“Some readers and commentators really want to scrape your insides out to make sense of your work. Others say, there’s the work, it speaks for itself.” Thus J. K. Rowling recently on NPR’s Morning Edition talking about her wish to “start over” as an unknown author when she adopted the name Robert Galbraith for her mystery writing. I suspect that the choice of imagery tells us where she stands on the issue.
I too find it difficult to understand why people are so keen to know details of their favorite authors’ lives. Just the other day I was having a conversation about this. The idea that Shakespeare didn’t write Shakespeare’s plays is a sorely beaten horse, but it just won’t lie down and die. Lord Francis Bacon, the Earl of Essex, Christopher Marlowe, the Earl of Derby, the Earl of Rutland, the Earl of Oxford, and even Queen Elizabeth I have been touted as contenders in a conspiracy-theory-like debate over the last century and a half. I say what does it matter? The person I was talking to admitted that his fascination with Shakespeare’s true identity could be compared to the pleasure one gets from reading a good mystery, but insisted (correctly, I have to admit) that that doesn’t make it a worthless activity. But I’m with the New Criticism in my disdain for this biographical fallacy. In reading D. H. Lawrence you do get the feeling that this the sort of guy who’d run off in with a professor’s wife in a fit of passion. But I don’t really think that knowing about Professor Weekley’s troubles adds anything to my appreciation of Women in Love etc. Indeed I might be willing to argue that biographical knowledge of the author was rather a barrier to enjoyment of the work: you have to spend time puzzling over the relationship of this plot twist to that real-life event, rather than taking it in as part of the story, which to me is what it should be all about. But on this as on all things, alii alia sentiunt.
Here’s a piece from The OUP blog seeking to tell us about Shakespeare’s reading in the classics. It cleaves to orthodoxy of course. Charlton Ogburn, who’s vast and rather manic book, The Mysterious William Shakespeare, opts for the Earl of Oxford as the real “Shakespeare”, cites the knowledge of classics as one of his “proofs”. The whole craze has basically been driven by snobbery — the literati can’t stand it that a country lad could possibly have been so clever. Get over it: the plays were written by someone we call Shakespeare, about whom we know very little. So what?