The main point of fiction is that it is not nonfiction The wonderfully impenetrable process of imagination is beyond knowing.


October 25, 1998|By Steve Weinberg | Steve Weinberg,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

The assumption that there is an organic connection between the details of novelists' lives and the content of their fiction is the stuff of contemporary critical analysis. That assumption needs to be questioned.

It is dismaying to read the leaps of logic - frequently written by scholars who have never met the author - that derive from the assumption. While occasionally the linkages between life and art as posited turn out to be true, more often they turn out to be exaggerated or just plain wrong.

There are so many attempts at linkage because there are so many members of the Literary Criticism Establishment (a loose confederation, not a cabal). They see it as their business to publish analyses of every high-profile novelist, short story writer and poet. Some of the establishment's members will publish full-length accounts about writers' lives.

The genre even has a designation - literary biography. No argument there, especially from a biographer like myself. Lives of certain writers - just like lives of certain politicians, athletes, singers, convicted felons and religious saints - can be worthwhile to share with the reading public.

But too much is enough. OK, Author X suffered sexual molestation by an uncle from ages 9 through 11. Is that an interesting fact? Yes. Is that an important piece of information for readers of Author X's fiction to know?

Maybe. Does that information persuasively explain the portrayal of a secondary character in Author X's third novels? Is it the reason that Author X seems to portray most uncles negatively on the novels' pages? That is normally beyond the knowledge of a literary critic/analyst/biographer, and ought to be. Why? Because the wonderfully impenetrable process of imagination is beyond knowing. The assumption of a linkage fails to account for artistic imagination.

Novelist Amy Tan spoke out against the assumption earlier this decade. She had just read yet another analysis of how her novels related directly to her life as a Chinese-American. Exasperated with the forays into her psyche that she considered off-base, Tan wrote an essay for the Threepenny Review. She told the misguided interpreters of her fiction that she thought of herself as a non-ethnic writer. Anticipating disbelief from those whose convictions seemed unshakable, Tan commented:

"I write stories about life as I have misunderstood it. To be sure, it is a Chinese-American life, but that is the only one I have had so far. "

The most recent books about novelists that led me, once again, into this thicket are "Invisible Writer: A Biography of Joyce Carol Oates" by Greg Johnson (Dutton, 492 pages, $34.95) and "Subterranean Kerouac: The Hidden Life of Jack Kerouac" by Ellis Amburn (St. Martin's, 435 pages, $27.95).

An avid reader of Oates' fiction, I knew nothing about her formative years, nothing about her non-writing adult pursuits except that she used to teach at a midwestern university, now teaches at Princeton University and has used the pseudonym Rosamond Smith. Nor have I ever much cared about the year-to-year details.

It seemed obvious that Oates' disciplined, quiet life spent writing at a desk and lecturing in a classroom would have almost no factual resemblance to the usually depressing, sometimes desperate and occasionally downright violent existences of her memorable characters.

Some writers have vivid imaginations - who can know why and how, what portion of that imagination derives from nature, what portion from nurture? What has mattered to me during my 30 years as a consumer of Oates' fiction is that somehow she shaped her imaginings into a made-up world that readers quite unlike herself want to explore.

When I decided to read Johnson's biography of Oates, it never occurred to me that he would dare link her real life with the lives she imagined for her characters. As noted, it seemed obvious that the linkages did not exist. Rather, I began reading the biography for another reason - an explanation of Oates' writing habits, to help me understand how she turns out high-quality fiction at a faster rate than perhaps any serious novelist in U. S. history.

Johnson, a published novelist who teaches English at a university, shattered my expectations on page three of the Introduction with these words:

"I had long been curious about the relationship between Oates' work and her life. If her fiction had a central theme, it was the riddling nature of human identity, what she called in "Wonderland' the 'phantasmagoria of personality.' Like Jesse Vogel in that novel, most of Oates' major protagonists endure transformations of being that suggested the author's obsession with the self in its struggle to achieve definition, usually in the face of inimical and even violent psychological, familial and societal forces. In what ways did this artistic preoccupation reflect Oates' own personal experiences? What biographical issues underlay her fascination with twins, for instance. ... ?"

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