Tales of the Unexpected: Roald Dahl, Literary Device, and the Horror Canon


Most of us remember the first time we read a real Horror story. But the one author who opened that door and lured so many of us through it is typically forgotten when it comes time to assemble a Horror canon…

The author is Roald Dahl– that Roald Dahl – the one of children’s book fame; author of Matilda, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, James and the Giant Peach, The BFG… and like Mother Goose and the Brothers Grimm before him, we have decided that his stories are for children. But what we tend to forget are the tales he wrote for adults – his much celebrated Tales of the Unexpected – that can effectively teach modern Horror writers how to take simple situations and common characters that occur in our day-to-day lives and lay out a startling, resonating and lasting Horror on the page.

His is a modern style – one that is often considered an anathema to the genre because Lovecraft opposed the tendency toward Horror that utilizes anything deemed “common”… Yet his stories are enjoyably effective, and reading him is a lesson in language usage – primarily satire and irony.

Have we decided his adult stories are not Horror because he also writers children’s stories, or because his adult stories are not Weird? And are we throwing out the baby with the bathwater? Are these not only the Horror tales we seek, but ones that we seek to tell and all too often fail at?

Roald Dahl, I suggest, is one writer whose adult work not only belongs in the Horror canon, but whose writings should be studied for their ability to use language devices… the very ones we hear tell of in English class, but seldom see so efficiently and accurately wielded. Roald Dahl is yet another author you should know, and have on your Horror shelf.

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Irony and Satire: Do You Know Where Your Outrage Is?

Author of 19 novels, 9 nonfiction works, 13 collections, and 3 poems, Roald Dahl was born in Llandaff, Wales on September 13, 1916 to Norwegian parents. “Following his graduation from Repton, a renowned British public school, in 1932, Dahl avoided a university education and joined an expedition to Newfoundland. He worked from 1937 to 1939 in Dar es Salaam, Tanganyika (now in Tanzania), but he enlisted in the Royal Air Force (RAF) when World War II broke out. Flying as a fighter pilot, he was seriously injured in a crash landing in Libya. He served with his squadron in Greece and then in Syria before doing a stint (1942–43) as assistant air attaché in Washington, D.C. (during which time he also served as a spy for the British government)…” he died November 23, 1990…. https://www.britannica.com/biography/Roald-Dahl

In order to talk about why Roald Dahl affects and enhances our canon, we have to talk about using Literary Devices. Dahl’s work is not only riddled with them, it teaches us by example how to employ them…and this is a lesson we desperately need in this age of gutted Humanities education.

Along the way to modernity in the Horror genre, we as readers and writers have lost the understanding of the many possibilities proffered by alternative functions of language – not just those constructions which communicate a story, but which can also communicate the subtleties of human interaction. We in American Horror are so impressed with pointless diversions like found footage and swinging light fixtures in the “fun” of Horror, that we forget what Horror was meant to do – to reach down deep inside and pull out our still-beating hearts. Horror is meant to connect…to draw blood. Yet modern American Horror is still not fully succeeding at this; our Horror tends to be fleeting and disconnected. And missing that use of the versatility of language is yet another reason our Horror tends to just lie about on the page, not-working to its fullest effect.

This is also why Literary Critics are so frustrated with us. And it remains the unspoken criticism of editorial rejections. We may have a command of language in terms of vocabulary and grammar and sentence structure, but we have lost all of the shades of meaning, the Art of Language that is so central a part of sound storytelling.

And while we can enjoy the superficial window dressing of modern Horror fiction, getting deep into the story is our responsibility as readers and providing those many sub-basements and hidden attics are our responsibility as writers. Only by having and peeling back such layers can we gain that frisson of terror – and it is not about having to know the names for things, the rules of technique, the secret of the magic trick; it is knowing that a magic trick is happening and still not catching the magician at the illusion. It is a subconscious exchange of awareness.

When we talk about inserting Literary elements and World View into Horror in the hopes of building better fiction, we absolutely have to talk about HOW to do it.

Time and again we are” taught” by inference that genius wills out and the rest of us need day jobs. Yet we are also underestimating the value of a sound Classics education on the young writer’s formative mind; on how early and thorough education about language and storytelling pound in place a subconscious narrative on how to use language to do more than basic communication. Put Lovecraft in a cave, and I wonder if we would have gotten the Weird…I wonder if we would be calling the man a genius. He had access to a Classics education, to all of the most modern science of his day, to the entitlement mentality of the rich (even as he languished in the loss of his family fortune). We cannot say the same of our young writers today. We cannot say it even of MY generation.

For those whose intentions are both artistic and honorable, the confusion comes when genius is not equated with sales but with Criticism. And when publication is equated with either talent in telling the tale OR telling a really merchandisable one; the two are not exactly or always compatible.

There is no absolutely black-and-white formula for getting there. There is no education. There is no mentoring. There is not a whit of conversation, encouragement, or guidance. We know we have a story to tell, we might even be Literarily angry… but we have no clue in how to start, revise, or finish.

Fiction writing is not generally taught – or not taught early enough.

And this is why in lieu of actual fiction writing instruction a novice writer does best to read the Classics of the genre… Read enough, and hopefully an epiphany will occur – either subconsciously or consciously – enabling the elevation of one’s personal craft…Because we don’t tend to see much in the way of education fitting the bill. And for the most part, we can forget guidance within a genre that does not commit to discussion, the formal establishment of our history, let alone invite experimentation in its writers. There is an informational and authoritative black hole.

We are, instead, left to deduce how language works…there is no clear disclosure of the fundamentals beyond grammar and its crazy rules, but instead a patchwork of seemingly unrelated and un-relatable terms and concepts. But I found that the adult short stories of Dahl can briefly turn the light on in these empty rooms. And when it comes to pressing Literary elements into Horror, this makes Dahl’s stories integral, and consistently unlike most others in the genre. His use of the Literary Devices of irony and satire are as close to a formula as we could ask…his execution almost textbook.

None of this, however, is any good if we do not understand “Literary Devices”…

My own experience with education and fiction writing has been more about reading and creating essay papers systematically called the “Literary Analysis”… Here, teachers briefly suggest one look at the use of Literary Devices: satire, irony, allusion, diction, euphemism, metaphor, analogy, allegory, imagery, personification, etc… all terms with which to construct observations in the form of an essay. They did in fact attempt to give examples, but many teachers and professors clearly feared giving too good of an example would lead to plagiarizing that example in the assignment. Therefore, students tended to leave the classroom even more confused about what was expected, even more mystified about the actual techniques utlilized by the Masters of good writing which we were expected to deduce (for instance, were they intentionally planted by the author? Or did they just happen in merry coincidence? No one ever said). For most of us – even inexcusably English majors – the entire concept of Literature continues to grow even more muddy.

Worse for us, however, that exact educator fear of explaining too much also means no one really, thoroughly ever talks about Literary Devices. Terms like “satire” and “irony” become key words we as students learn to name-drop in class and in papers without really understanding what they actually define and how they are connected, how structure in writing happens. We are never given the mental picture of any hierarchy of language elements. Terms are free-floating in balloons, sailing well over our heads. And when we consider how many people are not teaching us about language and writing…well, it is a wonder we still manage to produce ANY level of Literature in this country.

(I say again: we need classroom education in the art of writing fiction. We need instruction in technique. We also need it by middle school. And that requires more time, not less… it means STEM needs to learn to work with the lion’s share of educational funding attention it gets and leave what is left of the Arts alone.)

Most of us exited class and even high school and sometimes college wondering how important this all was, and why we should care. Yet we need to care. Understanding all of the hidden meanings and disguised references are a crucial part of discovery in Literature; that private “aha!” moment that might be unconsciously derived or blurted out in excitement is what makes reading a more deeply rewarding experience.

You have probably experienced it when you realized what else a story might be talking about, like theories that The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings are possibly allegories for World War II…or if you wondered who was right about the Don McLean folksong American Pie (is it about the history of rock and roll, or about the Kennedy assassination?) What we need to understand is that a “device” in Literature moves subversively – like it does in poetry. It is communicated like Morse code; there are patterns, bread crumbs that web the ideas in the mind. And then epiphany happens when the possibility that this is what the author is really saying materializes.

Then everything changes. And that, friends and neighbors, is what “allegory” is all about, strung up on the trellis of Literary Device.

Literary Devices, therefore, are not merely created to become subjects for term papers. They are writing tools. They are there for your reading pleasure, and sometimes as fragments of unconscious expression of the writer’s deepest beliefs – perhaps deep enough the writer is not aware of having revealed them, sometimes intentionally crafted to goad the reader into action while reveling in the story itself, perhaps indeed acting in service to allegory.

Roald Dahl is a writer who uses satire and irony. And he also does it with a touch of Horror and psychological terror. Through it he is pointing out the annoying, tortuous foibles of modern society – from institutionalized cultural behaviors, to the psychological gymnastics we all perform to stay sane. We can read the story without taking its elements apart and be strangely sated. But what happens if we look deeper? First we must know about the Devices he is using.

So what is satire?

“Satire is all about mockery and shaming– typically of social conventions, politics, and the people who serve as figureheads for disagreeable behaviors. And it uses irony as its main delivery system. Dahl uses a great deal of dramatic irony – where the reader or spectator knows something one or more of the characters do not.” https://www.enotes.com/homework-help/why-does-author-roald-dahl-use-verbal-dramatic-536945

What is irony?

Dahl introduces us to two forms: “Situational irony”( an event that is opposite to what is expected), and “dramatic irony” (where the reader knows what the characters in the story do not). (https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/satire)

It is through these two main devices that we meet the real Roald Dahl – the one who seems to have an uncanny understanding of how any social injustice or slight can make us feel; he takes us unceremoniously to the cliff edge and we willingly topple right over at his urging. This is artistry in language at its best: every story is an exercise in the economy of words, nothing extra is there. Every word works. Every Device is working right alongside: irony and satire in Dahl’s writing are the draft horses.

This is also exemplary of Dahl’s style – so simple and plainly exposed on the page. This is an art we seem to have lost – the art of simple, uncontrived storytelling. And I blame the modern mad rush to action-adventure in the genre, the muddying and blurring of lines of genre made to serve as a guideline for writing in the genre. There has always been more than one way to do most anything, and if we all do the same thing even on orders, where does originality go?

We are talking about the modern imposition of style preferences… and if criticisms and editorial displeasure is to be believed, even that has gone awry. And maybe it has gone awry because when we aren’t writing to spec for Hollywood, then we are tending to refuse to accept anything Lovecraft wouldn’t have approved of as Horror – anything not Weird. And it is time we started asking how many Roald Dahl’s can we afford to lose?

Diversity in storytelling is important for the genre – it is the way we find our audience and our next artistic direction. We are at risk of losing a lot of Horror if we are going to eliminate everything not written in the style of Lovecraft – and perhaps we should even be asking if that is why Young Adult Horror is well out-performing Adult Horror – precisely because they don’t have Lovecraft hanging over their heads…

According to Joyce Carol Oates, we can hear the bell ringing with Roald Dahl:

“Though a number of Dahl’s most engaging stories, particularly in his early career, are cast in a realist mode, his reputation is that of a writer of macabre, blackly jocose tales that read, at their strongest, like artful variants of Grimm’s fairy tales; Dahl is of that select society of Saki (the pen name of H.H. Munro), Evelyn Waugh, Muriel Spark, and Iris Murdoch, satiric moralists who wield the English language like a surgical instrument to flay, dissect, and expose human folly. As a female character says in the ironically titled “My Lady Love, My Dove”: “I’m a nasty person. And so are you—in a secret sort of way. That’s why we get along together.” Given Dahl’s predilection for severely punishing his fictional characters, you might expect this nasty lady to be punished, but Roald Dahl is not a writer to satisfy expectations.” https://www.roalddahlfans.com/dahls-work/books/the-collected-short-stories-of-roald-dahl/the-art-of-vengeance/

Some of us hunger for that kind of Horror now and then, because instinctively we know that fairy tales so very often got it right…

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Using Dahl to Understand Literary Horror and the Power of Simplicity

One of the reasons Dahl has risen in my estimation as a Horror canon writer is because writers who belong in our canon should be writers who in some way shape it. Dahl brings to the fore the importance of the mainstream and commonality of our shared world, elevated by shock value as delivered by Literary Device reflecting the flaws of our times and executed with the precision of a technical writer. This is what reading short stories should feel like. When we read Dahl, we bless him for not making us think: we can enjoy the show. But we can also lift the curtain and see the man behind it if we choose. We can poke about for analogy, and we can study his sleight of hand for his magical technique.

But unavoidably, we see, hear, and feel the Horror. And it is powerfully experienced. It is memorable. It stays with us like it was our own personal and painful memory. Dahl haunts us for years after reading him.

This Literary lesson is not readily found in most of our genre – at least, not so clearly. This makes the lesson of how to employ Literary Devices accessible – even attractive to novices. And isn’t infusing Literary elements into the genre the main goal of both Literary Critics and contemporary editors?

When we look at Dahl, we can see how uncomplicated effective and “effortless” original storytelling could and should be. Yet his stories are also a great read. Why then is he never really mentioned within our genre, let alone adult fiction writing? Why, especially, in times like these when we seem to have lost our ability to understand how to create original fiction from commonplace life?

And is that why he is not considered a Horror writer – because his stories are about common people, places and things – in exactly the way Lovecraft said dooms great Horror? I have little more than theories. But at this moment in time our genre seems to not know what it is or what it wants, beyond the scope of demanding undefined “good,” “Original,” “approved” Horror…and that also makes a ton of money.

Yet don’t we have to write about our own times? Aren’t we obligated, if we are to create Literature and Literary Horror?

We need to be asking what we want from our modern writers when it comes to non-Hollywood-oriented writing. And we need to read and study writers like Roald Dahl. That means we need to acknowledge him as part of our genre. Says Margaret Talbot in her 2005 article titled “The Candyman: Why Children Love Roald Dahl’s Stories – and Many Adults Don’t” (further proof the man is writing Horror):

“Most of Dahl’s early writing was for adults. He specialized in wartime stories and macabre tales with surprise endings, or what the British call “a twist in the tail.”… But by the early sixties… The New Yorker, which had earlier accepted several stories, now sent rejection notices. Dahl’s adult stories were crisply, shiveringly enjoyable—rather like “Twilight Zone” episodes—but they showed little compassion or psychological penetration. It was children, it seemed, not adults, on whom Dahl could lavish empathy.” https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2005/07/11/the-candy-man

Yet he wrote stories for adults… and they are great stories that remind us that concepts handled correctly can drive great stories – whether driven by satire or not, irony or not, Literature or not…but the better ones do have such elements.

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If we wish to do the deep-dive of Literary Criticism, we can look into the rise of feminism at this early time in Dahl’s life – we can see evidence in the repetitive patterns of female characters he sketches for us – the stereotypical wife gone off the rails, acts of revenge that tickle the spine and the imagination.

Here is an excerpt of my favorite story of his titled Lamb to the Slaughter, delivered with his typical simple and direct style:

“This is going to be a bit of a shock to you, I’m afraid,” he said. “But I’ve thought about it a good deal and I’ve decided the only thing to do is tell you right away. I hope you won’t blame me too much.”

And he told her. It didn’t take long, four or five minutes at most, and she stayed very still through it all, watching him with a kind of dazed horror as he went further and further away from her with each word.

“So there it is,” he added. “And I know it’s kind of a bad time to be telling you, bet there simply wasn’t any other way. Of course I’ll give you money and see you’re looked after. But there needn’t really be any fuss. I hope not anyway. It wouldn’t be very good for my job.”

Her first instinct was not to believe any of it, to reject it all. It occurred to her that perhaps he hadn’t even spoken, that she herself had imagined the whole thing. Maybe, if she went about her business and acted as though she hadn’t been listening, then later, when she sort of woke up again, she might find none of it had ever happened.

“I’ll get the supper,” she managed to whisper, and this time he didn’t stop her.

When she walked across the room she couldn’t feel her feet touching the floor. She couldn’t feel anything at all- except a slight nausea and a desire to vomit. Everything was automatic now-down the steps to the cellar, the light switch, the deep freeze, the hand inside the cabinet taking hold of the first object it met. She lifted it out, and looked at it. It was wrapped in paper, so she took off the paper and looked at it again.

A leg of lamb.

All right then, they would have lamb for supper. She carried it upstairs, holding the thin bone-end of it with both her hands, and as she went through the living-room, she saw him standing over by the window with his back to her, and she stopped.

“For God’s sake,” he said, hearing her, but not turning round. “Don’t make supper for me. I’m going out.”

At that point, Mary Maloney simply walked up behind him and without any pause she swung the big frozen leg of lamb high in the air and brought it down as hard as she could on the back of his head….” https://4.files.edl.io/4a65/10/23/18/235824-cd055462-e062-467c-a8ae-492f46d8caad.pdf

What is most useful about Dahl, is the direct way we can see everything laid out in his stories. If a writer is looking for a how-to, Dahl is your man. His works are uncomplicated – even while wielding Literary elements. We can see the story. We can go back and see the elements.

Clarifies David Ulin in his 2016 article titled “Roald Dahl’s Twisted, Overlooked Stories for Adults”:

“What we’re seeing is a style, a sensibility: that sophisticated, offhand voice, that air of a story heard and repeated; fiction as gossip or conversation, a game of telephone. It’s reminiscent, in a way, of Sherwood Anderson, that master of the story within a story, but even more, perhaps, of Kurt Vonnegut, who was writing his early short fiction at the same time Dahl was producing his. Vonnegut ultimately gave up on writing stories, put off by what he saw as their contrivance: “Short stories are artificial; they are very clever misrepresentations of life,” Vonnegut told me, in 1997. “You can be fairly truthful about life if you have a little length, but a short story has to be awfully cute—it has to be a con.” https://www.newyorker.com/books/page-turner/roald-dahls-twisted-overlooked-stories-for-adults

Yet Dahl does con us. He makes Horror look easy. Because maybe it is easier than we have been wont to make it, so accessible we could all of us BE any of his characters… Yet this is not the only reason Dahl succeeds in hooking us. Says Joyce Carol Oates in her 2007 article titled “The Art of Vengeance,”

“Dahl has a zest for blackly comic sadistic situations in which characters, often hapless, are punished out of all proportion to their wrongdoings. In one of the more subtly crafted stories, the ironically titled “The Way Up to Heaven,” first published in The New Yorker in 1954, an exasperatingly slow, doddering, self-absorbed old coot, seemingly so rich as to live in a “large six-storey house in New York City, on East Sixty-second Street, [with] four servants” and his own private elevator, is allowed by his long-suffering wife, to remain trapped in the elevator as she leaves for six weeks in Europe to visit her daughter:

The chauffeur, had he been watching [Mrs. Foster] closely, might have noticed that her face had turned absolutely white and that the whole expression had suddenly altered. There was no longer that rather soft and silly look. A peculiar hardness had settled itself upon the features. The little mouth, usually so flabby, was now tight and thin, the eyes were bright, and the voice, when she spoke, carried a new note of authority.

“Hurry, driver, hurry!”

“Isn’t your husband traveling with you?” the man asked, astonished.

“Certainly not…. Don’t sit there talking, man. Get going! I’ve got a plane to catch for Paris!”

In a mordantly funny coda that must have stirred visceral dread in male, upper-middle-class New Yorker readers of that pre-feminist era, the elderly liberated woman, returning from her highly enjoyable trip, is pleased to discover when she reenters the townhouse a “faint and curious odour in the air that she had never smelled before.” https://www.roalddahlfans.com/dahls-work/books/the-collected-short-stories-of-roald-dahl/the-art-of-vengeance/

Does he get it “right” every time? No, no one does. But that doesn’t mean those stories considered less artful aren’t somebody’s favorites. And isn’t that also the point – that writing is an Art? That it is relative?

Maybe the most important thing Dahl’s writing does is to open the conversation about the proper application of craft and technique, about originality versus the contrived that we need to have within the genre and within novice writing and education. He not only awakens the pores of the Horror skin, but he sets it a-tingle. He makes us feel like we can do it – we can pull great Horror out of ourselves because it isn’t far away from us. It isn’t about genius but more about observation and using every tool we have in the writing toolbox.

Continues Ulin:

“Not all of Dahl’s stories are equally effective, of course. More than a few (“The Sound Machine,” “Edward the Conqueror,” “Vengeance is Mine Inc.”) echo as unrealized conceits. Still, even at its least resonant, his writing raises questions about what we want or expect from fiction, what a story ought to be.” https://www.newyorker.com/books/page-turner/roald-dahls-twisted-overlooked-stories-for-adults

Maybe that is the question we should all be asking, but don’t tell us Roald Dahl is not of the Horror genre; his work reeks of Horror conventions modernly rendered.

Let’s add him to the list. Let’s ask Literary Critics to look again at Roald Dahl for a foundational author of our canon. But for Horror’s sake, let’s read him.

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Works:

Novels: (Young Adult):

The Gremlins

Sometime Never: a Fable for Supermen

James and the Giant Peach

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory

The Magic Finger

Fantastic Mr. Fox

Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator

Danny, the Champion of the World

The Enormous Crocodile

My Uncle Oswald

The Twits

George’s Marvelous Medicine

The BFG

The Witches

The Giraffe and the Pelly and Me

Matilda

Esio Trot

The Vicar of Nibbleswicke

The Minpins

 

Short Story Collections:

Over to You: Ten Stories of Flyers and Flying

Someone Like You

Kiss Kiss

Twenty-Nine Kisses From Roald Dahl

Switch Bitch

The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar and Six More

The Best of Roald Dahl

Tales of the Unexpected

More Tales of the Unexpected

A Roald Dahl Selection: Nine Short Stories

Two Fables

Ah, Sweet Mystery of Life: the Country Stories of Roadl Dahl

The Roald Dahl Treasury

 

 Edited by:

Roald Dahl’s Book of Ghost Stories

 

 Nonfiction:

Boy-Tales of Childhood

Going Solo

Measles, a Dangerous Illness

Memories with Food at Gypsy House

Roald Dahl’s Guide to Railway Safety

The Dahl Diary 1992

My Year

The Roald Dahl Diary 1997

The Mildehhall Treasure

 

References

Dahl, Roald. “Lamb to the Slaughter.” https://4.files.edl.io/4a65/10/23/18/235824-cd055462-e062-467c-a8ae-492f46d8caad.pdf

Encyclopedia Britannica. Retrieved 6/15,02019 from https://www.britannica.com/biography/Roald-Dahl

Oates, Joyce Carol. “The Art of Vengeance.” The New York Review of Books, April 26, 2007 edition. Retrieved 6/15/19 from https://www.roalddahlfans.com/dahls-work/books/the-collected-short-stories-of-roald-dahl/the-art-of-vengeance/

Talbot, Marion. “The Candyman: Why Children Love Roald Dahl’s Stories – and Many Adults Don’t.” A Critic at Large. The New Yorker: July 4, 2005. Retrieved 6/16/19 from https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2005/07/11/the-candy-man

Ulin, David.”Roald Dhal’s Twisted, Overlooked Stories for Adults.” Page-Turner. The New Yorker: July 21, 2016. Retrieved 6/14/19 from https://www.newyorker.com/books/page-turner/roald-dahls-twisted-overlooked-stories-for-adults

Webster’s Dictionary. (https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/satire)

 

 

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Author Biographies: Can or Should You Separate an Author From Their Work?


For most of us, one of the harder challenges of writing fiction is deciding what to put in those little, abbreviated bios that editors want.

We agonize over the details. We do our best to find some outstanding characteristic of our lives, our qualifications, ourselves to share with strangers. Maybe even to impress or endear those very strangers to us.

For the most part, those brief bios are meant to be introductions: brief summations of why we might be qualified to call ourselves a writer – mentioning relevant university degrees, real-world jobs, past publication, or professional organizations (often depending on the story or the publication), or even a synopsis of the story in play– but also to shed just enough light on personality that we see a bit of author as a person. In sum, these succinct profiles are blurbs of the author’s life – not full on biographies. And that is a more fortunate thing, as it turns out.

Because if existing author biographies are any indication, actually having one written about you might not be the perk it sounds like. For example, we seldom think about the harder reality that today in particular, anyone can find out pretty much anything about our private selves. And they will. And they will publish or promote the most unsavory of these details. For all of us would-be and under-published authors, those short little author bios are – in reality – the least of our worries.

At what point is some information too much information? And should an author’s life and philosophy be kept separate from their work? Does who the author is, really matter?

In the world of reading, analyzing, reviewing and Criticizing an author’s catalog of works, author biographies can enhance our appreciation for an author, or ruin everything.

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What Do We Know and When Should We Know It?

I have always loved reading author biographies. I love them because they teach me more about the struggle to write than the writing.

As a writer, this is important. I’m not sure it is significant at what point on which train J.K. Rowling decided to write Harry Potter. But am I curious about why…about her decision making process in the writing, about her background and where she developed such a keen marketing savvy that it puts Amazon to shame.

Yet for some, knowing the details of a person’s life – like Lovecraft, for example – leaves them proudly proclaiming a distaste for the works themselves. They may declare a deliberate omission of the writing because of how the writer lived his or her life, how they THOUGHT. In short, they disapprove.

When and whether to separate an author from their work has been part a long discussion. And such things took a particularly evil and pronounced turn after the Holocaust, when scientists had to sort out whether to keep ill-gotten scientific results gleaned from torture, or to abandon it all as a condemnation of how it was derived.

One point of contention may well be intent.

While an Artist’s beliefs are not actions; their work is action. And there is a significant difference in belief and incitement to degradation or violence.

Where do we draw the line?

This is a tougher question than we think. We cannot step anywhere (for example) in the United States where we are not stepping on stolen ground, adoring older structures that may have been built by indentured or enslaved hands on property that once belonged to someone else, or even constructed for the purpose of insuring the taking or keeping of property thusly gained.

We cannot even brag on technology without facing character flaws: what of Wernher von Braun, the German rocket scientist who gave us our Space Program in exchange for overlooking his service as a member of Hitler’s SS? Or perhaps we justify that today things are less threatening when we consider that the founder of Facebook was alleged to have stolen the concept from fellow students at Harvard University. Perhaps when we benefit from advances or enjoyment, we are fine with wearing rose-colored glasses.

We manage to be myopic when it suits us. But at all times, humanity is faithful to its tendency to commit all manner of sins. And when considering the Arts and writing, this becomes important. Because when an Artist’s work reveals something too easily forgotten or buried about a time or place, that work – no matter how despicable, gains a value.

Looking at Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn as a recurrent visitor on the banned books list is a perfect example. The use of racist language places the book in a time capsule that in these more allegedly enlightened times should make us uncomfortable, yet it reveals nevertheless an important question as to whether or not the book still serves a purpose. That it does, but now perhaps presents an additional purpose, keeps it relevant. The language and context are now important things to discuss. And perhaps that raises the age when the book should be read, but it does not negate the most important message of the book: Life for many of our fellow citizens is often unfiltered and unpleasant…. It is time we look at what is under the whitewashed fence.

H.P. Lovecraft has long been the Horror poster child for these arguments. But he is by no means alone. In fact, there have been times when the flaws of many of our greatest American writers have all been paraded past us like they are qualifiers for greatness.

If you are a writer, that probably gives you pause. And it is certainly not why I read author biographies.

Like all writers, perhaps I seek a community awareness, some reassurance that the best writing often does come from enduring horridly difficult times, dashed childhood dreams, flawed thinking, lost friends or absent or invisible ones, the bitch-slapping life of poverty so many of us wind up in, the sense of being outcast, downcast, and just plain lost.

As Arts people, we have long endured the rumors: that the true geniuses among us are fatally flawed characters… They are not only misfits, but drunks and drug addicts, mentally disturbed and disrupted individuals, living tragic, abbreviated lives we all should envy for the permanence and quality of their life’s work.

It makes it hard to want to be successful if one must sacrifice one’s life, health, and sanity to the cruel gods of creativity. And it makes one wonder what could possible go right in a writing career if one isn’t spectacularly flawed enough?

But is it true? Must we be ruined human beings to be successful writers? Or perhaps the right question is: is it ever NOT true?

After all, part of being human is being flawed…is living. We are all damaged, to some extent, by our own navigations of life and by the intrusion of unwelcome others within it. Whether it is having the unloving, nasty family of Poe, or the loss of support family members and terror of racially different people like Lovecraft, we create our own mental baggage that we perpetually lug around with us in our writing.

Likewise, we experiment with different ways of soothing the open wounds, of denying the pains and humiliations of living.

Who among is NOT thusly shaped and affected?

Like with writing, it is what we DO with those bits of baggage that makes or breaks us.

It is always comforting to know other writers overcame, and that many needed to. It is sometimes helpful to know how, or to see that Art is shaped by the strain of battle…it is born in turmoil.

But it is always helpful to realize that living a life in the Arts by its very nature is one of struggle, that in fact it may well have called to us because we can SEE the intimate connection.

Yet when should we know the gory details?

How much is too much information?

The answer is not that easy. But Literary Critics have finally begun to address the issue themselves, and all because production of possible Literature is outpacing the number of Literary Critics needed to READ it all… a collision of facts derived from living authors and suppositions and allegations made about dead authors forced a radical idea to the surface.  Just how connected ARE authors and their lives to their works?

By 1967, we had so many more living authors producing published works, it became vividly apparent that knowing details about an author – especially ones still alive and verbally kicking – was having an effect on Critics. And French Literary Critic and theorist Roland Barthes wrote a detailed essay on why the knowledge of an author’s intentions paired with biographical facts should have no bearing on the Criticism of their works. https://writing.upenn.edu/~taransky/Barthes.pdf

It is this very essay that created a schism in the school of Literary Criticism, which had up to this point used an author’s biographical information – facts like politics, religion, prejudices, preferences, lifestyle, class, etc. – to decipher their catalog of works.

But with the increasing amount of living authors, Critics began having difficulty divesting their judgment of author lives, of author intentions, and author blowback.

Tremendous verbal battles have spilled their vitriol all over the recent decades (most notably for Horror fans in the verbal barrage between esteemed Literary Critic Harold Bloom and Stephen King fans), and which has had a terrible effect on both the field of Literary Criticism and how we all see various authors and their works. In fact, the worse consequence had been the inserting of the uninformed opinions of the common reader into the Literary Critical academic process.

Once again, the function of Literary Critics is not to devolve into mudslinging arguments about writing quality with the secular crowd, but to present academic arguments to other academics for or against the admission of a work or catalog of works into the Literary Canon based on Literary Critical Theory.

The introduction of the concept of the author’s intimate life details having no bearing on the decision is an important one.

Because without it, we must keep asking that pesky question: at what point should we know, and how much should we know?

Maybe the MORE important question is: in knowing it, what should we DO with the knowledge?

Bio2

http://enjoy-teaching.com/enjoy-teaching-biography.html

The Whole Dead Author Thing

One of the dangers of reading intimate details about a favorite author is never looking at their work the same way again.

Whether you are “just” a reader or a budding author or Critic, knowing the backstory is not always a good thing.

Words and situations take on new nuances. We begin to ascribe hidden meanings, possible subtext, and autobiographical details to stories we once loved for their own sakes. And we may get it all wrong…because then we begin to drag in our own interpretations based on our own experiences…which have NOTHING to do with the writer’s works or what he or she INTENTED…

The truth is, once we know about an author, their loves and losses, their frustrations and failures, we often lose the magic that their work represents. We start looking for the author inside their work.

And I can tell you as a writer, that is never the intent of the writing. The story is meant to stand on its own, to sneak up on the reader and send a familiar chill down their spines. I want them to see something of themselves in my stories, not something of ME in them.

Of course I am in them. They derive from my own memories, my own fears, my own revulsions and yearning for justice. But no one character is me. No one story is true. No one reader is invited to dissect me psychologically.

Therefore in my opinion, knowing “too much” about me as a writer and person might well get in the way of the magic I intend to conjure. It’s like having a pesky reporter behind the curtain with me in Kansas, giving away my tricks.

Yet I also can’t help but be grateful for the biographies I have read about other authors.

Could it be there is a time and place to know an author more intimately?

I do believe so. And sadly, for the most part I think that time comes after an author is dead.

While I also believe it helps to read biographies only after one has read a catalog of an author’s works, so as not to taint any reading of them, I find that reading such details as one finds in biographies leaves me reading new works and rereading old ones differently.

If the catalog is fixed, then I begin to look at them slightly askew like a Critic might look at them. But because I am not a Critic, I find it changes things in subtle, sometimes uncomplimentary ways. The work does lose its magic, and that is replaced by a study of and appreciation of technique.

Now, as a writer, that is exactly where I need to be. I need to see how the trick is done, and appreciate how a writer took some event or memory from their lives – no matter how major or how trivial – and turned it into something living.

But what I must resist doing, is making excuses for an author. And if we have certain details of an author’s life, that is exactly the natural thing to do…”of course, the book was not as good…his wife had just died, after all…”

We also tend to blanket “approve” certain sentences or paragraphs that the editor in us might suggest should not go unchallenged…assuming that it was the opiates, or the fury of battling unsympathetic Critics. If one is going to learn about an author’s technique from the finished product, we simply cannot be running in front of every word with a broom and dust pan.

And on the reverse side, we cannot devalue the importance of a work because we find out the author was, for instance, a bigot.

So at what point does knowing an author become detrimental?

I think it is when and only when we excuse an author for the wrongdoing.

Lovecraft is the obvious example in Horror. Many of his opinions were nothing less than offensive, odious attitudes toward immigrants and women.

But reading his fiction, we weren’t supposed to “know” that. Deduce it, yes. But to condemn Lovecraft’s writing on the basis of his failures as a human being is also to overlook the whole of the human condition.

We are – all of us – flawed. And history has come to place Lovecraft on the wrong side of political correctness, the wrong side of morality.

Yet as a human being, Lovecraft also reflects a period in our history, in our developmental growth and national psychology. At the heart of Lovecraft’s work is nothing less than irrational fear. That’s what bigotry, racism, misogyny and religious persecution is all about. So as sadly pitiful as his beliefs have come to be, he not only represents the time in which he lived, but sadly, even a subculture that exists still today in this country and all others.

Lovecraft is a lesson in humanity. His writing is a showcase of our flaws, many of which many of us still proudly display, and that should give us pause and cause for discussion.

But should we elevate the work of such a man?

I say with Lovecraft yes. The reason is because even in his writing Lovecraft was not advocating for violence against those he feared. He was simply displaying his fear by using some pretty amazing monstrosities and nightmares to emphasize the terror that beat in his bigoted, misogynistic heart. In other words, he reflected us…humanity….and our struggle to accept each other.

This is not the same as someone who “preaches” in their work to rise up and destroy other people, other genders, other nations, other religions.

The key here is whether a work is Literary by depicting or revealing a truth about ourselves or is a manifesto – incendiary and inciteful, meant to groom hatred.

If we started tossing out Art because of the thoughts of the Artist, we would be left with nothing to make us think.

Poe, like many writers of his time, was a drunk and an addict. If we throw out his work as ill-begotten gain born of drug trips and poor judgment, we need to lose the Beatles, Roman Polanski, and every Weinstein film ever made.

This is not to say we excuse the offender.

Rather, it means that we weigh the value of the message of the work. Some of the best Art has come from those dying for penance, whose secrets were the acid of their souls which in turn generated cautionary tales for the rest of us.

When a writer is still alive, it becomes a harder choice. Because then we worry about financially endorsing a behavior, for funding a lifestyle that may include reprehensible behavior. A look at how we are responding to Hollywood’s outing of sexual assault is the perfect example.

But we can also see when a writer is dead, that when his or her art imitates life – comments on it – it can elevate a work to Literature because of the mirror it becomes. It becomes useful. It becomes a teaching tool… a prompt for meaningful conversation.

Which brings us back to those little, abbreviated bios.

They should be honest. But they should also be constructed of things that are not presumptuous. Because in the end we will ALL be outted… especially if we (it turns out) are any good at what we do.

Bio3

So When Should We Read Author Biographies?

I think the answer is: when it is helpful.

Biographies contain lives. They introduce flaws that will expose your heroes as human beings. You might discover that you like their work more than you like them. But you may also find yourself encouraged, inspired, comforted in knowing that this road you are on has been traversed by many.

You may find that failure is part of the process. That sometimes rejection is a blazing sword to the heart, and that like you – writers of the past have suffered from many of the same problems – be it writer’s block, bad parenting, cruel Critics, ill health, mental struggles, lost love, betrayal, poverty, addictions, homelessness, the question of self-publishing, the search for mentoring, and a belief that all may well be pointless.

You may find that some of them were Poe, or Lovecraft, or Dante, or Shakespeare. You may even find an awkward kinship with a select few.

Biographies will tell you things about why you feel as you do, about the commonality of lives lived in service of the Arts.

And it may cause you to realize that we might not really like our idols, especially on their worst days…Just as sometimes we don’t like ourselves, or fear being thusly revealed to others…

This is the case of Lovecraft for me… I adore his monsters, love the British Horror atmosphere he managed to transplant to America for us to savor. But reading him is to see the more distasteful aspects of his quirky, misfit personality, to realize how little we have changed. Reading him also makes me worry about myself, and my flaws. It makes me agonize over those darned little bios.

The trick is not to rationalize. We are none of us saints.

The trick is to take biographies for the lessons they offer us: that there is hope we can communicate our deepest fears and anxieties in story form, that we can entertain as well as educate, that we can hope to persuade and shape our times by holding up a hand mirror to those who need to see the images therein.

By all means, don’t deprive yourself. Just know that once the genie is out of the bottle, he will not be put back in. Be sure you are ready for the capriciousness of magic.

Beware the power of enchantment. And then go forth anyway…

Bio4

https://www.pinterest.com/pin/320388960975160324/

Recommended Author Biographies

Ackroyd, Peter. Poe: a Life Cut Short. New York: Doubleday, c2008.

Franklin. Ruth. Shirley Jackson: a Rather Haunted Life. New York: W.W. Norton, c2016.

Gaiman, Neil. The View From the Cheap Seats: Selected Nonfiction. New York: HarperCollins, c 2016.

Joshi, S.T. I am Providence: the Life and Times of H.P. Lovecraft v.1. (& 2). New York: Hippocampus Press, c2013.

King, Stephen. On Writing: a Memoir of the Craft. New York: Simon & Schuster, c2000.

Montague, Charlotte. H.P. Lovecraft: the Mysterious Man Behind the Darkness. London: Chartwell Books, c2015.

Montague, Charlotte. Edgar Allan Poe: the Strange Man Standing Deep in the Shadows. London: Chartwell Books, c 2015.

Ramsland, Katherine. Prism of the Night: a Biography of Anne Rice. New York: Plume, c1982.

Skal, David J. Something in the Blood: the Untold Story of Bram Stoker, the Man Who Wrote Dracula. New York, Liveright Publishing, c2016.

Spark, Muriel. Mary Shelley, a Biography. New York: E.P. Dutton, c1987.

Sturrock, Donald. Storyteller: the Authorized Biography of Roald Dahl. New York: Simon & Schuster, c2010.

Winter, Douglas E. Clive Barker: the Dark Fantastic: the Authorized Biography. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, c2002.