Sunday, March 16, 2014

How Literary Misconceptions Are Born from Poor Criticism

It is a common misconception that people who write can be understood through their works, and while, it is not a complete logical fallacy, it is too often the case that simplistic conclusions are drawn about writers, without taking into account the incredible complexities of the creative act and the complications of historical context. This is particularly the case with "autobiographical" novels like, just to cite a small sampling, The Bell Jar, A Farewell to Arms, Little Women, To Kill a Mockingbird, or In Search of Lost Time. But, the ratio between an author and his or her literary doppelganger(s) is not one to one and never will be; the relationship is infinitely more complex.

In a lecture entitled "Jung and the Writer," Robertson Davies complains about this sort of simplistic conflation: "The Jungian approach... has also caused me a great deal of annoyance, because once it became known that I was a student of Jung, large numbers of people have been quick to assume that I am nothing else." He gives an example of an irritating query: "Some characters in my books seem to be hostile toward their mothers - what was wrong between me and my mother, and why?" This kind of semi-critical reasoning is beloved by subpar students, scholars, and biographers the world over, but there will always be a fundamental difference between a writer and his or her creation, for, while the writer is an evolving human being that is not fully known by anyone (as is true of all human beings), the character is a human creation, and no matter how complex, can be known, at least by his or creator. Seen in this light, the absurdity of the query addressed to Davies becomes quite clear. One need not live through something in order to write well about it.

For, after all, are we to assume that Richard Adams must have lived among rabbits and immersed himself in lapine culture, in order to write Watership Down? That Dante did in fact journey through Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven, accompanied by a long-dead Roman poet and a beatific female presence? That Dickens was visited by the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Yet to Come? No, you say, that is patently absurd. And yet, it is the very same sort of question to which Davies objected. What is so insulting about the question is that it is based on an assumption that the writer has no imagination, although it is precisely this faculty that is most necessary to a good novelist.

That being said, a good biographer also knows that many clues to an understanding of a writer as a person are to be found in their works. The good biographer understands, however, that those clues are not to be extrapolated upon beyond their very limited scope. One could argue that all writing, from grocery lists to epic poetry, tax forms to text messages, class notes to novels, is autobiographical, and in a sense it is, because everything that we write reflects something of who we are. But it is often not something very interesting - I do not think anyone cares about what I planned to buy at the grocery store - or untraceable because it is not literal. That is why we must be so careful not to assume that a character is a mere authorial proxy.

We must also be careful not to imprint our contemporary notions of such monolithic concepts as gender, sexuality, race, progress, and technology on works and on writers of the past. To cite one prominent example, I have seen it argued many times that Louisa May Alcott must have been a lesbian, the reasoning usually being that she never married and had no strong romantic relationships with men. This is utterly ridiculous. First of all, it is unlikely that Alcott had any concept of lesbianism as a sexual identity, since the concept is a construction of the 20th century, and it is presumptuous in the extreme to assign her an identity that she herself would not have recognized. Second, Alcott did in fact have at least one strong romantic attachment to a man - a Polish revolutionary sometimes simplistically referred to as the "inspiration" (horrid word) for Laurie - and is not known to have had any romantic attachments to women. Third, and most importantly, choosing not to marry in the 19th century had completely different meanings and consequences than it does in the 20th and 21st. Alcott, by not marrying, was able to have a successful career, control her earnings and support both herself and her parents, and retain her legal rights to property. If she had married, her earnings would have belonged to her husband, he would have had the right to prevent her from publishing her work, and, in an age with absolutely no reliable means of birth control, she would have been saddled with the extreme exigencies of pregnancy and childbirth, at a time when huge numbers of women died giving birth. In this case, one needs relatively little knowledge of history to demonstrate that our contemporary notions of sexuality cannot be applied to a writer who is not contemporary.

Nor can such notions be applied to literature, though they so often are. A strong example of this kind of silly application is what has happened to Uncle Tom's Cabin. I've known very few people who have actually read the novel, but nearly everyone with whom I've discussed it is patently convinced that it is a racist book. In fact, it is one of only a handful of works written prior to the 20th century that portrays non-white characters as complex human beings (one also thinks of Aphra Behn's Oroonoko or Francoise de Graffigny's Letters from a Peruvian Woman). In the 20th century, the idea of a relatively passive black martyr didn't harmonize with either the political aims of the civil rights movement or with evolving ideas of race and power. But in the 19th century, Uncle Tom was a Christ figure and therefore an extremely transgressive positive figure, one that broke misconceptions and humanized those living in slavery. Uncle Tom's martyrdom must be understood in its proper context if we are ever going to be able to understand the incredible political impact of the book.

Without understanding the separation between a writer and his or her characters and that between both writers and literature and our ever-changing historical and political realities, one will never have any but the most superficial and inaccurate perceptions of literature, the same perceptions that led to the absurd and ridiculous movie, Becoming Jane, or the equally absurd Finding Neverland, and the same perceptions that lead to the adamant dismissal of worthy and sometimes even magnificent literary works. 


  1. What a great piece! Very insightful. I'm going to be following your blog from now on!

    (What brought me here was a google search re: Uncle Tom's Cabin -- which I just finished and was blown away by! It was NOT what I'd been told it was all my life!)