Monday, June 13, 2011

Biographies and The Author's Real Life: J.D. Salinger, Flannery O'Connor, Raymond Carver, Alice Munro

I don’t often read author biographies unless I have a special reason for doing so. Last year when I was working on a book on Flannery O’Connor, I read Brad Gooch’s Flannery: A Life of Flannery O’Connor. And recently when I broke down and bought an e-reader, I read Kenneth Slawenski’s J. D. Salinger: A Life, just to see how I liked reading a book that way. I just finished reading Carol Sklenicka’s Raymond Carver: A Writer’s Life because I have always been a great fan of Carver’s short stories. I am now about half way through Robert Thacker’s Alice Munro: Writing Her Lives, for I am currently working on a book on her stories.

Having been educated in the era of the New Criticism, I have been taught that a writer’s personal life is not a particularly relevant context for his or her art. I found nothing in these four biographies to change that view, although I must admit that I enjoyed sinking into the details of the lives of Salinger, O’Connor, Carver, and Munro. I found Salinger’s never-ending battle to keep his life private compelling, Carver’s battle with alcoholism, lack of money, and finally cancer heart-breaking, and O’Connor’s battle with lupus tragic. I have not read enough of the Munro to make a judgment yet. I will come back to it later.

Of the four, Carver and Munro’s stories are the most closely tied to their personal experiences? Indeed, Carver drew so closely on events in his life that his first wife MaryAnn has said that some stories are little more than transcriptions of something that actually happened. However, other than finding it interesting that a story is based on a life event, I do not think that that knowledge helps me appreciate the story, since in my opinion a story is an artifice made up of language and thus can only be understood by understanding how the language works to create an experience. The raw experience on which the story might be based means nothing until the artist makes it mean something. And when it means something, it does so by virtue of the language, not by virtue of the event.

I remember when my kids were small and I used to tell them stories, they would often ask, “Daddy, did that really happen?” And one of the most common questions from the audience at author readings is, “Was that story based on an actual experience?” This common concern with the relationship between the fiction and the fact, wherein the reader’s first interest is whether the event “really happened,” reflects a misunderstanding about the basic relationship between language and events in the world.

Stories are not made up of events in the world; they are made up of language carefully constructed by the author. It is not the similarity between the fictional events and the factual events that the reader should be interested in, but rather the difference between the two kinds of events. This is an old formalist notion that makes a great deal of sense to me. When you attend to the differences between real events and fictional events, you attend to the conventions and literary devices that constitute the work’s “literariness,” to quote a much maligned formalist notion, and it is the work’s literariness that constitutes its “meaning.”

One conviction that Salinger, O’Connor, Carver, and Munro share--often repeated in all four of these biographies--is that their “real life” lies in their writing. When they are not writing, they are chaffing to get back to writing. All four were consumed with writing from early childhood and remained obsessed with writing throughout their lives. Alice Munro, who will turn eighty next month, is still working on stories. At least we hope so.

Thus, it seems ironic to me that author biographies, which necessarily focus on events in the real world, are never really about the real lives of the authors—only their external experiences: O’Connor’s life on the farm, Salinger’s experiences in the War, Carver’s drunken binges, Munro’s divorce and remarriage. If you are a fan of an author’s work, reading about their lives in the real world may be interesting, but when their real lives begin—that is, during the process of writing—the biographer can only say, “She published this or that,” or “He worked on this or that.”

Occasionally, the biographer will note that a certain event—Carver and MaryAnn’s attempt to patch up their marriage, for example—was the basis for a certain story. But the process of writing the story—what the author would call his or her “real life”—plays little or no part in the biography itself.

You can’t really blame the biographer for this. He or she has no way to access the mystery of the writing process, except from author interviews and essays. And even then, there is no guarantee that the author understands the mystery of the creative process and thus can give the reader a glimpse of his or her “real life.” One of the best efforts to do this is, in my opinion, Henry James's Notebooks and Prefaces.

I am currently reading Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast—mainly because when I was in Paris for a few days recently, my hotel was on the left bank, not far from where Hemingway and his wife Hadley rented an apartment. It was a pleasure to read about Hemingway’s walks in that area, discovering the Shakespeare and Company bookstore, having a drink with James Joyce at a café where I also sat and sipped a café creme. Hemingway worked on his writing at the cafes during this time and resented any time his "real life" was interrupted. But all we know about that real life is the phrase, “I worked."

I just ordered Ron Carlson’s little book Ron Carlson Writes a Story: From the First Glimmer of an Idea to the Final Sentence, in which he, according to a blub, “invites the reader to look over his shoulder as he creates the short story ‘The Governor’s Ball’.” I will post some remarks on A Moveable Feast and Carlson’s book in my next blog entry.


Short Story Slore said...

Excellent point! I feel some people think if an author is writing about something that happened, then they aren't really writing a story - just repeating something. There's so much more to a story than an outline of a plot.

Jerri said...

I think you're correct to caution readers about trying to make explicit connections between authors' biographies and their stories. According to Gooch, Flannery O'Connor didn't WANT readers to think about her: she wanted them to focus on her stories with the same intense passion that she did.

Perhaps because my background is in Russian literature, I prefer to have some context - the author's biography and letters (when available), a working knowledge of the culture and period of history in which the author was writing.

It's possible to read, say, Lermontov's Hero of Our Times and to appreciate its artistry without any real background on the author's ill-fated intellectual engagement with the Russian government...on his reaction to the death of his idol, Pushkin...and on the way that the first two things led to his exile to the Caucasus, which informed his writing of Hero of Our Times.

It's possible to watch Sergei Bodrov's film "Prisoner of the Mountains" and to appreciate its artistry without knowing that the basics are lifted from Tolstoy's "Prisoner of the Caucasus," which was informed by the author's reading of Pushkin and Lermontov and his own army experience in the Caucasus. Understanding the relationship of that film to the first Chechen War added a dimension to the experience of watching the film, for me.

What I found was that the background kept the Pushkin poem and the Lermontov and Tolstoy stories, which I read in the early 1980s, alive for me almost twenty years later. An official representative of the US government, I was traveling near the Caucasus during the second Chechen War. A local Russian official I met had a graduate degree in folklore & had done field work collecting oral literature in Chechnya. At a campfire one night, he said, one Chechen's tale offended the man sitting beside him. The second man pulled a long knife and stuck it into the storyteller's kidney. End of stories. His anecdote, we agreed, could have come straight from Pushkin or Lermontov or Tolstoy. And that, the Russian official said to me, is what you Americans need to understand about these Chechens and why we Russians have to fight them. It's all THEY understand.

What I understood was not quite what Nikolai Nikolaevich intended that I should understand. The Caucasus stories of Pushkin, Lermontov, and Tolstoy - as exotic in the 19th century as our tales of the Wild West - and the context in which they were written are still alive and influential in modern Russia. To divorce the art from the artifact, in this case, is to diminish the meaning - to neglect the ripples spreading from the stone thrown into the pond.

I'm greedy. I want the stone AND the ripples.

I thought that the Gooch biography of Flannery O'Connor was weak in three respects. First, it smacked of sycophancy in places. Second, Gooch lacked access to people who had been adults when O'Connor was a child (they were pretty much all dead by the time he wrote) - so his read of her early years is necessarily limited. Third, I think he's far too apologetic for her forays into racism. He claims that Alice Walker commends O'Connor for her decision to write about blacks as Other, citing Walker's comment that O'Connor's decision to keep her distance "from the inner workings of her black characters seems to me all to her credit" (p. 336). Gooch argues that this "spar[ed] the world from more stereotypes." I would bet that what Alice Walker DIDN'T say there was more important than what she DID say.

But that would be context, not text. Right?

Anonymous said...

Good stuff Charles. I remember that most of the Salinger obits commented on how he was still always writing even though he hadn't published anything for nearly fifty years. Dex

Charles E. May said...

Thanks to those who have responded to this post, particularly Jerri, for her extended comment that also appears on her very interesting blog on reading short stories. Jerri, I agree completely that knowledge of the historical, social, and biographical background of stories can be interesting and engaging. My point is that such contexts are not necessarily helpful in "reading" the story. More about this in my next post.