Do We Really Know A Writer From Her Work?

If the writing is at all interesting, you are in search of the author. You are imagining the mind behind the prose. – Tracy Kidder and Richard Toddy

When I was in college and grad school for literature, we talked a lot about the biographical fallacy, the belief that you could know anything about the author from what s/he said on the page.  The idea of the fallacy is that the reader cannot know anything about the writer because what is on the page is artiface and doesn’t, necessarily, have anything to do with the writer’s actual life at all. 111396561

As I’ve gone more fully into the world of nonfiction, I’m not so solid in my adherence to the biographical fallacy because, as Kidder and Todd say, we are all looking for the author there behind what is on the page, and as a writer of nonfiction, I know that I put a lot of myself out there in words. ( I imagine the same is true for fiction writers and poets, too.)  Plus, we do so desperately want to connect to a person behind the words, even if that person is one we conjure from what we know (or think we know) from what is written.

Still, I’m cautious about this idea, too, because no matter what I put of myself on the page, it’s not the whole story.  To write well, we are selective about facts and details, and we tend to focus on one thing – a period of time in our lives, a particular observation, an analysis of one text – leaving a lot of ourselves behind the curtain.  I don’t want readers to assume they KNOW me because they read what I write, and I want to be cautious that I don’t make the same assumption about other writers, too.

This is hard, I think, in a culture where we constantly get new information about people – through blogs, status updates, tweets, emails.  We often assume too easily that we really “get” someone, and this translates over to our readers thinking they “get” us, when really all they know is what we have chosen to tell them.  (Perhaps, this is the case with all human relationship in fact.)

So while I agree with Kidder and Todd, while I do seek out the figure of a face behind what I read and expect that my readers do the same, I’m hesitant to toss the biographical fallacy altogether. I suspect a cautious use of it is still wise.

After all, if you know I lost my two front baby teeth in a tire swing and then proceeded to use that same swing to “pull” a number of my other baby teeth, you can craft a pretty interesting picture of me as a kid. . . when really I was just clumsy.

What do you think as a writer? Do you want people to see “you” in what you write? How about as a reader? Do you look for a person behind the words? 

  • Aaron

    I don’t agree that we are looking for the mind behind the prose. As a reader, I look for ideas in writing. A string of those ideas may begin to give a vague impression of a writer, but never the whole. Still, the first thing I look for is within the writing it’s self.

    Granted, there is a bit of difference between reading some blog post(s) or a book/article. Blogs do give us a more distinct picture of the voice and identity of the writer… still it is not the whole by a long shot. Expecting to know someone in total from their writings (even non-fiction) is like saying you know what someone looks like from how they sing.

    • Andi

      I agree that we don’t get a whole persona, exactly, Aaron, but while I read for ideas, too, I also want to know the person – or at least some image of them. Otherwise, I feel disconnected from the subject. I want some context for the ideas. Foucault is amazing in his thought, but I want to understand him from what I read, too.

  • Margaret @ Felice Mi Fa

    How interesting. I’m self-centered enough that I want people see “the real me”, if only so that I can get credit for it. I often wonder how much I am subconsciously changing about my presentation when I think that I’m being perfectly honest and straightforward.

    • Andi

      So interest, Margaret. I hadn’t thought of it that way, either, but I’m the same. I do want people to see a truthful representation of me, BUT I also get frustrated when people think they know me from what I write. To know me, you have to actually KNOW me, you know. :)

  • jennifer

    What an interesting question. I have long argued that we don’t create, or read, in a vacuum, and that our experiences shape how we approach either the work of writing or the decoding of literature. I often think how I person reads (and what) shows more about them than about the author.

    I think even when we think we’re being totally transparent, there are still facts, nuances, and emotions that just don’t translate. We also tend to think if we know Anne Lamott is funny, then she’s funny all the time. Which may not be the case.

    I guess I don’t mind sharing details, but I sure don’t share them all. You can know me, but not all of me. I had something else to say, but I forget it now. You can decide what that means about me. 😉

    • Andi

      Yes, exactly. I share a lot of my life, as do people like Anne Lamott, but none of us shares everything. That impossible, I think. And yes, I do think our lives shape how we read and vice versa. Did you remember what you had to say?

  • Eileen

    For me, the answer to your questions would be yes. I hope the reader sees me through my words and when I read I do tend to look for the person behind the words. I know I am only giving and getting a snapshot but it’s the type of writing that resonates with me most.

    • Andi

      So Eileen, do you think there are types of writing that don’t reveal something about the writer? I’m hesitant to say they are because all writing is artiface, shaped by its creator, but I’m truly be curious to hear what you have to say about that.

      • Eileen

        That’s a good question, Andi. I’m with you, I would hesitate saying that as well. I think all writing will have aspects of who we are in it. You can’t write and not have your personality shine through (at some level) I guess that’s what makes us all unique. But I wonder if some writers write with this being the ultimate goal and others do not. I don’t know. Can you tell I’m confused? :)

  • Larry The Deuce

    I think that yes, I actually want people to know me. However, they are really only going to see the part of me that I allow them to see. I’m in control of it. There is a lot of ME that I don’t want them to see.

    • Aaron

      So do you feel you are writing to create a sort of online/literary persona?

    • Andi

      Yes, Larry. . . and in that sense, the person we present is an artiface, too, a representation of ourselves that is controlled more than our face-to-face personas are.