The Implied Author: What it is, and why it matters

1219898_old_books____2Today, I’d love to start a discussion about a topic I only learned about/ really considered when I started grad school: the “implied author.”

The term was coined by Wayne Booth in his book “The Rhetoric of Fiction.”

Even though I only heard the phrase after undergrad, the concept isn’t difficult to understand.

  • Every piece of fiction that we read–whether written in first or third person–gives us a certain impression or image of the person who wrote it.
  • This impression is called “the implied author” and may coincide more or less loosely with the personality or views of the actual person who wrote the text.
  • Ideally, the author is in control of this “implied author,” because he crafts the image/persona of the implied author by his textual choices: what he says, how he says it, and what he chooses to leave out. To some degree, then, the implied author is always a presentation or an act, and thus manipulative.

For instance, if someone wrote a gritty text set in New Orleans that involved a newly instated NOPD officer uncovering corruption in the force, trying to speak out and fight against it, but ultimately giving in and accepting the status quo, even supporting it, you could say that the implied author:

  • has a rather pessimistic view of human nature
  • has some personal connection with, or at least a seriously researched interest in, New Orleans and police work
  • distrusts authority
  • is politically active and informed about social concerns

Those things may be true or off the mark a bit. For instance, the author might be a faith-filled person who believes in humanity’s potential for good and in God’s saving grace. The author might intend this tale to be a cautionary one, because she believes we all are tempted and we all are sinful by nature, and therefore must be on guard about slipping into unhealthy spiritual situations/habits.

Why the implied author matters:

You could say the implied author matters because it’s the image you are giving readers of yourself through what you write.

The implied author also matters because it arises from the reader’s impression of you and your intentions. Thus, the implied author will heavily influence how readers interpret and respond to your work.

For instance: what makes a satire a satire? The fact that the implied author clearly is exaggerating to make a point, and probably believes the opposite of most of what he literally is saying.

A fabulous example here that you might remember from school is Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal.” It’s not fiction, though; it’s an essay in which Swift proposes a solution to Irish poverty: they can eat their babies.

Swift, of course, is not being serious. He is making a political statement about Britain and Ireland and their relations in the 18th century. Once you realize you are reading a satire, you can understand how the implied author is caustic, sarcastic, and angry. He is not, however, honestly proposing that anyone cannibalize infants.

Another presence of the implied author: if your narrator states the obvious time and again, your implied author will be insulting your readers by treating them like children. People will think you are arrogant and pedantic.

In my last post, I talked about three circumstances in which an author might want to imply that he or she shares a reader’s frustration, or knows that a reader is confused. That’s an example of the implied author at work: the implied author showing sympathy or asserting control over the text by assuring, “I know this is confusing.”

When that happens, the implication is, “Because I know this doesn’t make sense, I will clear things up eventually.” That gives the reader confidence that he or she is not wasting time plowing through a book that will only end with loose threads.

The implied author definitely isn’t something to get hung up about, but many of us do worry about it. It’s one of the main reasons we often hesitate to share our work, or feel embarrassed/nervous about letting people read our stories. I have DEFINITELY been there. If you struggle with that, you are not alone, for sure!!!

You may or may not have been familiar with the term “implied author” before reading this, but chances are, if you’ve been writing fiction for a while, you’ve given some thought to how your writing presents you to the world.

If you ever have concerns or doubts about the implied author your work is projecting, you can ask a beta reader or editor: preferably one that doesn’t know you well on a personal level.

So, what do you think about the implied author? Have you read a book that left you with a strong impression of the author? How do you hope to come across in your work?


30 responses to “The Implied Author: What it is, and why it matters

  1. Interesting post. I’d not come across the term before but it is something I worry about. I write about issues that concern me, but not always in a way that’s sympathetic to that concern, and was rather disturbed when I published a flash fiction piece from the point of view of a paedophile (trying to resist telling you I’m not one!)

    • I’m the same; I hadn’t heard the term but I’m aware of it in my writing. I like dark twisted stories and there’s always the danger that readers will think I’m actually like that. As writers I don’t think we should shy away from any subject matter, no matter how uncomfortable it might be, but getting the balance right between portraying a unique viewpoint and making people realise we’re perfectly normal (mostly!) and just using our imaginations can be difficult.

      Another great post Victoria! 🙂

    • That’s a fantastic case piece for this! Obviously writing about a pedophile doesn’t mean a person is one or sympathizes with what they do…. Even writing from first person, you can show how unreliable the narrator is…. contradicting himself, taking glee in awful things…. to show you are not him and don’t take his case. Which I am sure is what you did!

  2. As a reader, I never really thought about the author. Not for anything more than a flicker of an idea when I get annoyed. For example, an author going on a character killing spree in a fantasy book has made me think they’ve been watching too much Game of Thrones or Joss Whedon shows. It’s more goofy stuff than serious implications.

    As an author, I’ve had some pretty wild shots fired at me. My personal favorite is that I’ve been watching too much porn because of the open relationship plotline that I’ve mentioned before. I still chuckle at that one because it’s a strange leap. I’ve also been told that I give my readers too much credit for figuring things out AND that I explain too much to the reader. Guess a lot of the implied author image depends on the reader’s mentality. So, there’s probably a horde of implied versions of me that don’t perfectly match up.

    • I admit, that is an interesting leap! Yeah, it’s tough to control the implied author because readers are so varied. I guess all we can do is try to interiorly define our perfect target audience and write for those people. And other people who read the book will think what they will….hopefully good things.

  3. Implied author is a concept that I have thought about often. Especially when you know the personality or political opinions of the author. In my case, Part One and the conclusion are written in first person. Because I am also a nurse, many people assume the character of Hannah is me, when it is not. Reviewers (strangers) have also referred to “the author”, when they meant “Hannah”. Hannah is a fictionalized character in the book.

    • WOW, that’s intense! I would never refer to a character as the author unless I am clearly reading a memoir…. and you know that’s the case because author’s name and character’s name match up and you know it’s nonfiction.

      • I present the story as a “Fictionalized true story”, so I guess the reader is entitled to make assumptions, but it is weird. Just because I am a nurse and Hannah is a nurse there is that assumption. But even “professional reviewers” have made this confusion, and my name is Susan. They say things like the author did this and the author did that, when they mean Hannah did does things. It is uncomfortable to me and rather self-disclosing in a weird way.

  4. I just hope I don’t make any mistake that gives an impression about me being racist or hateful in any way. I just want to have fun telling stories that never happened. But if I have intense feelings about an issue and write a story about it, then I know already that these feelings will show in my writing.

  5. Reblogged this on Daphodill's Garden.

  6. Interesting concept. I’d never heard the term before, but it definitely makes sense. I think this is why Lemony Snicket blew my mind so much as a child -he took the implied author and turned it into an actual character in the book.

  7. There are some writers who have, essentially, the same implied author for all of their works. Any Stephen King novel, for example, whether told first or third person, is going to leave you with a strong sense of “Stephen King: Novelist” (which may or may not correspond to “Stephen King: Human Being”.)

    On the other hand, a writer like George Alec Effinger assumes a different voice for different novels. Many readers of Effinger’s “When Gravity Fails” series went on to read other of his works and were disappointed because the voice of “What Entropy Means To Me” or “The Wolves Of Memory” was completely different from what they expected.

    So implied author can be a way of branding a writer’s work. I don’t think that this is usually done consciously (although it can be; the voice of the books that Donald Westlake published as “Richard Stark” is very different from his “Donald Westlake” voice) it is simply that most writers work in the style that comes naturally to them.

    • I’m so glad you brought up the concept of implied author over a number of works! As a brand! I considered touching on that but didn’t feel I had the space. You said everything I could have in a much clearer/simpler way 🙂

      I think Jane Austen is another like Stephen King…. whatever she has written you get a sense of “Jane Austen: novelist.” from it.

  8. Great post, never really thought of it, but will have to take another look at my writing now 😀

  9. While I think I’ve been aware of implied author before, I never had words to put it into. We’re speaking mostly from a third person POV, right? As with first person there’s not much of an implication, as the character is the narrator. I think implied author, or awareness of it, when writing in third person can help maintain consistency better. I’ll think on this!

    • Implied author is more obvious in third person, but it still most definitely exists in a first person novel. We readers know there is a real person creating the first person narrator. And what the narrator does, thinks, feels, and how those views and emotions are treated thematically and tonally says a lot about the author.

  10. This one was an education for me, as I’ve not heard the implied author mentioned much before. I’m definitely going to be pondering its implications for the next few days.

    • I really enjoyed reading Booth’s text in my narratology class. If you are ever interested in checking out “The Rhetoric of Fiction” for a deeper study of matters like this, it might be at the local library.

  11. In my opinion, one of the books that uses implied author as a literary device most powerfully is Norman Spinrad’s “The Iron Dream”.

    It’s an odd sort of alternate history science fiction. Spinrad takes the idea that Adolf Hitler, instead of going into politics in Germany, moves to America and becomes a pulp science fiction writer. Spinrad wrote a novel “Lord Of The Swastika” as if it had been written by his alternate Hitler, and then writes an afterward as if it had been written by an academic from a world in which the second world war had never happened.

    It’s a rather extraordinary piece of work, actually. “Lord Of The Swastika” isn’t just bad–it’s bad in exactly the right way.

    • Wow, that sounds like a CRAZY novel!!! Definitely lots to say about the implied author and how he might present himself and justify/explain his choices to throw Hitler in that scenario….

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  14. I understand implied author and how the narrator’s “voice” could enhance the story whether it be a different voice for every story, or it’s the same voice for every story he or she writes, because each reader can interpret the voice differently, and these interpretations could change over time or after reading the story more than once, so the concept of implied author is important to at least keep in mind generally when writing, but I hate flat-out assumptions about the author based purely on one story or the subjects he or she tends to write about.

    Just because I may write mean characters, doesn’t mean I’m a mean person, just like Nabokov isn’t a pedophile, or King actually believes in all these monsters in a literal sense, or a myriad of other authors, plots and character types that writers could write about. I could write what it would have been like growing up in a neo-Nazi community and how home-grown terrorists are raised, but it doesn’t mean I am one, no matter how convincingly I write it.

    I almost just want to change implied author to implied narrator.

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