Catherine of The Gilmore Guide to Books published a thought-provoking post on Friday. The week before, she had reviewed Michel Faber’s The Book of Strange New Things, which she felt was “emotionally sterile,” and “carefully controlled.” But after listening to a short interview Faber did on NPR, in which Faber reveals his wife was diagnosed with incurable cancer while he was writing this novel, Catherine saw the book in a different light. But, she asks, should an author’s personal background be taken into consideration when reviewing a book, or should the work be judged on its own merit? It is a fascinating question, and I wanted to take some time to work through my own thoughts on this issue.
I am not an expert on literary theory, but I’ve noticed a few competing approaches to analyzing texts that I think are important to consider. This post is NOT technical or scholarly; I will just briefly describe three approaches (as I see them) as broadly as possible.
One approach a reader might take when reviewing a book is to consider only the text, divorced from context. This approach argues an author’s background and intentions are irrelevant to understanding the book. He* shouldn’t have to tell the reader his intentions; if the text is effective, the reader will understand his message.
Another approach views context as much more important in understanding a book. A reader taking this approach might argue that literature is not created in a vacuum; many forces impact how and what an author writes, and understanding these forces gives the reader a deeper insight into the meaning of the text. A piece of literature says things about society, and a reader must know about the conditions of that society in order to appreciate what the author is saying.
A third approach primarily considers the reader’s response to a text. Edmund Wilson said “No two persons ever read the same book.” This approach views reading a subjective experience; although the author may have one intention, readers may interpret a book in many different ways — and this experience is the one that counts. If a reader draws one connection, then it IS there, whether or not it is the connection the author wants him to make.
I think I look at literature with a combination of these three approaches. I tend to think a book should be able to stand on its own; you shouldn’t have to know the author’s background to “get” the meaning of the book. The author’s experiences inform his writing, and if he does a good job, his writing will ring true and his message will come across.
But on the other hand, I find that when I read classics, I have a much deeper understanding and appreciation of the text when I know the context in which it was written. I think it is important to know about Kurt Vonnegut’s war experiences when reading Slaughterhouse-Five, The Bell Jar takes on extra meaning when you know it was based on Sylvia Plath’s life, and Pride and Prejudice may seem trivial if you don’t know just how important it was for a woman to marry well in Victorian England. These are incredible books on their own, but I KNOW that understanding the context in which they were written helps me understand them — especially when I don’t have first-hand experience with the forces that impacted these authors’ writing.
And finally, I believe we each come to a book with a different set of life experiences that inform our reading. This means people can have very different reactions to the same book, and it makes belonging to the literary community fascinating. Different experiences and mindsets could explain why some people love The Book of Strange New Things while other people feel ambivalent about it.
As for Catherine’s question about whether a book should stand on its own, or whether knowing an author’s background should inform her interpretation of a book, I don’t think there is a right or wrong answer. I think it’s totally fine to have conflicting feelings and to say, “On its own, this book fell flat for me, but learning more about the author made me see it differently.” Literary criticism isn’t a perfect science — and how boring would it be if it was?
How do you approach reviewing books? Do you focus objectively on the text (and only the text), consider the context or the author’s background, write solely about your experience reading the book, or do you use an idiosyncratic combination of all three approaches?
*I am using the masculine pronoun because this post was sparked by a discussion of a male author. Can we get a gender-neutral singular pronoun in English, please?