How Relevant Is the Author’s Biography?

The Bookends article in the New York Times Book Section this week is titled, When We Read Fiction, How Relevant Is the Author’s Biography? If you’re not familiar with Bookends you can think of it as a Crossfire for Books and writing (or you could consider Crossfire as a Bookends for politics and government). I read Bookends regularly and often find the two arguments enlightening, but not always mutually exclusive. This week’s question, however, is an old concern of mine and since the article started right out referencing the New Criticism, I felt a strong need to absorb the two sides and make my own comments.

We start with Thomas Mallon:

Novelists’ lives are considerably less interesting than they used to be. Longer, yes, but much drier in every sense.

The New Criticism was entering its senescence when I began to study literature about 45 years ago. But even in its prime, a school of thought that forswore using a writer’s biography as a key to his work always seemed more relevant to the compressive structures of poetry than to novels, whose messy ad hocery led Henry James to call them “loose baggy monsters.”

Applying the writer’s biography to one’s reading of a novel strikes me as less a matter of cheating or impurity than an additional, incidental pleasure: Ah, I know where that came from. David Copperfield’s time in Mr. Murdstone’s wine warehouse acquires only more poignancy from one’s being aware of the young Dickens’s own scarifying time inside the blacking factory. (That “David Copperfield” was Freud’s favorite Dickens novel is further proof that there are no accidents.) Briefly transferring our attention from a character to an author doesn’t dispel dramatic illusion any more than knowing the off-screen troubles of a movie star keeps us from engaging with a film.

At its best, critical interpretation informed by biographical fact can deepen our emotional pleasure in a novel and our intellectual grasp of it as well. …


Ah, but as a strong advocate of the New Criticism I must remind Mr. Mallon that biographical facts can and often do skew the interpretation of literature in ways that even the author might not have intended. I will accept that all writing is, in some way, autobiographical. That and (as we used to say back when I was in college) fifteen cents will get you a ride on the subway. Does the recognition of one biographical allusion blind the reader to all the other allusions? Or to use Mallon’s words: does the incidental pleasure of recognizing one biographical fact help or hinder our understanding and appreciation of the literature?

Let’s see what  Adam Kirsch has to say:

… It’s tempting to argue the case, to say that knowledge of a writer’s life is a mere distraction from what really matters, the work. This stern [cute] impersonality was one of the tenets of modernism: T. S. Eliot insisted on the total separation of “the man who suffers and the mind which creates.” Henry James dramatized the same principle in his story “The Private Life,” in which a famous writer is simultaneously to be found making “sound and second-rate” conversation at a party and cloistered upstairs in his study, leading his real life at his desk.

James’s ghost story drives home the truth that the data of a writer’s life is the same as the data of anyone’s life. Writers get married and divorced, make money and lose it, drink too much or stay sober, like billions of other people. But the billions of other people aren’t writing great books, which suggests that the source of genius lies elsewhere, in a place where biographical scrutiny can never find it. With a famous general, or a sports star, or a politician, the life and deeds are what matter, and in recounting them we have exhausted the subject’s importance. With an artist, the opposite is true: What matters is precisely what is left over when the actions are tallied up.

Yet if we follow this austere logic to its conclusion, there would be no need to put a writer’s name on the title page of his book. …

Well, I’m not sure Mr. Kirsch makes his case, whatever it was. But reading both these arguments reminds me that there is an area where the literary artifact and the life of the author overlap (think of the shared area on a Venn diagram of the two positions). Is a detailed analysis of the writing of the work in question an element of the biography or a discussion of the work itself? I remember a professor at the university who was analyzing Milton’s use of the comma versus the semi-colon in metaphorical phrases. That seems like deep study in the best of the New Criticism tradition. But then again, it’s the author, John Milton, who is writing and deciding whether to use a comma or a semi-colon: did he consult an early grammar book he had on his bookshelf to differentiate the two forms of metaphor, each using different punctuation to set them apart. Is this biographical or is it textual? Was it a confusion caused by his daughters? If the differing punctuation serves to give additional meaning to the work, does it matter?


Think of the stories of how Alexander Dumas went about writing his novels. Is that biographical information or is it reflected textually? Does knowing if Hemingway was writing in Africa or in Idaho change the meaning of The Snows of Kilimanjaro?

Bottom line: an author’s biography can add to the understanding and enjoyment of some literature but it can just as easily destroy the literary effect and cause the reader to misunderstand the literature in question. My conclusion is that the New Criticism had the right idea: biography is extra-textual, dangerous, and should be avoided.

Where do you stand on this argument?

What are your thoughts on this?

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