Nicholas Murray gets involved in the debate about literary biography that continues to rumble 'round the 'sphere:
The always stimulating blog of Stephen Mitchelmore, This Space, is currently growling [correction: see Stephen's post below, he was not 'growling' merely demurring] at a recent defence of literary biography, citing Proust, who in his essay Contre Sainte-Beuve, attacked the famous French critic for his belief that the biographical method was the only one for critics. Proust disagreed, arguing memorably that his work proceeded not from the bundle of accidents that sat down for breakfast in the Proust household, but from "l'autre moi". Proust, it seems to me, was absolutely correct so how can I justify earning my living as a literary biographer? The answer is that biography cannot "explain" or account for a work of art but neither can criticism (more...)
The "anti-biographical" argument -- Dan Green of The Reading Experience has been doing much to advance a new New Criticism here! -- is against those who would claim that biography should be the first and foremost method of understanding a writer and their work. The argument has become sharpened because biography plus plot synopsis is the main method of reading and discussing a work that one sees in e.g. the Broadsheet newspapers or with a critic like e.g. Tim Parks. Biography has the virtue of contextualising a work, but biographical reductionism does violence to reading itself. One has to start with the words on the page. Any piece of writing is simultaneously about both itself and the relationship of the writer to the work expressed in and through that work -- so biography enters here, it has a place, but it should not be the primary prism. Biography should not be a substitute for careful rereading: rereading is the beginning of understanding, not scattered life-facts.
For sure, like so many readers, I can't help but be interested in the lives of those I come to know so little about via reading them. But I don't suppose I can understand their work any better just because I now know about their birth and schooling, their marriages and heartaches ...