Author Biographies, Art, and Artifact

This morning I read a very thought-provoking post at Reading the Short Story, in which short story critic Charles E. May says that he seldom reads authors’ biographies.  The post made me consider why I felt it necessary to read Brad Gooch’s biography of Flannery O’Connor – which May also read recently, and of course I couldn’t resist commenting.  (What’s the point of blogging if you’re going to keep your mouth shut?)

Below is my reply to May’s post.

I think you’re correct to caution readers about trying to make explicit
connections between authors’ biographies and their stories. According to Gooch, Flannery O’Connor didn’t WANT readers to think about her: she wanted them to focus on her stories with the same intense passion that she did.

Perhaps because my background is in Russian literature, I prefer to have some context – the author’s biography and letters (when available), a working knowledge of the culture and period of history in which the author was writing.

Mikhail Vrubel, "Pechorin and Gruzinsky Duel" (illustration for Hero of Our Times, 1891)

It’s possible to read, say, Lermontov’s Hero of Our Times and to appreciate its artistry without any real background on the author’s ill-fated intellectual engagement with the Russian government…on his reaction to the death of his idol, Pushkin…and on the way that the first two things led to his exile to the Caucasus, which informed his writing of Hero of Our Times.

It’s possible to watch Sergei Bodrov’s film “Prisoner of the Mountains” and to appreciate its artistry without knowing that the basics are lifted from Tolstoy’s “Prisoner of the Caucasus,” which was informed by the author’s reading of Pushkin and Lermontov and his own army experience in the Caucasus. Understanding the relationship of that film to the first Chechen War added a dimension to the experience of watching the film, for me.

What I found was that the background kept the Pushkin poem and the Lermontov and Tolstoy stories, which I read in the early 1980s, alive for me almost twenty years later. An official representative of the US government, I was traveling near the Caucasus during the second Chechen War. A local Russian official I met had a graduate degree in
folklore & had done field work collecting oral literature in Chechnya. At a campfire one night, he said, one Chechen’s tale offended the man sitting beside him. The second man pulled a long knife and stuck it into the storyteller’s kidney. End of stories. His anecdote, we agreed, could have come straight from Pushkin or Lermontov or Tolstoy. And that, the Russian official said to me, is what you Americans need to understand about these Chechens and why we Russians have to fight them. It’s all THEY understand.

What I understood was not quite what Nikolai Nikolaevich intended that I should understand. The Caucasus stories of Pushkin, Lermontov, and Tolstoy – as exotic in the 19th century as our tales of the Wild West – and the context in which they were written are still alive and influential in modern Russia. To divorce the art from the artifact, in this case, is to diminish the meaning – to neglect the ripples
spreading from the stone thrown into the pond.

I’m greedy. I want the stone AND the ripples.

I thought that the Gooch biography of Flannery O’Connor was weak in three respects. First, it smacked of sycophancy in places. Second, Gooch lacked access to people who had been adults when O’Connor was a child (they were pretty much all dead by the time he wrote) – so his read of her early years is necessarily limited. Third, I think he’s far too apologetic for her forays into racism. He claims that Alice Walker commends O’Connor for her decision to write about blacks as Other, citing Walker’s comment that O’Connor’s decision to keep her distance “from the inner workings of her black characters seems to me all to her credit” (p. 336). Gooch argues that this “spar[ed] the world from more stereotypes.” I would bet that what Alice Walker DIDN’T say there was more important than what she DID say.

But that would be context, not text. Right?

Do you read authors’ biographies?  Why or why not?

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About readersquest

I'm a retired naval officer and writer. I live with my husband, two sons, and several family pets in a house in the woods.
This entry was posted in Flannery O'Connor, Lermontov, Reading, Stories and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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