A writer is an open book.
By Junella Zhang, Features & Op-eds Associate Editor
In 1895, Oscar Wilde was convicted of homosexuality, a verdict that was apparently substantiated by the “gross indecency” found in his legendary novella The Picture of Dorian Gray. The English court had essentially used Wilde’s work of fiction as evidence of his personal circumstances, a notion that is undoubtedly inconceivable to most people today, myself included. There is no such thing as an interpretation, especially of a fictitious story, so absolute that it can be used as an objective indication of the artist themself.
In no way, however, should artwork be understood as something entirely removed from the artist’s own politics and philosophies. Even if we were to exclude political fiction and dystopia—genres whose primary objective is to inform the audience of the author’s opinion—creative writing is not purely creative: no text can be fully divorced from its author’s identity and environment. Some writers insist otherwise (many of my friends recognize art as a form of escapism and liberation from their own lives), but to them I say: Writing does not give the writer wings that lift them away from reality; writing gives the writer a shovel so they can dig deeper into their identity, their frustrations, their passions, and their unspeakables. Then they cleverly disguise the chasm they’ve created with some top soil and write it off as that of the characters.
No amount of fanciful language can convince me that Alias Grace is not a product of Margaret Atwood’s feminism, or that Amir’s disturbingly authentic childhood in The Kite Runner took form out of thin air. Who is Tom Ripley if not Patricia Highsmith in an alternate universe? And had Rupert Brooke loved his country any less (or, as some might argue, if he’d been any less ignorant of war), he could not possibly have been able to serenade England with as much adulation as he did in “The Soldier”. Writers fully depend on their own experiences to create compelling characters and narratives, a concept encapsulated by Mark Twain’s (or Ernest Hemingway’s) famous mantra, “Write what you know.” But let’s tweak that a fraction. Write what you believe in. Because where does one find the conviction to write a 300-page work of literature, let alone a 300-page work of good literature, without believing in the writing itself? Where does knowledge exist besides in opinion and personal experience? Where does knowledge exist without belief?
To me, writing appears to be a particularly conceited type of art, one that requires those who partake in it to be in possession of an incredibly inflated ego. This idea is corroborated by Negotiating with the Dead, Atwood’s version of the “writing on writing” book expected of most accomplished authors. She introduces her work by listing reasons why writers – published, famous writers – write. The first one reads,
“To record the world as it is.”
Then: “To produce order out of chaos.”
Then: “To reward the virtuous and punish the guilty.”
Then: “To hold a mirror up to Nature.”
Then: “To express the unexpressed lives of the masses.”
Then: “To create a national consciousness.”
Then: “To demonstrate that whatever is, is right.”
Then: “To speak for those who cannot speak for themselves.”
Then yes, writers are egoists. After all, they assert, with nothing but their perception of the world as evidence, the nature of human beings and the workings of identity, life, and existence. It demands of an individual a supreme self-confidence to declare their subjectivity to be required reading. (But they’re forgiven! Because while they are audacious, they are also entertaining.)
But to what extent does an artist’s life, or perception of life, inform their artwork?
A person’s writing is foremost an indication of their understanding of the art itself. One who sees writing as nothing more than a medium through which to convey themselves will produce vastly different work from one who reveres writing as an entity independent from the story. A reader can distinguish between an author who loves to write and an author who would rather simply story-tell. Hemingway’s journalism background clearly influences his pithy writing style, whereas Tolkien’s mastery of linguistics grants him range and versatility. Gabriel Garcia Márquez’s love for writing is contagious; E. L. James, maybe a little less.
I also believe that while what a writer does write is not necessarily a comprehensive appraisal of themselves, what a writer doesn’t write absolutely is. Personally, I refuse to touch topics that I radically loathe – because I typically end up sounding childish and incoherent in my haste to badmouth whatever it is that I hate so much – and topics that I am afraid of, mostly due to ignorance. I am terrified of describing emotions that I have never felt or foods I have never tasted. The Three-Body Problem is good because Liu Cixin has an education in science and engineering, and The Martian is good because Andy Weir loves and studies space. But if I wrote a novel on malfunctioning wormholes and stranded astronauts, it would be nothing short of sacrilegious (I still struggle to differentiate velocity from acceleration at times). There is a limit to how far writers can empathize with an experience without actually having undergone it.
So while literature may not reveal an author’s morals, it represents their attitude towards art and beauty, a bit of their personality, and also simply things that pique their interest. Is the writer textbook or experimental? Are they observant or impatient? Straightforward or mysterious? Distant or intimate? Do you even like them?
Do you even like me?