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12/28/2004

Comments

tom

Dan,
This is the third or fourth time I've read one of your anti-biography posts. I understand your reaction to undergraduates' biography-is-destiny approach to analysis, but some of us are curious about writers who have given us pleasure, pissed us off, or otherwise made us think in a new way. I agree with you that only so much of a writer's life can inform the writing itself, but I still enjoyed reading the profile of Alice Munro in NYT (the subject of another post).
cheers,
Tom

Kevin Holtsberry

I admit I like biographies. I recently read Jane Smiley's Penguin Life on Charles Dickens and enjoyed it (http://collectedmiscellany.com/archives/000295.php). I know I am not going to read all of Dickens so I enjoyed reading an intelligent bio on his life and his work. I don't want psychological analysis masquerading as biography, but I do enjoy an intelligent discussion of what an author's life was like; how his work was received at the time; how his life and work changed over time' etc. I am not looking for some sort of Gnostic truth about the subject just well rounded knowledge.

Chris

I'm not as hostile toward bios as you, Dan, but I do question why we need _another_ Faulkner bio at this point. It's only about fifteen years, I think, since Frederick Karl's enormous bio came out, and at the time that book was considered an adjunct to Blotner's massive work, not a major reassessment. Could a new view really be in the offing now?

I have to admit that as a young and completely unpublished writer I was inspired by Karl's book, particularly by that specific juncture Zane cites. I seem to recall that Karl himself was somewhat astonished by the direction Faulkner chose to take: he's watched Soldier's Pay and Mosquitoes fail, he's seen Flags in the Dust turned into Sartoris, he's experiencing financial hardship as he embarks upon his marriage. I believe Karl puts it, "We would not expect him to write Sound and the Fury at this time." Nowadays, perhaps not.

Ray Davis

I'm considerably more obsessional in my dislike of biographies, but have to admit they're pretty much what "literature" means for most of the people who give "literature" what commercial life it has. In the absence of community, what art has to sell is self-worth.

Since at least the nineteenth century, the poetry audience has spent more energy imagining being Poets than paying attention to the taste of the words; that's just spread to other areas of writing as they've become less culturally central. Since commercial narrative requires a hero with whom the audience can identify, any art that works toward different goals tends either to be embedded in such narrative or ignored. We see a Jackson Pollock painting as part of the Jackson Pollock story, with ourselves as the lead (or, should we not be a Pollock fan, our abusive spouse as the lead). "The sporadically OK Sex Pistols supplied the soundtrack to the fabulously successful Sex Pistols story."

We protest, but it's inevitable under our circumstances. I try to read James Joyce's novels for themselves, but Joyce had to playact Stephen Hero before growing up enough to produce them.

Dan Green

Kevin: If you think about it, in most cases you already have answers to the questions you pose before you even begin a biography of a writer: A writer's life is likely to be like anyone else's, except he/she wrote books. Except in the rarest of instances, a writer's work was received as most serious writing is received: mostly with indifference. A writer's work is going to change over time in exactly the way you would expect from someone growing older. (You can also determine this for yourself by reading the books.)

Chris: I would not discount the possibility that a reader might be inspired by Faulkner's (or any writer's dedication to his art in the way you describe.

Ray: Once again, you speak wisely.

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