A more burning question than the state of my life might be this one: was Jane Austen gay? More specifically, was she gay for her sister, as this article speculates right off the top? When you continue reading, you realize that the thrust of the article isn't about Austen's alleged homosexuality, but instead is about the celebrity-obsessed times in which we live, which create a climate in which we care less about the import of a writer's words and more about rampant gossip about the writer's personal life:
“Proposing that Jane Austen was a lesbian or Sophocles a cross-dresser,” writes the literary theorist Terry Eagleton, “is one way for those who have nothing especially stunning to say about irony or tragic fate to muscle in on the literary scene. It is rather like being praised as an eminent geographer for finding your way to the bathroom.”Eagleton loses me with his bathroom analogy, but otherwise I tend to agree with him. I've never been a proponent of the school of thought that dictates that you must know everything about an author's life to understand his or her work. To me, this approach breaks down once you realize that you can never, ever know everything about anyone else's life, and believing that you can harness an author this way is an exercise in academic arrogance. (There are some brilliant contemporary novels that explore this idea. If you haven't read them already, I urge you to pick up Swann by Carol Shields and Possession by A.S. Byatt. Please suggest others in the comments section!)
Obviously, some knowledge of a writer's life can help you read his or her work through a different lens. For example, as The Times article points out, knowing that George Eliot suffered censure for living in horrible, horrible sin with a married man can give you new insight into the examination of small-town morality that she writes about in some of her novels. But I can remember being completely enthralled by The Mill on the Floss -- and being so outraged at Maggie's treatment and fate that I was practically in tears -- without ever knowing anything about Eliot's relationship status.
As an English literature undergrad, I've done my share of researching authorial biographies. At one point in my budding academic career, I knew more about George Orwell than any one person ever needs to know. All I recall, though, is that knowing a few facts about Orwell's early career in the Indian Imperial Police in Burma, and then his later experiences during the Spanish Civil War, may have given me some idea as to why his novels are so adamantly anti-totalitarianism -- but all this background information roiling around inside my noggin as I read Orwell's books also bled some of the life from them. I can't help believing that Orwell -- or any author worth the paper they're printed on -- would rather have had my passionate investment in his stories than my dry "insights."
And speaking of salacious literary gossip (and hypocritical bloggers), did Ian McEwan steal passages from a romance novel and use them in his bestseller Atonement? Oh my!
Thinks by David Lodge...and to a lesser extent, Therapy by the same author. Both are wonderful books.
And if you read those two books, you'll want to read Lodge's Author, Author, in which he focuses on Henry James more than the work,but Henry James, as you may know, burned every scrap so we couldn't get at his life. As if!
The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood is an excellent at skewering the media/literary scholars who base their interpretations of a novel on an author's private life.
This reminds me of the foreward John Irving wrote in a newer edition of The World According to Garp (and I think it comes through in the character of Garp as well) that one of his biggest pet peeves is people who read books just to try to find elements that come from the author's real life. He basically says that whether or not the events have reallly happened to him (or any author) shouldn't matter because everything has happened somewhere, to someone, at some time. He says people should read to find a deeper, more meaningful truth in stories rather than just truth as it may apply to the author's life and otherwise, there really isn't much point to reading.
I agree with that sentiment but find it interesting coming from Irving considering that most of his early novels borrowed heavily from his own life experiences.
As for Jane Austen...if she was a lesbian, more power to her. None of my beeswax.
A.S. Byatt's "The Biographer's Tale" is only about 140 pages, but it's a far, far more mature book than "Possession" and covers more or less the same territory. I think it got less attention simply because it doesn't have the structure of a romance backing it up, but it's both a better example, and a better book, imho. (Full disclosure: I wrote my "undergrad thesis" on it.)
I'm going to add "The Lyre of Orpheus" by Robertson Davies to the list, although he's fallen out of favour in recent years.
Dopp, you write about Eagleton like we're not all good friends. Don't you remember that book of his we had to read in Lye's class?
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