Biography as commentary

I suppose it should come as no surprise that biographers use their subjects lives and work as a forum for their own opinions. Some biographers accomplish this in subtle ways while others are more obvious. I don’t mean to imply this is a bad thing either, as biographies that refuse to judge or criticize are often quite boring and a little opinion often spices things up.

I bring this up because I am currently reading Jane Smiley’s Penguin Lives volume on Charles Dickens. In this short but readable work Smiley – herself a novelist – has a lot of interesting things to say about Dickens and his work. She also sprinkles more general commentary on novels and novelists throughout her discussion of Dickens. It give one a strong sense of how she approaches literature, writing, and novelists. It provides an interesting sort of commentary within the biogrpahy and analysis; bonus tidbits of accumulated wisdon and opinion from a fellow writer.


Anyway, here are a few examples I have found so far:

– “Every novelist seeks, both consciously and unconsciously, to extend his range of expression.”

– “At the same time, there is never as much money to be made in art, no matter how popular, as there is in manufacture or speculation. The machinery of composition never powers itself, but instead draws more and more deeply upon the inventiveness and the astuteness of the artist.”

– “His medium, the novel, enhanced his freedom, since the novel can never work except through freedom – the author is free to write, and the reader is free to read.”

– “It is not uncommon, though, for a novelist to lose part of his audience as he grows more ambitious. The willingness, and maybe even the ability, of the audience to follow a favorite writer into work of greater complexity and more somber vision isn’t always immediate, and every author whose sole income is from his writing has to reckon with this dilemma.”

– “He was, in fact, coming up with a unified social vision, something that marks the maturation of ever serious novelist, since the novel is first and foremost about how individuals fit, or don’t fit, into their social worlds.”

– “The novel, like any other artistic form, makes an inherent philosophical assertion – that the mental life of the individual is worth anatomizing and that the disruptions that exist among individuals and between individuals and groups are understandable and soluble through individual transformation and action.”

– “A great novel is, as much as anything else, an exercise of sustained stylistic felicity . . .”

About the author

Kevin Holtsberry

I work in communications and public affairs. I try to squeeze in as much reading as I can while still spending time with my wife and two kids (and cheering on the Pittsburgh Steelers and Michigan Wolverines during football season - oh, and watching golf too).

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1 Comment

  • Actually, Kevin, I would say that at times it is a bad thing. Right now I’m reading Gore Vidal’s “Inventing a Nation” which markets itself as a biography of Washington, Adams and Jefferson. In fact, it’s a quasi-biography of those three as well as Hamilton, Franklin, Jay, Madison, Monroe, Morris, et al. That said, perhaps the toughest part of reading the book is separating the biographical information from the running op-ed on current conservative politics that Vidal offers in parallel.

    Fortunately it’s less than 200 pages.