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

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

Thomas Mallon

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. Flipping through the reviews of literary biography and authorial memoir that I've done for this newspaper over the years, I can see example after appreciative example of how a work of fiction ends up being illuminated by shining light on the author's life. In 2007, I was struck by Claire Tomalin's theory of how Hardy's description of Tess's "invincible instinct towards self-delight" may have been animated by an envious awareness of how little he shared that quality with her. Several years before that, Paula Fox's memoir "Borrowed Finery" left me less than fully satisfied because the book interestingly revealed all the ways in which that writer's fine fiction had come from the artful refraction of the real-life experiences now being served straight up. …

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