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.
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?
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.
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…
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.