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!