In her review of Claire Tomalin's new biography of Thomas Hardy, Julia Keller proclaims that
Life, alas, can't hold a candle to art. Life is ordinary. Life is boring. Life is a stack of day-old dirty dishes in a crusty sink. Life is a pile of soiled laundry. Life is pettiness and tedium. Life is a blouse with a button missing.
Art, though, can be colorful and unexpected and dynamic, and never more so than when it's contrasted with the dreary predictability of life. Thus the biographers of artists must confront a special challenge: How to calibrate the life with the art. How to make the business of living--paying bills, trimming toenails--measure up to the splendid bounty of creativity: novels, plays, poems, paintings.
One would think that, given the general accuracy of that first paragraph, the proper conclusion to draw might be that biographies, especially biographies of artists and writers, and especially biographies of the junk heap variety (if a scrap of information exists, throw it on), are by and large a waste of time. No "calibrating" of life and art is necessary. The dreary reckoning of the "business of living" is never going to equal in its interest value the "dynamic" experience of works of art and literature, and I finally just don't understand why anyone finds it helpful to supplement the experience of art with investigations into the lives of artists. Why would I want to read about "pettiness and tedium," no matter how much they've been gussied up by the biographer's "insight"?
My own latest attempt to read a biography of a writer whose work I admire, Robert Poltito's Savage Art: A Biography of Jim Thompson, predictably enough only met with failure (my own failure to complete it). I knew almost immediately that I probably wouldn't make it through the book when I noticed from the table of contents that only a relatively small portion of it was devoted to Thompson's actual writing life. (His most productive period as a writer, the early/mid 1950s, is given about 60 pages in a 508-page book.) Two-thirds of the book is devoted to Thompson's life before he became a writer, and it is packed with the same kind of eye-glazing detail, about the subject's parents and his parents' parents, about the various places in which he lived, about his adventures as a young man, that fills most such door-stopper biographies. Nothing in the book illuminated Thompson's work, the discussions of which amount to plot summaries and tallies of the money Thompson was paid. If anything, I was left with even less understanding of what Thompson was after in his novels, or how his best ones are as good as they are, than before I read Polito's book.
Keller further asks of a "subject" like Thomas Hardy: ". . .what if the artist was a bit on the drab side? What if he wasn't noisy and rude and randy? What if he simply did his job each day, faithfully and well, with little fuss or fanfare?" It seems to me that these questions answer themselves. If we already know such things about a writer, no biography is needed. What else do we need to know? Exactly how he went about being drab? And even if the writer was "noisy and rude and randy," do we need to know the particulars in order to appreciate the work he managed to produce in his quieter moments? Jim Thompson's life was apparently on the noiser side (although Polito recites the facts of his Communist years, of his drinking and his occasional low-living in such a dry and prosaic manner it's hard to hear it), but learning the known facts about how he lived it still falls far short of the uproariousness of The Killer Inside Me or The Getaway or Pop. 1280. Why do we think the proper way to respond to works of poetry and fiction we have enjoyed is to fixate on the "life" of those who created them?
Life indeed can't hold a candle to art.