Monday, March 16, 2009

Booking It--Too Much Info

Have you ever been put off an author’s books after reading a biography of them? Or the reverse - a biography has made you love an author more?

Interesting question! I don’t think I’ve ever disliked anyone’s work simply because I’ve learned more about them, but the opposite is often true for me. I’ve had my appreciation of beloved novels enhanced by a better knowledge of the author. I’ve liked works and then enjoyed them even more after reading about the author. Occasionally, I’ve even really disliked a work, then after getting to know more about the author’s life, done an about-face and come to appreciate the novel tremendously.

It’s not that I’m engaging in or advocating biographical criticism, but I do think that it helps to know where and when an author lived, the struggles she came up against, the political or social or familial events that were shaping her life experience, or maybe even what the author stated she was trying to do with her work.

What do you think?


Ian said...

While taking a Victorian Empire, Sex, and Gender course I read some biographical info on many of the prominent authors of the age (namely Trollope and Kipling) that tainted much of their work for me. It's not that I think they were bad people, but I now can't read their work without remembering how fully they bought into the whole nature of the British Empire and all of its evils.

Anonymous said...

I love knowing about an author whose books I love. I appreciate the books more, if admiration of the author is sparked by their life.

Jonathan G. Reinhardt said...

I think Ian makes an important point, although perhaps he and I would come to different conclusions.

As a rule, literary scholars are really bad at history, including personal history (i.e. biography) and at understanding why people act in their context as they do (after all, if they were good at it, they'd be historians, psychologists, or writers...). So I try to be wary of conclusions that biographers draw about a writer's choices or attitudes. They tend to say more about the biographer than about the person being biographed. I think it's very doubtful that we -- with our own narrow prejudices and blind participation in the evils of our time -- are in a position to make a fair judgment of the paths people took who were themselves only following the options they thought were open to them and were mimicking the prevailing attitudes of the elites of their own time, just as we do now.

That's why I try not to take the life of the author too seriously when making up my mind about their work.

Take, for instance, Roald Dahl. Horrible person. Great children's books.

Or Ezra Pound. Terrible person, poor political judgment (i.e. a fascist when being a fascist was still acceptable in polite company, but also still a fascist after it no longer was). And yet, without him, no T.S. Eliot, no H.D.

Or Jane Austen, who apparently was quite difficult and not nearly as charming as her books.

Or Virginny Woolf, with all her self-sorrow and moping about.

Or Faulkner, a wayward drunkard and ne'er-do-well.

Or Milton, who was a major ideologue of one of the most repressive and destructive and murderous governments the West ever saw.

Or take Moliere -- who once was told by a lady admirer who had carried on with him and been disappointed that she had no idea how someone who captured the human spirit so well and had such an accurate idea of how women think can be so terribly awful to them in person and so clearly ignorant of their desires.

In cases like these, it might be better to forget about the bio and stick to the work as an artifact.

After all, there's some truth to the observation that if authors were fun, outgoing, pleasant, and thoroughly good people they probably wouldn't be spending their writing books -- they'd be down at the pub with the boys telling tall tales or busy playing dolls with their grand-daughters (or whatever) or nuns saving the starving in Calcutta.

But you're right -- the reverse can also be true. I read a biography of e.e. cummings once that is almost impossible to find and was written by one of his friends, and it made me actually like most of his poetry -- after I'd spent years mocking it.

Maybe the best thing is to allow an author's bio to help provide insights into some characters' attitudes and opinions. But other than that, a careful descriptive history of the time and a sound background in the history of theology, philosophy, medicine, science, manners, etc. is much more valuable.