Reading biographically

I have been putting off writing this post because I am tired, having ridden my bike for three hours this afternoon and having worked pretty hard. Long hard rides leave me feeling content but wiped out. It’s hard to do much else after them.

But I did have something on my mind to write about, which is that I’m not entirely sure what I think about using biographical information to help interpret the books I’m reading. I’m thinking about this because last night I read the chapter on Virginia Woolf’s novel Night and Day in Julia Briggs’s book Virginia Woolf: An Inner Life, and I found myself feeling irritated when I learned about all the real life people that the characters are modeled on. Not that there’s anything wrong with modeling one’s characters on real-life people — in fact, in Hobgoblin’s novel and in the novel of another friend of mine, I have great fun figuring out the real-life people the characters reflect. And there’s nothing wrong with the way Briggs identifies who is who, pointing out, for example, that that a minor character was modeled on Henry James and that while Woolf claims her main character Katherine is based on her sister Vanessa, she bears a great resemblance to Woolf herself. There’s a long list of such correspondences or potential correspondences.

It’s just that as I read the novel I was happy thinking of the characters as simply themselves and not needing any further explanation, and when I read about all the biographical details, I didn’t like the fact that there was a whole other dimension behind the book that I couldn’t know about unless I had access to inside information.

Yes, the book still makes plenty of sense without knowing the background information; that information is there if I want it to add another layer of meaning, and I can ignore it as much as I like too.

Part of what bothers me is the sudden revelation that my understanding of the book is missing a major element, that there are interpretations other people know about that I don’t. Even more so, I don’t like the attitude — not a part of Briggs’s book as far as I can tell but surely the attitude of many a biographer — that biography can be the key to a book, that biographical information trumps other ways of reading. I like to know an author’s biography, but I also believe that the relationship of an author’s life to a piece of writing is only one small piece of a larger picture.

What it comes down to, ultimately, is that I’m not temperamentally suited to be a biographer. I may have some of the qualities a biographer needs — patience, organization, an interest in research, an ability to pay attention to detail (though surely there are plenty of other qualities I’m missing) — but I would also feel that what I was doing was a little beside the point. I’d rather stick with the text itself.

This is a purely personal judgment, however, and I’m grateful to biographers for doing what they do. What do you think — could you write a biography? Would you want to?


Filed under Books, Cycling, Fiction, Reading

24 responses to “Reading biographically

  1. Eva

    I’m not sure if I’d make a good biographer…I do tend to get really immersed in my subject, but I like to look at ‘bigger picture’ things in general, so limiting my research to one person’s life, and the society they lived in, could get boring; it’d have to be the right person. Probably not a writer, but some sort of awesome woman adventurer or something. Or a female ambassador-I could do that! My issue, though, is I’m not really a writer, more of a reader. lol


  2. I don’t think much of biographies. More objectively I know that they’re quite useful and can often be legitimate literary works that provide insight into an author’s oeuvre. But I can’t work up any interest in knowing whether Virginia Woolf was interested football or Thomas Hardy liked to ride a bicycle in the bush.


  3. Cam

    I don’t know that I’ve ever read a biography of an author, at least not in the years since I’ve been out of school. And, then, I’m sure, I probably only read bits and pieces. But, I have read biographies, particularly of historical/political persons. What strikes me about using a bio of an author to interpret a work is that you are caught in an interpretation itself — that of the biographer’s perspective of the writer’s life. That, I think, is limiting. If I create a story, a poem, or a novel, certainly my life experiences have influenced it. But it has a life of its own, apart from my direct experiences. Most of us can’t recall every detail of what happened at a certain place or time. We add to or edit out parts of it unconsciously. To think that someone can research one’s life and then use that to interpret a creative work seems ridiculous to me. If anything, it gives you more insight into the artist, not into the artist’s work.


  4. I couldn’t do all the detail work necessary for a proper biography – I’m only interested in the story and the ideas. I think you’re suffering from being too good a scholar here, Dorothy. You want to incorporate everything you learn about into your reading, which is so very admirable. But your reading is the only one that matters, and if the information adds to it in a way you value, fine. But biography is certainly not the key, no matter what justification-hungry biographers might say!


  5. verbivore

    I have a hard time too with our fascination with fiction and finding a real-life basis. I like to think that any fictional text should be strong enough to stand on its own. If there is something to be learned from any biographical or autobiographical relevance I want it to be an extra tool, not THE tool to sift through the book’s meaning.


  6. Speaking as a former English major, part of the fun of the university days was going through the biographies of great writers and picking up the juicy bits. Kind of like reading celebrity tabloids actually.

    Part of the necessary skills of a good biographer is definitely that of a story-teller. Not everything about a person’s life is fun to read, unless you know how to tell it. But you know that. 🙂

    But I always thought biographies are just another meta-narrative on a story. It isn’t anyway more important or to be taken more seriously than the novels or the author.


  7. At certain points in my reading life, I enjoy biographies as much as fiction. That’s due in part because I feel a good part of the fiction I read is biographical. And novels are not written in vacuums. They are indicative of the period of time the author is writing. Their real life has to seep into their writings.


  8. I like biographies, but I keep them separate from the books their authors have written. Sometimes I think biographers want to tie everything up too neatly, and that it doesn’t matter if a fictional character is based on a real person or not.
    I couldn’t write a real biography, because I think I would grow to hate my subject after living with them so closely. But I think I could write a fake biography where I wouldn’t have to bother with the research!


  9. I think biographies are really interesting, but I can sort of see what you mean. When I read Margaret Forster’s bio on Daphne du Maurier in a way it felt sort of like knowing so much detail took away from the books I had read by her. I had my own idea of the novels, but to read about what was happening in Daphne’s life gave it all a new perspective. Some of it was really fascinating, but if the author is less than perfect (and who is perfect?!), knowing those nastier little details took away some of the magic of the novels. Not that this will stop me in the future. I’m more curious about some authors than others, though. I don’t think I could write a bio–like Becky, I think I would get sick of my subject, too!


  10. I love to read biographies in general and biographies of writers in particular. I don’t read them for insight into writers’ texts though. Like you, I think the texts should be able to stand alone. Rather, I read them for insight into the writing process. What were the material conditions under which the writers wrote? What milieu were they working in? Who were they talking to? What were they reading? What were they thinking about? Revelations or speculations about real life people or situations that may have inspired aspects of fiction interest me not because I think they provide an extra layer of meaning to the fiction but because I’m fascinated by the process by which a writer transforms that raw material into something else. But it truly does become something else in the hands of a good writer, not simply a thinly veiled representation of reality. A facile equation of fiction with biography drives me crazy because it downplays or erases altogether that all important transformation.


  11. Eva — I bet it would be easier to write a biography of an adventurer or of someone who did something more exciting than sit around and write books! There would be more action, more events to work with.

    Imani — I don’t actually read that many biographies, although I claim to like them; actually, I would like biographies more if they were shorter. Those long ones give way more detail than I’d need.

    Cam — good point that a biography is an interpretation itself — certainly not an objective view of an author and his or her works! A biography really does take you far away from the work itself.

    Litlove — thank you for that assurance! I do think there are authors where knowing the bio helps you interpret them better — confessional poets like Ann Sexton, for example, but even there, the bio can sometimes get in the way. Even when an author is clearly writing biographically, the text and the life are two separate things.

    Dark Orpheus — it IS fun to find the juicy bits of biographies! But it also makes sense to keep that biography in perspective and not rely on it too much — I absolutely agree.

    Mike — you are so right that novels aren’t written in vacuums, and I do like knowing something about the context. I suppose I have a problem if people use context too simplistically — it can’t explain everything, after all.

    Becky — Ella from Box of Books does those fake biographies, and they ARE fun! I might come to hate my subject too — imagine all those years and years on one person?!

    Danielle — it’s difficult when you learn the dark sides of authors — like when I read the biography of Colette and found out some of the not so admirable things she did. I know I should separate biography and text, but in cases like these it becomes difficult!

    Kate — that’s an excellent reason to read a biography. It reminds me of reading novels by people I know who use details from their lives — so I know the biography already and can think about how the writers took people and events I know about and transform them into fiction. It’s a fascinating process to observe so close at hand.


  12. I enjoy a good biography especially if it is about a literary figure. I like reading about the life and what went into creating the author’s work, that six years and fifty re-writes, that kind of thing. Isn’t there a school of literary theory that refuses to admit biography into the textual analysis? And of course there is an opposite one too that says that biography is necessary. I’m in neither camp. While knowing about the subject’s life can add a new dimension to the reading of the text, I don’t think biography is or should be a requirement to understanding the text.


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  14. verbivore

    I definitely want a text to stand on its own and I get frustrated with the idea that in order to truly understand someone’s work we have to know their life. I agree it can be fun to make the connections, but I want the fictional world created by the author to be airtight.


  15. Is the argument here against biography, or against criticism? I.e., a non-biographical critic is also laying an interpretation over the book. How is that different?

    Or is the argument merely against bad biography and bad criticism?


  16. Well said Kate. I’d only add that contrary to what some writers have said about how boring their lives are, most good literary bios I’ve read have introduced me to fascinating, complicated, inspiring people; ‘the reading experiences’ have often been as emotionally satisfying as those found in the best novels.


  17. Stefanie — you’re right about the school of criticism — the New Criticism movement, which wanted to look only at the text itself. I’m not so fond of that view, though, and want to look at context too; I agree with you that biography isn’t a requirement, but that it can be useful.

    Verbivore — interesting. I guess I don’t see the fictional world as airtight, or, in other words, I like to look and see at how the author responds to context, although I also wouldn’t say NOT doing so results in a lesser interpretation. But if you mean the text should be able to stand on its own, without requiring special knowledge, then I agree with you. The outside knowledge adds something to the meaning, but a text that requires it is surely flawed.

    Amateur reader — I’d say the argument is against bad biography and bad criticism. I wrote another post on the subject that may clear things up 🙂

    Nigel — you are making me want to read more biographies! Particularly by great biographers such as Richard Holmes.


  18. Yes Dorothy. He’s one of the best. First volume of Coleridge was very moving. Haven’t gotten to the second yet. Autobiography, though just as unreliable, can also be pretty satisfying. I remember idolizing David Niven and Graham Hill when I was a kid because of their books…and George Sanders and Errol Flynn too come to think of it.


  19. Oh, very good. I just got a copy of Volume I of the Coleridge bio, and I’m looking forward to diving (although who knows when that will actually be …)


  20. verbivore

    I think airtight probably wasn’t the best word to convey what I meant. My frustration lies in what I perceive as a need to make connections between a writer’s fiction and his/her real life. I don’t want the two to share the same space. I want the text to stand alone first and foremost and I feel like the events or situation of a writer’s life should be irrelevant to my understanding and appreciation of a text. So in that sense, I guess I don’t agree with biography as a form of critical interpretation. Biography on its own can be wonderful.


  21. Well, I’m a little late to the party here and kind of glad of that, because I have very mixed feelings about this. I don’t read many biographies of authors, but when I do, I tend to really enjoy them. That being said, after recently reading Emily Dickinson, I raced out to get a biography (something I NEVER do), feeling I wanted so much to know more about her. In the prologue to this biography, the author (Cynthia Griffin Wolff) notes that this is a very common reaction for those reading Dickinson’s poetry, so maybe some authors inspire a need for biographical interpretation more than others? On the other hand, I like you, like to form my own opinions and not to be too swayed by how an author’s life might affect (or have affected) his or her writing.
    As to whether or not I could actually write a biography, I doubt it. Too much research, and by the time I got around to the writing part, I’d probably be bored with the person. Boredom is a huge problem in my life.


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  23. LK

    I’m kind of late her, but my 2 cents is: I can’t help twisting the truth, and whether biography or memoir, I have a hard time with “shaping” fact. It’s either straightforward (journalism/reporting) or fiction. I can’t hold that line.


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