Biography, ‘Women Writers’ and Fetishization

A couple of nights ago, I was talking to a JRF over college dinner, and my research came up. I tend to present this differently depending on my mood and audience, and that day – for whatever reason – I chose to focus on my ethical approach.

Stevie Smith doesn’t get a lot of critical attention, I said. And when she does, the focus often seems to be on her biography and persona. I am sick of reading about her aunt, her little-girl clothes, her job as a typist. It’s as though writing is such an odd thing for a woman to do that it necessarily means she’s insane: critiquing her work becomes a kind of therapy, to locate the originary trauma in her background. The same’s often true of H.D. I want to write about their use of poetic form – to extend the same courtesy to them as we give to male writers.

None of this was particularly original, but the JRF was kind enough not to point that out. Instead, he spoke about how the crux of his research (in archaeology) involved a methodological shift, moving history and biography to the centre of the field. Biography, he suggested, needs to be fundamental to the way we analyse everything – including both women’s and men’s writing.

Of course he’s right. No criticism can or should be entirely ahistorical. But we need to be aware of the disproportionately biographical slant to much criticism of female authors, and sensitive to its sexist implications. It derives from two things.

Firstly, of course, a widely-held belief that women only write from their own experience. That they’re somehow less capable of taking an imaginative leap into worlds unrelated to theirs. (This doesn’t stop us simultaneously entertaining the notion that women are naturally more empathetic than men).

Secondly, a tendency to celebrate female writers as ‘role models’, whose lives and personae are more interesting than their writing. People enjoy identifying with female authors. They collect postcards of portraits, emulate their clothes and hairstyles, buy prints of their artfully-illustrated quotations. In my experience, they seem to be less keen on actually reading those writers. It’s got to the point where I wince when I see someone in a Sylvia Plath T-shirt, and I never want to see another novel or picture-book based on the life of Virginia Woolf. This fetishization crowds out their extraordinary talent.

So there’s a place for biographical context – an important place. But when we’re writing about women’s work, we need to be alive to the ways that their biographies have eclipsed their achievements – and deploy them, ourselves, with caution.

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