Thursday, March 25, 2021

Quote of the Day (Penelope Fitzgerald, on Writing Biographies vs. Novels)

“On the whole I think you should write biographies of those you admire and respect, and novels about human beings who you think are sadly mistaken.”—British novelist-biographer Penelope Fitzgerald (1916-2000), in a 1987 letter to her American publisher, Chris Carduff, in So I Have Thought of You: The Letters of Penelope Fitzgerald, edited by Terence Dooley (2008)

In one sense, I agree with Ms. Fitzgerald (who chronicled the lives of her father and three uncles in The Knox Family): For the biographer, it may be enormously difficult to spend years researching and writing about a figure you despise (or come to despise, as Lawrence Thompson did while producing his three-volume life of Robert Frost).

But in another sense, I must take issue with her. For readers, learning about a hateful figure—particularly one possessing power—is crucial in ensuring that the influence of such people is never wielded again.

Even for people in between—more complicated types, like Ernest Hemingway—putting distasteful details in the full context of their lives and times can demonstrate why their work matters and endures, despite their considerable personal failings.

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