With only the rarest of exceptions…each author is presented as simply the most gifted and well-meaning of writers, while their behavior, however problematic and possibly outrageous…is invariably described in a flattering light…special pleading is everywhere evident, as if biographers were afraid that the work might be diminished by a life that was less than noble or not essentially directed toward a lofty cause.
[B]iographers apparently feel a need to depict their subjects as especially admirable human beings, something that in the end makes their lives less rather than more interesting and harder rather than easier to relate to their writing. It is so much clearer why the books were written and why they had to be the way they are if the life is given without this constant positive spin.
[O]ne can only assume that they are satisfying a general need to reinforce a positive conception of narrative art, thus bolstering the self-esteem of readers, and even more of critics and biographers, who in writing about literature are likewise contributing to the very same good causes.
The habit of imagining the writer as more well-meaning than he or she probably was is even more curious when we turn to academe. Usually hostile to any notion that knowledge of a writer’s life illuminates his work—“Biographical Fallacy!” one professor of mine would thunder—academic critics nevertheless tend to assume that the author is a solemn soul devoted to profound aesthetic enquiries and invariably progressive narratives. [emphasis added]
I would have thought the answer to Parks’ puzzlement was staring him right in the face (he flirts with it above in the line emphasized) . Biographies of writers are written by, er, writers. To write quasi-hagiography rather than biography, to suggest that the personal and the artistic can be so divorced is to also give oneself a free pass: judge me on my writing, and my writing alone. Here, the personal is not treated as political; instead, it becomes an autonomous sphere, one whose influences on a writer’s writing are not permitted to be viewed and whose consideration is not allowed to enter into any judgment of the writing, now viewed as an act radically divorced from the life that led to it. Writers are not embedded in their actions and circumstances and relationships; they are merely conduits for the expression of their art, which they bring to life by dint of their unstinting labors.
This is an exalted view to hold of others; it becomes even more pleasurable to profess such views when they lead to an exalted vision of oneself. Writing quasi-hagiographies of writers is then best understood as equal parts self-glorification and anticipatory protection of oneself against future critiques. To suggest the writer is essentially noble and virtuous despite well-known personal failings is to act to ensure a similar view of one’s own life. It is an act of writerly solidarity, an insurance policy taken out against any criticism that peeks under the hood.