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Column: The Influence of the Literary Company We Keep

There are real-world authors, and there are implied authors.

Real-world authors are actual human beings, with their own distinctive characteristics, on display as they move through the world. Implied authors are the imaginary people whom authors create as they put words on a page. Implied authors have their own personalities — their own sensibilities, characters, emotions, perspectives and concerns.

Implied authors may or may not be like their real-world counterparts. A novelist may be cruel and vicious to his family and friends, but in his novels, his implied author may be kind and gentle. A poet who is a loving wife and mother may produce poetry whose implied author is venomous and full of rage.

The University of Chicago literary critic Wayne Booth initially developed the idea of the implied author, which he followed with a claim that works of literature consist of “company we keep,” with potentially major effects on how readers see the world and perhaps even operate in it.

Booth finds William Butler Yeats to be terrific company. He singles out the Irish poet’s exuberant The Fiddler of Dooney, whom St. Peter will call quickly through heaven’s gate: “And when the folk there spy me/They will all come up to me/With ‘Here is the fiddler of Dooney!’/And dance like a wave of the sea.”

As horrible company, Booth invokes Peter Benchley’s Jaws, which begins by preparing readers for a violent encounter between a woman who has recently “thrashed” with her boyfriend in “urgent ardor on the cold sand” and the “big fish,” the shark, moving “silently through the night water,” with eyes that are “sightless in the back” and “a small, primitive brain.”

In a striking passage, Booth writes that by arousing the reader with the prospect of violence, and by reveling in the “bloody adventure, the story at each step molds me into its shapes, giving me practice, as it were, in wanting certain outcomes and qualities and ignoring certain others. I become, for the hours of reading, that kind of desirer.”

All poets and fiction writers have implied authors, and to get clear on the concept, we have to name a few names. When he is writing horror novels, Stephen King’s implied author can be overheated, sweaty, gasping, manic, adolescent and often irresistible; when he steps outside of that genre, he tends to be contemplative, playful, gentle and elegiac. Robert B. Parker, author of the Spenser mystery series, has a terrific implied author. Keenly aware that a man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do, he is also full of wit and fun, and compassionate to boot.

Nonfiction writers, including those who write about politics, have implied authors, as well.

At his best, Washington Post columnist George Will is sharp, witty and appealingly above the fray, but his implied author can be pretentious, and he sometimes wears his erudition on his sleeve. New York Times columnist Paul Krugman is a Nobel winner and a national treasure, and he knows what he is talking about, but at his worst, his implied author is arrogant and self-absorbed. Charles Krauthammer of the Post may be a great guy, but his implied author is struggling with a serious anger-management problem. Whether or not you agree with him, The New York Times’ David Brooks has a wonderful implied author — humble, open, appealingly tentative.

The concept extends well beyond writers. Whatever he was like as a person, Walter Cronkite was spectacularly successful as a broadcaster because the implied author of his words was unflappable, trustworthy and wise. Annie Leibovitz, Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, Oliver Stone, Bruce Springsteen, Taylor Swift and Lady Gaga certainly have implied authors, and identifying their characteristics is pretty easy.

The concept of the implied author puts a spotlight on a real problem with current political discussions. Too often, the implied authors of our political narratives are more than a little Jaws -like, focused on imagined encounters between innocent swimmers and big fish, moving sightless in the dark, with their small, primitive brains. Reveling in “bloody adventure,” they threaten to convert readers into “that kind of desirer.”

As Booth emphasized, the characteristics of implied authors tend to be contagious. In particular, contempt and suspicion, and a fundamental lack of generosity, spread like wildfire. Of course, it is also true that people are sharply divided by substantive disagreements. But such disagreements would be more tractable, and mutual understanding would be more likely, if the implied authors of our national chronicles were a bit gentler, and if they took a cue or two from Yeats’ heaven-bound fiddler.

Cass R. Sunstein, the Felix Frankfurter professor of law at Harvard University, is a Bloomberg View columnist. He is the former administrator of the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, the co-author of Nudge and author of Simpler: The Future of Government, to be published in 2013.