Biography, continued

Dan Green has written an interesting response to my post from a couple days ago on the value of using an author’s biography to interpret his or her writing. Dan’s post has made me think a little more about my conclusions and has made me want to defend the use of biography in interpretation more than I originally did.

Perhaps I’ll contradict myself; that would be okay with me, as I felt uncertain about my conclusions in the first place … my first post was exploratory and not meant to be definitive.

So, Dan argues that:

using biographical information, about the author or about others on whom she may have drawn in creating characters, to “interpret” a work of fiction is the opposite of interpretation. Inevitably it reduces the work to “what really happened” or to a disguised form of memoir.

In my view, using biography to interpret fiction can be the opposite of interpretation, but it doesn’t inevitably reduce the work to a “disguised form of memoir.” It depends on how the critic uses the information.

What was irritating me as I read the Woolf biography was the notion that people might use biography in exactly the way Dan describes — as the key to a book, as a source of definitive answers, as a way of dismissing other forms of meaning.

But I also think it’s possible to use biographical information in criticism in ways that aren’t simplistic or reductionist. As I’m reading Frankenstein, for example, I’ve thought about how Victor Frankenstein might be modeled on Percy Shelley, Mary Shelley’s husband. The introductory essay to my edition considers this possibility, pointing out correspondences between the two, for example, the drive both of them share to change the world and the obsession they both have with science. What this identification of Frankenstein with Percy Shelley allows a reader to see is that the novel may be critiquing not only the kind of ambition Frankenstein exhibits, but the version of Romanticism and particularly the adoration of the Romantic hero valorized by Percy Shelley. The novel then becomes, in part, a way of rewriting Romanticism itself.

Can you see the larger point about Romanticism without knowing a thing about Percy Shelley? Probably, although you would need to know something about the literary context within which Mary Shelley was writing. The biographical information, however, adds a sharpness and focus to the argument that wouldn’t otherwise be there.

Ultimately, I think context is useful in interpreting literature — it can help you understand what is happening in the text itself — and biography is one form of that context. Biography shouldn’t be used to close down other possible interpretations, but it doesn’t necessarily do so, any more than other ways of reading do.


Filed under Books, Reading

15 responses to “Biography, continued

  1. Well said Dorothy. Your post inspired quite the debate over at Dan’s. You rebel-rouser you! 😉


  2. I assume the Dan Green response was just a provocation? “Pulp all biographies”? The logic of his post actually argues against the study of history in any form – it’s all just distracting “context”.

    In the actual context of Romaticism, the whole thing is doubly ironic. Should I read “The Prelude” without knowing anything about Wordsworth’s life? Or “Julian and Maddalo” without knowing who Percy Shelley and Byron were? Their contemporary readers knew all about them, so why can’t I?

    The idea that Richard Holmes’s biography of Shelley is without value just baffles me. If it’s a joke, I don’t get it.


  3. I agree with you entirely on this. Knowing the context in which a book was written is very important, but there is all the difference in the world between knowing it and letting your awareness inform your interpretation and knowing it and letting it dictate your interpretation. At the end of the day, the reader still has to read intelligently rather than lazily.


  4. Well, absolutely! Stefanie’s comment did make me laugh – I must get over to Dan’s site and watch the rebels being roused!


  5. Thank you Stefanie! And I’m always happy to inspire a debate!

    Amateur Reader — it does seem like there was provocation involved in that post, but Dan has argued regularly against using context to interpret a text (I hope I’m characterizing his arguments correctly …). He seems most interested in looking at the text itself.

    Ann — yes, I like that distinction — context shouldn’t dictate but should inform one’s interpretation.

    Litlove — the comments do make for interesting reading!


  6. Wow, that was fun! I just read the comments over at Dan’s site. Thanks for inspiring the debate! I agree with you and Ann, I think there’s a place for some biographical context–but, in your words, it should inform but not dictate one’s interpretation.


  7. zhiv

    Coming in a little late to a great topic–but it seems as if, purely by chance because you happened to read an early Woolf book that has some characters modeled on real people, you’re starting with a rather simple example. We read Night and Day because we know that Woolf, when writing it, isn’t too far away from achieving greatness and mastery, and we’re looking for how she got there and signs of what is to come. It’s a bit like watching Daniel Day Lewis in Room with a View (good lit reference on the 3rd try).

    So part of the interest in reading the novel in the first place is biographical. If Woolf had put stones in her coat and waded into the Ouse in 1919, nobody would be reading her–and 20th century lit as we know it would be very different.

    That being said, we still read it as a novel. It’s a work of art that stands alone. We like the story and characters or we don’t. Biography can make it more interesting, or not. It shouldn’t matter, or at least it’s only as important as we want it to be, as important as it is to any individual reader. The “biographical” fact that Woolf wrote it makes it more interesting and gives us a reason to read it. You found bio-writing that discussed how characters in the novel were modeled on her friends, and that was annoying somehow. Bottom line, you enjoyed the book when you were reading it and the rest doesn’t seem to be worth worrying about. It’s an early work and she was trying to figure out how to write novels.

    Talking about Woolf’s fiction and biography can go pretty deep, but consideration of biographical details wouldn’t be reading her masterpieces as “novels disguised as memoirs.” To the Lighthouse and the others are, in fact, just the opposite: they show how life experience can be turned into great art. Woolf took the great literary and biographical knowledge and skill of her family and, along with her sister, patiently learned how to create art.

    As a reader of Boswell, you don’t want to sell biography short, and Johnson’s Lives of the Poets is probably worth adding to this discussion, especially if you like things a bit shorter. Literary biography always seems to be a matter of individual taste and appetite. My own sense is that Quentin Bell’s biography of Woolf is a classic family document, and I’ve been reading chunks of Hermione Lee’s Woolf bio more recently, and it seems fantastic (she has a new bio of Edith Wharton out). I don’t know about this “inner life” bio. I’ll look at HLee on Night and Day. It’s a great topic, with some real heft, but arguments about value aren’t ever going to be solved. Just keeping it fun and interesting is hard enough.


  8. verbivore

    hmmm, so I’ve gone and said I don’t agree with biography as a form of interpretation but now I’m forced to consider what ‘context’ is, if not a form of biography. Because I do think context, especially historical context, is invaluable for interpretation.

    I think where I want to throw biography out of the equation is when it serves no other purpose than calling the imaginative powers of the writer into question.

    Your example about Frankenstein is both eloquent and useful – I agree that the way in which a critic uses biographical information is really the key.


  9. We bring so much outside information to our reading without even thinking about it. Ma femme recently encouraged a college student to apply for a grant to study in Switzerland. His response: “Where’s Switzerland?” If this guy reads Frankenstein, his “interpretation” will be greatly enriched if he spends a large part of his time on extra-textual context. For example, looking at a map.

    Anyway, a thoughtful and reasonable post. It’s drawn good comments, too.


  10. Gentle Reader — isn’t it nice when blog disagreements stay civil? I’ve seen too many of them get ugly.

    Zhiv — thanks for your thoughts. Part of me feels like resisting the idea that I read Night and Day for biographical reasons — to watch Woolf’s development — as I’d prefer to look at the novel purely on its own merits and not as a part of a progression, but of course biographical reasons are precisely why I read it; I wouldn’t have read it if Woolf hadn’t become famous and if I weren’t in awe of her. And yes, if the biographical details provided don’t help me out, I should simply discard them and move on. I haven’t read Johnson’s Lives, but they would make an interesting study, I’m sure. One day I’ll get there!

    Verbivore — yes, I’d agree with that, and I’d also say that biography could be a problem if it closes off other kinds of interpretations (which was Dan’s point of course).

    Amateur Reader — thank you; you’re right — it’s impossible for us to keep from using contextual information when we read — and that’s a good thing!


  11. What an interesting discussion, Dorothy. It’s made me think about biographies in a whole new light.


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  13. I originally, and gently, asserted that Dan response to your original discussion was provocative, tangential to your actual piece, and that he essentially disagreed with you. He just denied what I was saying, though it was obviously true. You wrote to him and for some reason asserted there was no disagreement, relegating my thoughtful position to the side; now you are reasserting your original position: which is simply that biographical information can be useful. Meanwhile, Dan thinks I am petulant! Lord. You say: “It certainly is nice when blog disagreements stay civil.” But Dan Green is making specific, highly opinionated claims–and he won’t own up them. Is it too much to accuse him of being shifty, or as I put it more strongly (like they speak in the real literary world) “intellectual dishonesty”? I don’t think so–and I am the one, anyone knows who reads my blog, with the sense of humor.


  14. Hmmm. I wonder how I might have interpreted this post had I not gone and read Green’s post and all the comments there…
    Anything that might help to inform (biographical or otherwise) an opinion or an interpretation can’t be all bad, can it? I think what’s bad is putting too much weight on any one piece of information.


  15. Austen. QED.

    I read your posts and comments added here. I decided I didn’t need to read Dan’s.


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