Sunday, December 12, 2010

The more dead the better (perhaps)

The more dead the better is my policy regarding writers of fiction and the reading of their work. Distance is a great stimulant for the aspiring writer and avid reader. It permits the conjuring up of powerful, intense constructs.

When I read fiction I imagine what influences worked upon the author to produce the work. Is it biographical or informed by political views? Is it warped by maltreatment of the author? Did they care what others thought of their work and the secrets that might be revealed in producing that piece of fiction?

Flaubert, a flawed hero of mine...
Usually, the less I know about an author the better off I am as a reader although I hunger for more information. Do I need to know that Philip Roth is a misogynistic, cruel husband? No. Do I need to know that Anne Sexton’s child accuses her of molesting her? No. Do I feel I need to know how the womanizing, syphilitic Flaubert treated the women in his life? No. Should I be privy to the Oedipal fantasies of crime writer James Ellroy or the long dead Sylvia Plath? Probably not. It interferes with my image of the writer and an assessment of their work.

I don’t want their work to be coloured by their misogyny, racism, self-hatred or obstreperous personalities. Or by our 21st century standards of politically correct values. I would like to experience their visions purely, unpolluted by biographical details and my own narrow-minded prejudices.

And yet there is that guilty frisson of pleasure when you are looking at a book by a minor Canadian author that you knew back in the day and remembering that he was a self-absorbed idiot or that she was an insufferable, selfish bore. Is there that glimmer of satisfaction that you know what they are really like? Absolutely.

And, am I intrigued by the misbehavior of writers? Yes. Drawn to biographies of troubled writers? Yes. Fascinated by scoundrels, whores and miscreants? Yes, yes and yes.

Initially published in an altered form on February 16th, 2007.


Frangipan said...

Hmmm, this is a difficult debate. I think personal, autobiographical details are incredibly important to our reading of literature. Plath's poems about her father, such as 'Daddy' and 'Electra on the Azalea Path' has an obvious personal resonance and it would be foolish to ignore this. But I don't think we should use these details to judge the work of art. Its integrity is not tied up with the morals of the writer. You might be interested in reading this;

Michelle said...

Yes, I will definitely check this out. :)