How Important is Context to Understanding Literature?

Catherine of The Gilmore Guide to Books published a thought-provoking post on Friday. The week before, she had reviewed Michel Faber’s The Book of Strange New Things, which she felt was “emotionally sterile,” and “carefully controlled.” But after listening to a short interview Faber did on NPR, in which Faber reveals his wife was diagnosed with incurable cancer while he was writing this novel, Catherine saw the book in a different light. But, she asks, should an author’s personal background be taken into consideration when reviewing a book, or should the work be judged on its own merit? It is a fascinating question, and I wanted to take some time to work through my own thoughts on this issue.

I am not an expert on literary theory, but I’ve noticed a few competing approaches to analyzing texts that I think are important to consider. This post is NOT technical or scholarly; I will just briefly describe three approaches (as I see them) as broadly as possible.

One approach a reader might take when reviewing a book is to consider only the text, divorced from context. This approach argues an author’s background and intentions are irrelevant to understanding the book. He* shouldn’t have to tell the reader his intentions; if the text is effective, the reader will understand his message.

Another approach views context as much more important in understanding a book. A reader taking this approach might argue that literature is not created in a vacuum; many forces impact how and what an author writes, and understanding these forces gives the reader a deeper insight into the meaning of the text. A piece of literature says things about society, and a reader must know about the conditions of that society in order to appreciate what the author is saying.

A third approach primarily considers the reader’s response to a text. Edmund Wilson said “No two persons ever read the same book.” This approach views reading a subjective experience; although the author may have one intention, readers may interpret a book in many different ways — and this experience is the one that counts. If a reader draws one connection, then it IS there, whether or not it is the connection the author wants him to make.

I think I look at literature with a combination of these three approaches. I tend to think a book should be able to stand on its own; you shouldn’t have to know the author’s background to “get” the meaning of the book. The author’s experiences inform his writing, and if he does a good job, his writing will ring true and his message will come across.

But on the other hand, I find that when I read classics, I have a much deeper understanding and appreciation of the text when I know the context in which it was written. I think it is important to know about Kurt Vonnegut’s war experiences when reading Slaughterhouse-Five, The Bell Jar takes on extra meaning when you know it was based on Sylvia Plath’s life, and Pride and Prejudice may seem trivial if you don’t know just how important it was for a woman to marry well in Victorian England. These are incredible books on their own, but I KNOW that understanding the context in which they were written helps me understand them — especially when I don’t have first-hand experience with the forces that impacted these authors’ writing.

And finally, I believe we each come to a book with a different set of life experiences that inform our reading. This means people can have very different reactions to the same book, and it makes belonging to the literary community fascinating. Different experiences and mindsets could explain why some people love The Book of Strange New Things while other people feel ambivalent about it.

As for Catherine’s question about whether a book should stand on its own, or whether knowing an author’s background should inform her interpretation of a book, I don’t think there is a right or wrong answer. I think it’s totally fine to have conflicting feelings and to say, “On its own, this book fell flat for me, but learning more about the author made me see it differently.” Literary criticism isn’t a perfect science — and how boring would it be if it was?

How do you approach reviewing books? Do you focus objectively on the text (and only the text), consider the context or the author’s background, write solely about your experience reading the book, or do you use an idiosyncratic combination of all three approaches?

*I am using the masculine pronoun because this post was sparked by a discussion of a male author. Can we get a gender-neutral singular pronoun in English, please?

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23 thoughts on “How Important is Context to Understanding Literature?

  1. Ahh, this is a fascinating question! I agree with you when it comes to approaching classics: knowing the background helps with the understanding a great deal. When I’m reading for pleasure otherwise though, it rarely plays a part. Although, there are times when knowing an author’s back story does make it more emotionally charged. Recently I read Marina Keegan’s The Opposite of Loneliness, and the fact that she died tragically after writing about how she is only 22 and had all the time in the world made the book far more emotional to read than if she was still writing. I think it depends, but in most cases, an author’s history doesn’t impact me very much. Great post!

  2. What a wonderful and thought provoking post!! I agree with all of what you say here. I venture into a book sometimes with back story and sometimes blind. My first reaction when reviewing is usually how I felt while reading, though. Sometimes books fall flat and that might be because of context or because it didn’t evoke any emotion. I just couldn’t find a connection. But there are times when I look into an author’s bio and find that I appreciate the story a bit more because of what triggered the story in the first place. It usually doesn’t change my feelings for the story but it does help me appreciate their art more as a writer and as a person. It also gives me the “ok” to try and read their other works without writing them off completely. But I do agree 150% about reading a piece of literature that might seem foreign in today’s society. I am a huge fan of Austen and like you appreciate the context of the Victorian age and even more so how she bravely wrote her novels that today seem to some readers as “anti-feminist” or “trivial”. I take the approach like I would sci-fi and put aside my own beliefs and try to imagine a world unlike my own when times were completely different.

  3. I think a work of fiction should definitely be able to stand on its own. However, I usually appreciate it even more when I know a bit about the author and what led them to write the book. When it comes to reviewing, I am a mixed bag. Sometimes, I just concentrate on the book and the parts I liked, but other times I bring the author’s life into it a bit more, or the author’s other books and experiences, if I think it’s relevant. It really all depends on the book and my reaction to it. Sometimes a book is so good that you just want to squeeze everything you can out of it, and sometimes a book is just a book. Great post!

  4. Great post! I think a book *should* stand on its own. If an author’s circumstances change the way you feel about a book then that’s fine as well. Reading really is subjective and I think I come at books in every manner possible 😀

  5. “Fe” is a gender neutral pronoun. A friend of mine used it when discussing her as-yet-unborn baby. They wanted to be surprised about the sex :).

  6. Such a thought-provoking post, Leah! Based on the impact Faber’s interview had on me, I’d say I generally focus on the story/text itself. Quite honestly, of your examples, Sylvia Plath is the only personal story I knew before reading The Bell Jar. I think, maybe, I would be more swayed to a more sympathetic (and possibly favorable) position if I knew too much personal back story. Which was a bit of the case with Faber but mostly, it just made more sense to me. Aargh- it’s a slippery slope!

  7. I think I tend to focus on the text and cultural context, but not personal context as much. I mentioned in the comments on Catherine’s blog that when it comes to music, I definitely consider personal context, though, pretty much automatically. Which makes me wonder why I don’t do the same for fiction… :/

    • Oh, that’s a really interesting distinction. I wonder if it’s because songs tend to be more personal than the plot of a novel; I think it’s easier to draw the connection that “he wrote this song after breaking up with so-and-so” than “he wrote this book about going into space when his wife had cancer.” Songs tend to be more about autobiographical than books? Of course, some books are autobiographical, but it seems like most songs are (in certain genres, anyway).

  8. I think you find a combination of the three honestly. The ones that have become classics or so widely read are those that anyone is able to identify with without having to know much about the time period or author and be of such diverse life experiences it doesn’t really matter. But the ones that are often overlooked or critiqued the most if you take that broader approach of looking at the author or when they’re writing you might find that the story has that much more to it.

    It’s strange but I think that’s why many of the modern classics have stories attached to them about either the authors life or the time it was written to place it in context even though it’s not necessarily required.

  9. Well, I think you pretty much have to focus on the text. Not everyone who reads a book is going to know the background.

  10. This is such an on-going discussion in literary studies! I have had different experiences with very different professors in this issue, and the one that I like the most is…

    To approach my books from a postmodern perspetive, meaning that I use the most recent theories (philosophical, gender studies, psychiatry, etc) and get my impressions while reading the book. I don’t think you can say ‘I’m going to use this theory to analyse this book’ before reading it, but, rather, the process of reading, you, as a subject, associate what you know (which comes directly from your life experiences in which your studies play a great role) with the text. If you happen to know the context, then, fine! But thankfully, there almost no professor out there asking students to memorise Shakespeare’s lovers’ names to relate them to his works!

    So, basically, there are as many versions of a book as times it is read, even by the very same person, because we bring different things every time since we are ‘fluid subjects’.

    Disclaimer: I know not everyone agrees with postmodern theories, actually, they are VERY controversial, but they grant you (me, actually) the freedom to approach a book in a very free and complex way. For example, I just wrote an academic article about forensic psychiatry in Gone Girl. How cool is to feel that I can write it and actually do it? Isn’t it an inspiring way to approach knowledge?

  11. I tend to approach the books I read objectively and focus on how I respond to the book, not only to the language of the book, but also to cultural context of the book.

  12. Late to the party, but I love this question and few questions provoke me to write. For me, It depends on MY audience. If I am writing or talking privately to my best friends, the personal (my own_ and the author’s personal story here called “context”) may interest me more. If I am being formal — and writing in a more protective — and distanced mode, I might just stick with the book and only reveal a limited glance at myself.(After all, do my readers — whoever they are — really care about me or am I just getting in the way?) I also think each book suggests its own questions — and sometimes context is important, sometimes,not so much.

    An example of personal reaction/ and author’s personal story: For me the works of Neil Gaiman, which I am currently delightedly going through one by one: My “personal” reaction is that he brings me closer to a younger generation of readers, to my son, and my friends’ children. At 65, I like him. I like him a lot, but I think if I were say 25 or 30 or 35, I think I would adore him, the way I once adored Kurt Vonnegut when I was those ages. If I were to analyze my reading — I might like to explore why this is so. it’s an interesting question — for me and maybe for others around my age.

    I am also fascinated that Gaiman wrote comic books/graphic novels first and that he grew up in a home that was Scientologist/Jewish spiritually. I think both explain something about the way his incredible mind works and how playfully and seriously he talks about Gods — though it would take a lot of work to draw real connections — and I’m not the one to do it.

    So all three depending…..

    Why are you writing, reading? Who are you writing/analyzing for? Why might they care what you have to say?

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