This 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!