Sunday, November 20, 2005

Reading Writers' Lives

Ella at Box of Books recently wrote:

It should probably be mentioned that I have a bad habit of avoiding facts about my favorite authors’ lives. For instance, I adore Agatha Christie, but reading about her mental breakdown just made me sad. I dig Shakespeare, but have no desire to argue about whether or not he squinted. In short, I am an all-fiction, no-biography kind of reader.

I don’t think it’s a bad habit to avoid facts about favourite writers’ lives. The work is the most important thing. But I am very much a biography kind of reader, and Ella’s post got me thinking about what it is that I seek in biographies of writers.

The primary reason that I read biographies of writers is to gain new insight into their work. I don’t expect to gain such insight by identifying sources of their material in the details of their lives. I believe that most writers incorporate aspects of their experience into their work, but where it came from is much less important than what they do with it. It’s the “what they do with it” part that interests me or, more broadly, how they do it. I want to learn as much as I can about writers’ creative processes. Who were their influences? How did they approach their work? Under what conditions was the work produced? I’m more interested in who they were reading than in who they were sleeping with. Of course, they may have been reading the same people they were sleeping with, and who they were sleeping with may well have had an impact on the conditions under which they worked. There’s plenty of overlap. But the bottom line for me is that a good biography of a writer maintains a focus on the work.

Of course I’m often disappointed. One example that stands out for me as an acute disappointment is James King’s The Life of Margaret Laurence published in 1997. It was the first full-length biography of Laurence and as a long-time admirer of her work I couldn’t wait to get my hands on it.

Alas it proved telling that King titled his book “the life of” rather than “the life and work of” Margaret Laurence. King’s grand revelation was that Laurence’s death in January 1987 had been a result of suicide rather than lung cancer as was reported at the time. She had terminal cancer but chose to end her life rather than put herself and her family through the final stages of the disease. King begins and ends his book with the suicide and in between tells an unremitting story of loss and suffering. He dwells on Laurence’s insecurity and on her alcoholism. His analysis is unabashedly psychological and his tone often struck me as condescending. He sought to reveal the real woman behind the literary icon but in so doing I felt that he diminished her work rather than illuminating it. I’m not suggesting that the facts of her alcoholism and her suicide should have been suppressed, but I don’t think that they should have been foregrounded in a way that consigned her work to the shadows. Frankly, the book made me angry.

But King’s book on Laurence is a rare example of a biography that I would rather not have read. I get something of value out of most of the biographies of writers that I read even when I don’t consider them unremitting successes. And over the years I've encountered many fabulous biographies full of insights in which I have revelled.

Last week I bought two biographies for which I have high hopes. The first, not incidentally, is another biography of Laurence. It's written by Donez Xiques and is promisingly titled Margaret Laurence: The Making of a Writer. I don’t expect this biography to serve as a corrective to King’s as Xiques has opted not to treat the whole life but rather to focus on the early years of Laurence’s writing career. But given that I know very little about Laurence's life or her work during that period, I anticipate learning something new about one of my favourite writers. And the following passage from the preface leads me to believe that I will find Xiques’s approach to her subject congenial:

[Previous biographies] have not focused exclusively on telling the remarkable story of Margaret Laurence’s efforts to develop her voice as a writer and of her dedication to the craft of writing, as this one does. I have not appropriated scenes or characters from Laurence’s novels. I do not attempt to construct the story of her life from the fragments of her fiction, as if that were some sort of semi-transparent account of her personal life. Although it is a truism that all literature is in some sense autobiographical, in my opinion, searching for a one-to-one correspondence is merely a distraction. I believe that with creative people, such as artists, writers, and composers, the source of their creativity, whether inspired by real events or persons, frequently transcends and transforms any purely personal material.

The second is Julia Briggs new biography of Virginia Woolf, titled Virginia Woolf: An Inner Life. I have confidence in Briggs as biographer based on her excellent biography of E. Nesbit titled A Woman of Passion. And, in the preface to her new book on Woolf, Briggs makes clear that her emphasis is squarely on the work:

My account is inspired by Woolf’s own interest in the process of writing, as well as by a corresponding unease with accounts that (like Orlando’s biographer) concentrate too narrowly on her social life, and so underestimate the centrality of her art -- the main source of her interest for us. Woolf was evidently a highly sociable person, with a fascinating and gifted circle of family and friends, an engaging companion, and an entrancing aunt, yet it was what she did when she was alone, walking or sitting at her desk, for which we now remember her. While the story of her inner life cannot be told (except as another fiction), it is possible to track down a number of the factors that brought her books into being, by following the genesis and process of their writing as reflected in the surviving drafts, and supplementing these with the accounts she gave to friends, or confided to her diary as aids to reconstruction. My aim, ultimately, is to lead readers back to her work with a fresh sense of what they might find there.

It will likely be some time before I get to either of these books but, when I do, I will report back on whether or not my hopes for them were warranted.


Anonymous said...

I think you have an excellent attitude toward the sometimes conflicting theories of basing a work on itself versus knowing upon what experience it was based. I too will seek biographical information on an author I particularly like, but will never even read the flyleaf bio of the author on his or her novel until the book is read. susan (Spinning)

Ella said...

Kate! I really liked this post; I am still thinking about why biographies - especially literary ones - are so meaningful to people who love books. Quillhill mentioned that the cook is not the focus of the meal, and I have to agree, but at the same time can one fully enjoy the meal without knowing something about where it came from? Lots to think about. Thanks for giving me some more to chew on, and I hope to hear how the new books pan out..!