Tuesday, July 19, 2005

Real Life and Fiction

I read the July 8th TLS commentary Elves on the Avon (scroll down the page) last night. Very good article especially if you are a Tolkein fan. It's about how the town of Warwick and it's surrounds had a big influence of Tolkein and how not many scholars pay attention to that because they are too busy looking at his time at Oxford. But as I was reading the essay and the arguments about how Anglo-Saxon Warwick was a model for Edoras, and a counter-argument about how some scholars try to say that some nearby barrows were the inspiration for the ones in Fellowship but the barrows that Tolkein actually used were someplace else, I got to thinking why does it matter? Why does it matter where the real life barrows are? Why does it matter if Warwick was a model for Edoras? What difference does this make to the understanding of the books? I don't see how it provides any insight into the work of literature. Sure, it gives a person a little glimpse into the mind of Tolkein--maybe (since he is no longer alive to either confirm or deny anything there is no certainty). What are people hoping to discover here? I mean, it's not like there is some great unsolved mystery in the books that such biographical and geographical delving will untangle. Nor is there any theme that will gain depth because of it. It therefore has the appearance of gossip, of celebrity hounding, of trying to be the first to find something shocking that no one else knew yet. Such delving into an author's life for clues to why he or she wrote this or that is not uncommon. And while a certain amount of biographical or geographical information can assist in understanding a work, on the whole it bugs me. I know quite a few people who think that a writer must have been molested or raped in order to write about a character who goes through it, otherwise how could they write a realistic story? Um, well, I will sometimes suggest, maybe the writer read other people's accounts and used her imagination? Nah, the other person will often insist, you can't imagine something like that. I got sucked into a lunch room conversation once about Stephen King. Now I work for a nonprofit social services agency that employees a good number of therapists (I am not a therapist, I work there pretending I know something about computers--only at a nonprofit can a person with a college degree in English Lit be promoted to database administrator and general computer "guru"). So I walked into the lunch room where several therapists were talking about books. Then one of them mentioned Stephen King and they all nodded and aahhed knowingly. Not being one to miss out on a bookish conversation I said that I liked King though there were some of his books I would never be able to read because they would give me nightmares (I'm a horror lightweight). One of the therapists then said that King must have had some kind of trauma as a child, some kind of abuse, in order to write the kinds of horror books he has and she'd love to get him into therapy so she could get that trauma out of him. Er, I said, I've read and heard King talking about his childhood and he says it was a happy childhood as far as childhoods go and that people ask him all the time what's wrong with him and he says he is perfectly fine. The therapist looked at me and suggested that King was either not telling the truth or repressing it. I couldn't think how to respond to that in a nice way, especially given that she admitted that she had never read King, only saw a few movies and heard about him. So I didn't say anything. Do people forget what writers of fiction do all day? They tell stories. They make stuff up. They use their imagination. Now I'm not saying that writers never use their own experiences, never are influenced by geography or the name of the street they grew up on. They are. Even Tolkein has commented on some of the things that inspired him while writing his books. But to comb through a piece of fiction and an author's life just to find how they correlate belittles both the imagination and skill of the writer and the resulting work. In a way it demands that a writer can or should only write from their own experience; it places a limitation on their work which, if followed, would leave literature poorer for it. We'd end up with nothing but thinly disguised autobiography and there's plenty of that already.