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.
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?