Space for Rent: Cultural Lens – Biographical Criticism


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This is the “classical” school of literary criticism still taught in most classrooms today. We are taught to see the work through the lens of the author’s “life and times” i.e. a historical approach to literature. It is as standard a model of literary analysis as we can get. But it does have some flaws:

  1. Reading right through the book: By concentrating on the biographical aspects of the author, the critic may read through the manuscript and use it as an analysis of the author, ignoring the inherent value of the book.
  2. I am not X: Or writer/character confusion. Most common in first person narrative, the tendency of the analyst to confuse a character (often but not always the narrator) with the writer. Character motives and ideas ascribed to the author and not the character.
  3. Lost in Allegory: Can happen with any school of criticism (or any critic) where in the critic injects or assumes symbolism where there is none.
  4. The Living Author: This method works well with authors whose bones are lost in time, but almost useless when the author is still alive and willing to comment on his/hers own work. Can lead to critical hubris to presume more about the work than the author himself.

And finally you have the most common problem to any historical approach:

Remember that these genres are basically revivals of earlier episodes of science fiction, which in turn gives us three things: a vision of today as seen through the lens of those that came before us, a vision of the past reflected in those projections of the future and a look at ourselves in the way we look at those past projections.

Take for example the works of Shakespeare. The words have survived remarkably intact over the centuries but the analysis of them and the author have changed radically over the same period of time. We have gotten to the point where we have reversed the analysis curve, we study the author based on his works not, as the theory proposes, analyzing the work with the aid of biographical facts. This is connected to the syndrome of the “Great Men in History” that I alluded to last week.  The author takes precedence over the work, and in turn, our understanding of the authors “life & times” supersedes the work itself.

While biographical analysis is useful, be weary as it can lead you into some very dark alleys of self-created allegory that have absolutely nothing to do with the words in front of your very eyes.



5 comments on “Space for Rent: Cultural Lens – Biographical Criticism

  1. Frankenstein is also a good example of this type of criticism. A lot of literary critics, and a couple of my professors, have analyzed Frankenstein based on Mary Shelly’s own experiences with death and birth. There are many parallels between Mary Selly’s life, and Frankenstein’s.

    So I do think this type of criticism is valid.


    • I didn’t say it was valid. But it does have some glaring problems that anyone who uses it should be aware of.


    • Ah, sorry that came out wrong. I think I wanted to say that this type of criticism is really important, but that is just my opinion from being in an English program. Maybe it;s cause professors hammer it into their students’s heads.


    • No problem. I also was in a English Lit program and it was hammered into me. Like I said, it is the “classical” view and one that is helpful but limited.


  2. As a writer of questionable characters and a huge fan of MarynShelley, I have to saybI hope people don’t attribute my chatacters ideals as my own. They are just characters I made up. Like an actor playing a part, I am tryingnon the shin of the characters I write.
    I am neither a rapist nor a vampire or werewolf. Neither was Mary Shelley a mad scientist nor was she trying to use her stry to change the world.

    Judge not the writer based on the characters they write.

    Great article!


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