Most writers, myself included, agonize over their author bio. I’ve read bios that read more like a lifetime achievement acceptance speech and others that are as simple as “Writer X lives somewhere on the West Coast.” When writing a bio you have to think about tone and how much personal information to include. In other words, what do you want the reader to know about you as the author?
But does a reader really need to know anything about who you are to enjoy your work? Do you need to know an author’s life story or background to understand his work? Or can you appreciate Eudora Welty’s short stories about the South without knowing she was born and raised in Mississippi? Do you need to know that Alice Munro grew up in Canada and has been married twice to appreciate her short stories, which largely take place in Canada and which typically explore the intricacies of relationships? Can you love A Farewell to Arms without knowing that Hemingway, like the novel’s protagonist Lieutenant Henry, served as an ambulance driver during World War I?
On an obvious level, of course you can. If a reader never reads an author’s biography, he can still enjoy a story on many levels. He can appreciate the simplicity or richness of the writing, the characterization, the setting details, or the intricately woven plot. He can escape into the story without needing to know a single detail about who wrote the story.
But I think you can also add another layer to the reading of a story if you know something about the author himself. The New York Times ran an article in March of this year called “’Write What You Know’ – Helpful Advice or Idle Cliché?” (http://www.nytimes.com/2014/03/30/books/review/write-what-you-know-helpful-advice-or-idle-cliche.html?_r=0)
In the article, author Zoë Heller argues in favor of writing what you know. She tells the story of a teacher who, after reading Zoë’s story about an 18th-century highwayman, told her to stick with writing what she knew. Zoë says in the article:
The first mistake I made as a schoolgirl was to assume I was being asked to write exclusively about things that had happened to me. In fact, the injunction is only to know; the business of how you come by your knowledge is left quite open. You can mine your own life, yes. But you can also sympathetically observe other people’s experiences. You can read and research. And you can use your imagination. What good writers know about their subjects is usually drawn from some combination of these sources. The problem with my highwayman story, it seems safe to say, was that I had drawn on none of them.
Personally, I agree with Zoë. I think it’s easier, and also that my stories feel more authentic and true, when I write what I know. I’m not saying that the short stories I write are creative non-fiction. But the themes I write about: relationships, sexual politics, motherhood, marriage, etc. are all themes I’m familiar with. Unlike the protagonists in my stories I’ve never (a) caught a fiancé in a compromising position with another woman, (b) interacted with a man who owned a sex puppet, or (c) hired a date to attend an ex-boyfriend’s wedding. However, if a person were to know that I’m a mom, that I’m married, that I stayed home with my kids and then went back to school for my MFA – that might be useful information to know why I write about what I write about but also, hopefully, to show that I have a familiarity with the subjects I’m writing about. Also, I’m terrible at research and tend to get too bogged down in it. It’s one thing to research the ins and out of a home birth and quite another, for me personally at least, to try to capture the specific setting of a place I’ve never visited.
This isn’t to say that an single person can’t write beautifully about marriage, or that a childless person can’t write convincingly about children. Men write from the point of view of women, gay people write from the point of view of straight people, etc., etc. But if I learned that Margaret Atwood had never spent a day in Canada and yet all her stories take place in Canada, I might be a little surprised. Could she have learned all she knew about the Canadian culture and way of life from research? Of course. But an interesting layer is added when the reader learns specific details about the author himself, details that lend the author a sense of authority.
If you’re not already doing so, check out the author’s biography the next time you finish a book or story you like and see if it doesn’t lend an interesting layer to your enjoyment of the story.