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

By Mallon, Thomas | International New York Times, June 27, 2014 | Go to article overview

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


Mallon, Thomas, International New York Times


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. …

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA 8, MLA 7, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Note: primary sources have slightly different requirements for citation. Please see these guidelines for more information.

Cited article

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

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Help
Full screen
Items saved from this article
  • Highlights & Notes
  • Citations
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

matching results for page

    Questia reader help

    How to highlight and cite specific passages

    1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
    2. Click or tap the last word you want to select, and you’ll see everything in between get selected.
    3. You’ll then get a menu of options like creating a highlight or a citation from that passage of text.

    OK, got it!

    Cited passage

    Style
    Citations are available only to our active members.
    Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA 8, MLA 7, APA and Chicago citation styles.

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

    1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

    Cited passage

    Thanks for trying Questia!

    Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

    Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

    Buy instant access to save your work.

    Already a member? Log in now.

    Search by... Author
    Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

    Oops!

    An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.