Tuesday, March 23, 2010

writer myths

I recently picked up a mildewed copy of Emily Dickinson's poems, and the first thing that struck me about the book was the emphasis put on the author's reclusive nature. The dust jacket blurb, the author bio, the introduction, the preface--literally all the text in the book that wasn't actually written by Emily Dickinson--spends as much time discussing the poet's reclusive nature as it does her actual poetry.

Here's how the dust jacket blurb starts: "Known as a recluse by her New England neighbors, Emily Dickinson fashioned in private a body of verse unmatched in its vision and understanding."

Here's the first paragraph in her author's bio: "Emily Dickinson was born into a prominent family in Amherst, Massachusetts. Sociable as a child, she grew increasingly withdrawn; she discouraged visitors, and in later years rarely left the grounds of her family's home."

Here's the start of the introduction: "Now celebrated as one of America's greatest poets, Emily Dickinson is also famous for her quiet, private life. [...] she confined her activities to the grounds of the family home. She traveled out of Amherst only a handful of times, and did not marry. Later in her life she dressed all in white and acquired a reputation as an eccentric recluse."

And this is from the book's original preface: "A recluse by temperament and habit, literally spending years without setting her foot beyond the doorstep, and many more years during which her walks were strictly limited to her father's grounds, she habitually concealed her mind, like her person, from all but a very few friends..."

Why is it, I wonder, that the authors of these words are so determined to drive home the idea of Emily Dickinson as a recluse? Why can't the focus be on her poetry itself, instead on her unusual habits, her unorthodox lifestyle?

The best answer I can come up with is this: it sells books.

For some reason, building up the myth of an author seems to provoke greater interest in that author's work. It's almost as if a portion of the reading public won't feel eager to engage with writing unless they feel that the writing is the product of an interesting person. The weirder or more tragic the author's life, the greater the interest shown in their work.

Take Sylvia Plath's ARIEL, for example. It came out two years after her suicide, and you can bet the fact of her suicide was made widely known during the marketing of the book. In fact, so much attention is paid to Plath's life and untimely demise that I'm sure most people know more about her death than her poetry. And I bet you'd be hard pressed to find someone who had read even a single Plath poem without knowing anything about the author.

Personally, I'm a bit uncomfortable with this idea. I think ARIEL is a great book of poems, a book that would definitely be able to stand on its own without any accompanying author-suicide hype. But the reader is never really given a chance to directly engage with the poems without first having their reading experience 'informed' by knowledge of the author's life and death. Somehow, that feels like a lost opportunity to me.

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