a goodly proportion of them write under a male pseudonym or use their initials.

Yet when this writer’s latest book became available I realised I was reading it more critically than usual. Further, the reason I was reading it so critically was that this person who I had thought such a role model for young gay men, wasn’t.

Note that it wasn’t the author who had let me down so much as my perception of that author. I had an idealised image in my mind of who that author was and what they did.

Reader expectations—be honest about the big things

As in the case of the fake memoir I mentioned at the start of this post, the readers who called for the prize to be withdrawn had their own idealised version of who that author was, too.

I understand better now why they were so upset.

Of course, the writer is not responsible for what the reader thinks of them. They can’t be. Every reader has different thoughts, anyway.

But it made me think about the type of things an author should be honest about.

If I had to give advice to a writer about honesty

In these days of internet, especially when authors are encouraged to do some of their own marketing, it’s a rare author whose readers cannot find out something about them.

If I had to give one piece of advice to a writer about honesty, I’d probably say, “Be honest about the important things.”  Don’t pretend to be what you’re not. One of the reasons fake memoirs cause so much angst is because the reader has more invested in the author than they do normally, because this is the author’s supposed story.  And when that turns out to be lies …

You can’t control what a reader believes about you, but as a general rule, if the reader goes to meet you in a public author-reader space—such as a convention or a book-signing—it shouldn’t be a shock.*


*One piece of advice often given to authors is that your author photo should be close to your real age.  Sure, have a good photo if you can, but if you’re a portly 65 year-old, don’t make your author photo a picture of you back when you were eighteen, and skinny as a rake.

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