Way back when Calgary was preparing for its biggest winter party ever, I was overseas exploring the birthplace of the Olympics.
In a somewhat sudden decision, I resigned from my long-term well-paying job and bought an “open” ticket to the country of my fantasies. Greece was intriguing and exotic and very far outside my comfort zone. Most people thought it was impetuous, doomed to fail and otherwise just plain crazy. Why, everyone wanted to know.
Well, I replied, to be a writer of course.
Didn’t all writers have larger-than-life personalities filled with epic adventures and romantic tragedies? Isn’t that what we needed to be able to write great tombs of literature? And didn’t our readers want to know who we were and how we’d lived?
But do they? Is it really necessary to know everything about an author in order to enjoy her books?
Ernest Hemingway’s womanizing and relentless feats of machismo are common knowledge. His bravado and adventures are legendary, almost as well known – some might say even more so – than his books. For Whom the Bell Tolls is one of my favourite novels, brilliantly capturing the brutality of the Spanish Civil War. But do we need to know about his four marriages and selfish aggression to enjoy his work?
Hemingway’s literary peer F. Scott Fitzgerald was a raging alcoholic married to an emotionally fragile woman (later diagnosed as schizophrenic). Interesting but it has no bearing on how we experience his work. I still thrill to the beauty of the language in The Great Gatsby and its sad depiction of the excesses and disillusionment of the American Dream.
Today, novelists’ lives are considerably more boring than they used to be.
Canada’s queen of the short story, Alice Munro, wrote many of her early stories late at night after tucking her young children into bed. She brings a rare insight into the lives of her characters with uncomplicated prose exposing the frailty of the human condition with extraordinary humanity. And yet, she was an ordinary woman living an ordinary life. Does knowing this shape our impression of her stories? Does it take anything away from how you feel when you read her?
Joseph Boyden took a beating when it was discovered he’d embellished his indigenous roots. Does the accusation of cultural misappropriation diminish his brilliant storytelling?
Think about your favourite authors. Does knowing their backstory help or hinder you? Do you even care? In an era when everything is public, how much information is too much?
Back in the day no one knew very much about any author. Some, such as T.S. Eliot, insisted on the total separation of “the man who suffers and the mind which creates”. Times changed and soon the reader at least saw what was printed on the dust flap of the back page: a short bio stating where he lived and maybe the name of his wife and dog.
Eventually of course JK Rowling got so famous we knew everything about her. But initially as a Harry Potter fan, did you read the books enjoying the amazing chronicle of the young wizard and his friends? Or did you Google Rowling to find out who was behind it all?
I get just as scared reading a Stephen King novel without knowing his father left when he was young or that he worked a variety of odd jobs to pay for his education. Sometimes a good story is just a good story.
Today writers are not just encouraged to have an online presence, it’s practically mandatory. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, blogs (box checked!) are all a necessity. Publishers expect their authors to lay bare their soul, trading privacy for the coveted book contract.
There are those who believe that knowing personal details about a writer’s life helps shape the context of the book and adds layers of understanding we wouldn’t otherwise have access to. As with everyone, writers are shaped by their world and events which in turn influences their work.
Another school of thought is that artistic work should be judged solely on the merits of the work itself, unclouded by biographical knowledge of the author. Should the author’s vision necessarily dictate the reader’s or is the author more of a guide with the reader making the ultimate interpretation?
What side of the fence do you sit on? How important is the writer’s biography to you? Does knowing too much about his or her life deepen or detract from the pleasures of reading fiction?
I did make it back to celebrate Calgary’s Winter Olympics. It’s debatable whether my escape to Greece made me a better writer or not, but it did give me an opportunity to pursue my passion and I’ve never regretted it.
I had some amazing adventures while I was there (and many more since) but you’ll have to stay tuned for those. When I eventually get published, they just might be made public to help connect me to readers. Just in case my book isn’t enough!