Diligent readers of my Twitter page [and if you’re not, why aren’t you?] will recall I recently posted a link to a piece in the Guardian giving a brief overview of Roland Barthes’ theory of “The Death of the Author”. In short, Barthes “[describes] literature as a space “where all identity is lost, beginning with the very identity of the body that writes”. The death of the author marks the birth of literature, defined, precisely, as “the invention of this voice, to which we cannot assign a specific origin”. Essentially that literature exists free of the author, and a reader shouldn’t view the text through the prism of the author’s life and history.
You likely know this already. It’s the journalist in me to be explanatory.
I’ve been thinking a lot about this notion recently in light of my current reading. I haven’t read much literary biography in my life, but am nearing the end of Carol Sklenica’s thorough examination of the life of American author Raymond Carver. On the plus side, the book is a phenomenal read, exceptional in its scholarship and the light it sheds into all corners of Carver’s life. On the minus side, it exposes Carver as a bit of an asshole.
Previously, all I knew about Carver the man I clawed together from the occasional biographical blurb in an anthology or an old interview [like the Paris Review, which I recently discovered allows authors to have the final edit on said interviews]: grew up in poverty, unhappily married, a drunk who scrabbled together whatever money he could while he worked on his stories, gave up drinking, met love of his life, redeemed by success.
As it would seem, Carver was actually a bit of an indecisive brute, an insensitive man-child who spent two-thirds of his life dissatisfied with his own decisions [when he finally committed to making them]; resented his children for distracting them from his work, deigning to be any sort of father to them after they didn’t need anything from him anymore and destroyed a marriage to an utter saint of a woman who supported him through all his failings, and loved him enough that even after his career had taken off, she let him off the hook with voluntary spousal support, since she feared suing him would drive him off the wagon again. And somewhere in there, he wrote some good stories, most of which he lifted from his own life.
I spent two hours last week rereading some of my best loved Carver stories just to remember why I liked the guy in the first place. And while I can still find what drew me to him as an author in the first place, knowing such intimate details of his life now leaves a bad taste in my mouth. And I should know better, and it makes me wonder about the future of authors in the current technological landscape. In the current climate of social media, the rule of the land is ‘expose, expose, expose; build the brand; develop the fanbase,’ which is well and good when a noted fantasy author I like is talking about his dog or his kids. But when he announces his engagement to a woman I find irritating, I find that affecting my appreciation for his work. Why is it when another Pulitzer Prize winning author I enjoy releases a memoir it leaves me more appreciative of his creative output? Because he lives his life in a fashion I find more acceptable? And how unfair is that to the aforementioned fantasy author?
And it’s my issue, I understand this. I’m with Barthes, the life of the author should have no place in the value of the art he or she creates. When Michael Jackson died, I was right in front of the ‘Man or the Music’ debate, testifying to the man’s musical genius separate of the questionable and inappropriate aspects of how he lived his life. I should be able to give my favourite authors the same benefit of the doubt. But I don’t know, maybe it’s because I find the art of writing fiction a much ‘closer’ art than others [and that may be personal bias speaking] that I feel like the line between person and art isn’t as easily defined. And, as the Carver bio has reminded me, writers are for the most part really messed up people.