Sunday Salon: Author Biographies

sunsalon1This past week, writer Maud Newton reviewed Brad Gooch’s new Flannery O’Connor biography on NPR. In her review, she questions whether knowing too much about an author’s life can affect how we feel about the work:

“Reading about a favorite writer is risky. No matter how diligently the reader tries to compartmentalize, disappointing revelations threaten to infect the very books that inspired curiosity about an author in the first place.”

Literary critics have long debated the merits of bringing the life of an author to bear on his or her published work. The school of New Criticism believes nothing but the text matters–anything outside it is redundant at best, and a dangerous influence on reading at worst. Historical critics seek context; textual critics believe every revision of the manuscript bears clues to the work’s meaning; deconstructionists can relate any word to any thing in an endless loop, thereby making any written text a sort of linguistic roller coaster that constantly loops back upon itself.

For scholarship’s sake, I believe understanding an author’s personal history is necessary, but as a fan, I’m not sure. Even though I do like to read them, I wonder if sometimes literary biographies can do writers more harm than good, especially in our current culture of information overload. Sometimes I wish that we could go back to the days of old Hollywood, for example, when movie stars’ private lives and secrets were not all over every tabloid, gossip show (also known as “the nightly news”), and Web site. I’m thinking here very specifically about the new John Cheever biography, which deals in part with Cheever’s struggle with his sexual orientation through the last decade of his life. Frankly, I care very little about such things one way or the other. If I enjoy the work (and with Cheever, I do), then nothing will change that. What draws me in is the writer’s vision of the world, and how he or she came to write at all, in the first place. I suppose what concerns me about some biographies is simply the question of motive. Why is it necessary for people to know certain very personal things, and who says so? Is it possible that in our tabloid culture, publishers or authors of some of these biographies are simply dishing the dirt to keep authors relevant? Is it possible they believe that some scandal, some secret, will heighten people’s interest?

And what of David Foster Wallace and his recent suicide? I suppose any author who commits suicide–or perhaps I should say, the work of any author who commits suicide–faces a serious dilemma: how will the suicide affect the work, and our interpretation of it? For years and years, Plath scholars wanted people to believe that Plath operated under the thumb of Ted Hughes. Feminist critics especially made her a sort of patron saint of subjugation, when all the evidence shows this was most likely not true. Plath was cracked before she met Hughes, and the worst possibility was simply that Hughes was attracted to that brokenness, as she was attracted to his arrogance. I’ve not yet read anything by David Foster Wallace, but I’ve read several of the essays published since his suicide, and I will carry them with me when I get around to reading his work. I suppose the best way to put this is to say, I won’t be alone with his texts. His ghost will attend each reading, in a way it might not have otherwise.

So how about you? Are you attracted to the biographies of your favorite authors, or do you think the work is enough? Has biographical information kept you from (or driven you to) reading certain authors? If you know a great deal about an author before reading his or her work, does that affect your reading?

Happy Sunday, all!

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8 comments

  1. I might be coming at this from a different angle. I really had no opinion about Flannery O’Connor, but had read many good reviews of the Gooch bio. It presented good insight as to the reasons FO might have written this or that into her stories. As a result, I bought her Complete Stories, which I have not read yet. So, there you have my opinion!

  2. Kit, welcome! That’s an interesting and valid point, to have a bio drive you to read the work. O’Connor can be especially opaque, I think, and she puts a great deal of her world and sensibility (as a Southerner and a Catholic) into her writing, so I could see where having info about her could actually take a reader deeper into the stories. I hope you enjoy them. O’Connor is one of my favorite writers.

  3. It can really be hit or miss I suppose depending on how you end up feeling about the author from their biography! It’s impossible not to wonder about them when you read their books.

  4. I’d like to think I don’t care. Because, really, when I love an author’s work, I don’t seek to know ABOUT him or her, but seek to read more BY them. But, having said that, when something about a favourite author comes up, it’s kind of tempting to know what that person whose mind I adore is like. I haven’t read anything by Flannery O’Connor nor by David Foster Wallace, but the new books out about them make me want to pick up something by them.

    The only autobiography I’ve read of a fave author is Garcia Marquez’s and I have to say it only made me appreciate him more. I guess, because it was him writing his own story that it felt so much like another of his novels. It opened me up to the people and the places and the events in his life that inspired his books. It was a wonderful experience.

    I’m really curious, though, about the new Naipaul biography. And really really want to read that. It’s so controversial. Which is why I’ll be reading Naipaul this year so I can get to his biography soon! I like to read something by them first, before reading about them.

    I hope you understood my comment. I felt like I was going around in circles, lol. Happy week! 😀

  5. Even from a scholarly point of view, I’m not sure where I stand on this issue. We are taught to treat the Death of the Author as a holy text, and then given random biographical facts about authors anyway. I don’t believe in establishing direct links between an author’s life and their work, but on the other hand I do believe that writing is a deeply personal thing. Just not in a straightforward manner. Am I making sense? 😛

    As for biographies, I haven’t read all that many. But for some reason I’m much more attracted to biographies of authors who lived long ago (i.e. Mary Shelly, Shakespeare, Byron). I guess that with them long gone, I feel less like I’m trespassing by reading about their lives, you know?

  6. Another great post, Priscilla.

    I read biographies when I am intrigued by them. I plan on reading the O’Conner and I want to read “Fathers and Sons” by Alexander Waugh. I find they don’t influence how I feel about an author’s work. I love the words an author chooses and how they are strung together. I love the places and the characters. I do not particularly want to analyze how or why something is written the way it is written.

    What I find really interesting is reading correspondences, particularly those between authors.

  7. Amy, it’s true. It’s impossible not to be somewhat curious.

    Claire, your comment makes perfect sense! I think autobiography is different, because it’s not someone else’s attempt to shape the writer’s reputation–it’s the author himself, and it’s something he’s doing all the time. I’m curious about that Naipaul bio as well, but haven’t read any of his works.

    Nymeth, you make perfect sense! I feel the same way: sort of yes but no but yes. 🙂 I think reading about more historical authors feels less controversial because their place in the canon tends to be established, so there’s no sway, I suppose, unless some scholar unearths new details.

    Gavin, I agree: I like to read correspondences and journals, too. It goes back, for me, to understanding what it means to be a writer, and how that differs for each author.

  8. Hey Prissy,

    Reading Cheever’s journals got me to cool it with the gin and tonics for a couple of nights so there’s that. Your father will read this biography in two minutes, I think. I like biographies because I want to find out how they wrote given their peculiar circumstances, whatever they are and because, well, I love a good drama. Obviously. Also to keep up with nozzles that have read everything.

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