Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Do we need to know who they sleep with, and what writers are really like?

A few weeks into my first English literature class in college, I raised my hand one day and naively asked the professor if D.H. Lawrence had been bisexual.

I was totally inexperienced at the time, so who was doing what and how they were doing it was of near-constant concern to me. I also thought that maybe I was the only person in the class who knew this interesting fact about D.H. Lawrence, which I had uncovered in one of my late-night wanderings in the college library. (This was also in North Carolina, at a time when no one at the college was “out.”)

Perhaps the professor had heard this question in previous classes from other equally naive young women, or perhaps I had interrupted a particularly important lecture that day (or, perhaps, he was a closeted gay man, which I would never have thought to imagine). He slammed down his notes.

“OK, Ms. Blevins, let’s just get this out of the way right now. Stand up please.”

He took up his copy of the Norton Anthology and started to thumb through it. “Lord Byron—a homosexual. Oscar Wilde—oh yes, he was homosexual. Walt Whitman—probably a bisexual.”

I started to creep back in my chair, but the professor said, “But we’re not done here. Gertrude Stein—lesbian. Ernest Hemingway—he liked women. Tennessee Williams—definitely and positively a homosexual.”

Red-faced I continued to stand while my classmates gazed at me in amusement. Until that moment, I think I had asked reasonably smart questions and perhaps they were happy to see me cut down to size; I was no longer in contention to be a teacher’s favorite.

“Is that enough? Have I satisfied your curiosity?” he said after he continued through to the end. “Now,” he said, motioning me to sit down, “has this served any real purpose other than to waste class time today?”

“Well...” I started to say that maybe it is important to know a little about the personal lives of writers just so you’ll know why they wrote what they wrote and the way they wrote it, but I stopped myself. “No sir.”

“Good,” he said. “Now let’s get back to what’s really important.”

I’ve been thinking about that embarrassing moment recently as I continue to plough through the Collected Short Stories of John Cheever. How can what’s going on in your life not affect your fiction, or the topics of your fiction?

The more you read a particular writer, the more you can often detect a theme of interest or a subject that’s gone back to again and again, however faint the repetition. With some writers, it’s easy to detect—Jane Austen never married and you can sense that ache for love and partnership in her books, especially in “Persuasion.” Kurt Vonnegut lived through the bombing of Dresden as a POW, and there’s always a sense of the absurdity and horror of life in all his books.

But I wonder about the writers whose personal lives I don’t know that much about. Alice Munro returns to the theme of infidelity over and over in her short stories and I wonder why. Should I wonder why? Will it give me any greater perception of what she is trying to convey if I find out more about why her first marriage broke up? Or does she write about infidelity (versus Austen writing about finding a good marriage) because it’s something contemporary married women have as a possibility now, whether pursued or not?

More troubling for me is the knowledge, revealed after his death, that John Cheever was a bisexual. Is that part of the reason why so many of the married men in his short stories are unhappy and feel trapped? And what about the female character in “Torch Song” who sucks the life out of men? Is that what Cheever subconsciously thought that women do to men in real life, or was it a fictional device in this one story?

I am raising my hand here, already thinking that I should put it right down and stick my nose back in my book.

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