Here’s an old but ever unanswered question: Does an author’s biography help or hinder our interpretation (and enjoyment) of a novel? Are our readings of fiction more valid if they’re informed by knowledge of a writer’s life, or are those details unhelpful and irrelevant?
I was thinking about this question when reading a few pieces on Emily Gould’s Friendship, her debut novel, which I recently reviewed for Maclean’s. The book focuses on the relationship between two women who are struggling to more or less grow up. One of the characters, Amy, is a former blogger who was at one point mildly famous before being fired from her job. Gould is herself a well-known blogger and a former editor at Gawker; she’s often outspoken and seems to be something of a polarizing figure, from what I can tell (I live in Canada, where feuds and controversy within our literary landscape tend to be both tepid and fairly rare1).
Because of space constraints—I only had 350 words—I chose not to mention Gould’s personal history as a blogger; I didn’t think it was necessary to a brief outline of the book and an appreciation of the author’s accomplishments. Reading other reviews, though, Gould’s biography seems to be a major focus—or at least, it’s pretty often the jumping off point. Probably it’s because there’s scandal to write about—an appearance on CNN in which she was scolded by Jimmy Kimmel, for example—which is pretty rare for first-time novelists. It struck me that had the author not had an at-times-controversial and fairly public life, the novel itself might be the primary focus of more reviews.
The danger with investing too much in the details of an author’s life, I think, is that it can skew our perception of a work; we often end up conflating the author with her characters. Is [character’s name] you? is one of the more boring questions you can ask a writer, I think. But while I can see the value of ignoring an author’s background, there’s also a case to be made for the potentially illuminating bits of a person’s life experience.
A recent piece in the New York Times Sunday Book Review posed the question of just how relevant an author’s biography ought to be. Thomas Mallon and Adam Kirsch weighed in, with Mallon championing biography—the way it can enhance our interpretations or make works more vivid. He writes:
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.
Kirsch seems more interested in the implied author a reader perceives in a work of fiction: “The self that matters to us as readers is the one we encounter in, or hypothesize from, the novelist’s pages.” Biographical details about an author can inform our readings, he writes, “to clarify the factors that shape the work—to show how life and work were both shaped by the same set of problems and drives.”
I find Kirsch especially persuasive. It’s a common-sense approach, but one that bears thinking about. Information that comes from outside a text is most often necessary to guide our interpretation—whether it’s a new word we’re encountering, a foreign concept or some historical or cultural details that require careful parsing. Information about an author, too, can help to clarify and sharpen what’s in the book, but we shouldn’t let it overtake what we’re reading, and we shouldn’t assume that writers are writing directly from their lives. I think of this situation a bit like paintings and the notion of a pentimento. Knowing, say, that Vermeer had painted an image of Cupid within the frame of Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window but later painted over it might tell us something about what he meant to convey—by showing us what he decided to cover up. That knowledge—which comes from outside the work itself—can help us to guess at his intentions.2 But that hidden Cupid shouldn’t be the driving force of our understanding and appreciation of the painting. Likewise, knowing that Emily Gould worked at Gawker and has a blog gives me a sense that she’s familiar with the environment she writes about, but it’s not the basis for my reading of her novel.
Feuds aren’t unheard of, though! In the same issue of Maclean’s, there’s a good piece by Anne Kingston about the animosity between David “I’m not interested in teaching books by women” Gilmour and André Alexis. ↩
Though to be fair, there’s also the tricky question of whether the author’s interpretation of a book is necessarily the only one. It’s a bit like Ridley Scott blurting out that Rick Deckard is definitely a replicant—dissolving the ambiguity that gives Blade Runner so much of its tension (that is, if you take him at his word—I prefer to try and forget. La la la, didn’t happen!) ↩