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Is Your Favorite Author a Jerk?

August 1, 2013
I just finished this novel.  I enjoyed it, but I don't know if the author is a jerk or not.

I just finished this novel. I enjoyed it, but I don’t know if the author is a jerk or not.

One great thing (out of many) about being a writer is the relative anonymity.  If other kinds of celebrities (actors/actresses, singers, athletes) get caught being a jerk, the celebrity-obsessed world knows about it.  If a famous writer gets caught being a jerk, people (usually) don’t hear about it or don’t care. 

Margo Rabb wrote a piece in the New York Times (called Fallen Idols) where she discusses how disappointed she was when she learned about how “repugnant” her favorite author was in his personal life.  I’m not surprised that Margo Rabb’s favorite author is a “jerk” (also a term used in the article, and in my opinion, the guy was more “repugnant” than “jerk.”).  I’m surprised that a writer for the New York Times would be surprised that her favorite author is a jerk. 

What world has she been living in? 

Without even doing research, I can think of several ways that authors are jerks (without even delving into their personal lives).  Jonah Lehrer got caught plagiarizing and now he has a book deal where he writes about how he felt when he was plagiarizing (he says he threw up).  James Frey got caught lying in his memoir A Million Little Pieces.  That would have been okay (who tells the truth in a memoir?), but then he apologized and got lectured to on Oprah.  Even if he wasn’t a jerk, he looked like one on that episode. 

Some authors write positive reviews for their own books (and negative reviews of their rivals’ books).  Some pay fake critics for positive reviews.  Some have their fans cyber-stalk critics who have given them bad reviews. 

Even authors who are no longer with us might have been jerks.  Last summer when Gore Vidal passed, readers praised him for his wit when he insulted other authors.  Some thought he was witty; I thought he was being a jerk.  It didn’t stop me from reading a couple of his books, though.  Maybe some of Dorothy Parker’s victims deserved being insulted (I don’t know, I wasn’t around), but she sounds like she was being a jerk-ette.  It didn’t stop me from reading some of her poetry. 

If authors can be jerks when it comes to their writing, I’d hate to know about their personal lives (as Margo Rabb found out).  There’s going to be a bunch of adultery, abandonment, lying, thievery, drug use, drug dealing, (occasional) murder, and lots of other bad stuff… you know, because writers are human.  But a lot of times we don’t know about these personal aspects of authors’ lives because they’re writers.  The general public (usually) doesn’t care about them. 

My first personal experience with a jerk author came in a college fiction writing class my sophomore year.  One of the students had already had a couple stories published in literary journals/reviews.  The instructor used this student as an example of what we could do if we worked hard.  Then the student/author announced that the only reason he was taking this class was because he needed the credit for his major.  The rest of us raised eyebrows at each other and made faces.  One other student explained that the only reason any student was taking the class was for the college credit.  The instructor didn’t seem too pleased, but sometimes you have to handle a jerk by acting like a jerk. 

To be fair to the jerk author, he toned it down later in the semester and actually made helpful, insightful comments on other people’s stories.  Sometimes authors, just like anybody else, don’t make good first impressions. 

I’ve had two other personal experiences with (kind of famous) authors.  One had just been called a prick by a disgruntled fan (maybe the fan was disgruntled because the author had just been a prick; I’m not sure which caused what).  The “prick” author was actually pleasant and talkative to me.  The other author (a minor celebrity who had just written a book) hit on my wife.  Hitting on somebody at a book signing is kind of a jerk thing for an author to do, but I was proud.  Now when I see that minor (as in “not major”) celebrity on television, I always say, “That guy hit on my wife.” 


I don’t know if my favorite author is a jerk.  First of all, I don’t really have a favorite author, but since that’s a cop-out, I’ll say my favorite author is Bernard Cornwall.  He’s a hack (meaning that he writes the same novel over and over and they come out about once a year).  I’ve seen his face on the book jackets, but I wouldn’t recognize him if I saw him on the streets.  I don’t know anything about his personal life.  I’ve never run a search engine on him. I don’t care if he’s a jerk.  I’m not going to stop reading his books because he’s a jerk (if he is one); I’ll stop reading his books because he writes the same one over and over again.

Maybe that’s his way of being a jerk.

  1. I remember the disappointment I had when I read Chaplin’s Autobiography. For Chaplin was, to me, an ideal artist. And the opening chapters about his childhood and rise to fame are brilliant, but then I came to see that Chaplin was just a man like any other man. (Parallel to your discovery that writers can be jerks). So we must judge them by the quality of their work alone – which is how they probably like to be viewed anyway.

  2. Skeptical Stringer permalink

    Hey! I nominated you for the versatile blogging award!

  3. Maybe it’s not so much that writers are jerks than that they are socially awkward, many of them being introverts that prefer to be stuck safely indoors at their writing desks (and the few extrovert authors probably are jerks 😉 )

    I once read about Isaac Asimov (one of my favourites) that at lectures and conventions he would rather bask in the adoration of fangirls than discuss scientific questions with his more “nerdy” fans (who probably had a much greater grasp of and appreciation for his work than the aforementioned fangirls), and this when he was already an old man. But apparently Asimov was a bit of a jerk. He thought way too much of himself. He once remarked that Carl Sagan is one of only two people he considers more intelligent than himself. Don’t know who the other guy was, but clearly Asimov thought himself the third-smartest person on earth. It might be true, but you don’t go around saying it. In spite of that I’ll still read anything with his name on it (even if he only endorsed it).

  4. I was really disappointed when I Sarah Ban Breathnatch who wrote Simple Abundance spent all the millions she made on her book and, in fact, became so broke she had to move in with her sister. I don’t want to read her stuff anymore. (Besides the fact that she too writes the same book over and over.) I really enjoyed your thoughts on the subject as well as the subject itself!

  5. After studying one of Hanif Kureishi’s novels in my literature class I thought he was the best thing since sliced bread. And then I watched a YOuTube video with him giving an interview. Let’s just say I will stick with the books…

  6. The only time I can recall learning an author was a jerk in their personal life was when I recently watched the hbo documentary Love, Marilyn. Turns out Arthur Miller was a real douche-canoe to her. 😦

  7. I don’t think I’d want to know. If the book is good, that’s all I care about, unless I have to share an apartment with them or something.

  8. That’s the thing. When it comes to an author, the less I know about them the better unless it somehow informs their style of writing or their “voice.” For instance, Lee Child, even though he’s quite obviously worth a lot of money, still lives on the philosophy of minimalism, which is reflected in his main character. I find that pretty neat. Beyond that, however, no thank you. Kinda ruins the escapism potential.

  9. I’m pretty sure my favorite author is not a jerk, I wrote to Tom Robbins and he wrote back, and posted it in an envelope that had been had drawn to look like an aerogram! (he used coloured felt)

  10. Often people say: Never meet your heroes. I think this applies to your favorite author as well. Our idealized vision of our favorite author helps us to enjoy the books more. Since we also usually don’t know much about the author, we can pretend the author is much like our own self which gives us a sense of closeness, even though we have never met this person. Finding out your favorite author is a jerk ruins your idealized vision of a genius author, working hard to create a literary masterpiece. Instead, we are always disappointed to discover that authors are just like us…human.

  11. I met Sherman Alexie in one of my writing classes in college, and my first impression of him was that he, like almost everyone the English department in my University, was a very vocal, self-important, English snob. I was being turned into one at that point, so I was pretty fascinated that a famous writer would speak the way he did. His English-snootiness made me wonder about the networking aspect of writing, marketing, and publishing and how that could potentially change writers or draw different types to the writing community.

    My favorite author is Kurt Vonnegut, who in my opinion is one of the most honest writers of the last century. I wish I could have met him.

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