Newspaper article International New York Times

When We Read Fiction, How Relevant Is the Author's Biography?

Newspaper article International New York Times

When We Read Fiction, How Relevant Is the Author's Biography?

Article excerpt

It is impossible to read "Pride and Prejudice" without developing a vivid sense of the kind of person Jane Austen must have been.

Adam Kirsch

There's poetic justice, and possibly a lesson, in the fact that the greatest English writer is a biographical blank. Scholars continue to write books about the life of William Shakespeare, but eventually these boil down to studies of his work or histories of his times. The few scraps of evidence we possess about him are simply too scanty to make him come to life as an individual. To some people, this absence is a scandal or irritant, and they try to fill the blank by insisting, irrationally, that Shakespeare was not Shakespeare but the Earl of Oxford, or someone else we can know more about. But to most readers, I suspect, the unknowability of Shakespeare is a key ingredient in his greatness. "Others abide our question. Thou art free," wrote Matthew Arnold in his sonnet on the Bard, and this sense that Shakespeare stays one step ahead of us, always knowing more about life and human nature than we do, fits perfectly with his biographical elusiveness.

Would we be better off if all our writers were similarly elusive? 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 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. …

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