The biographical literary critic believes that a work can best be understood by investigating the life of the person who wrote it. There is a difference between the biography of a person and biographical criticism, though. The biography of a person is the history of that person, information that stands on its own merit. Biographical criticism is not concerned with the history of the person for any other reason than to add insight into the work that the person produced.
There are a few problems dealing with biographical criticism that the biographical critic must take into account. The biggest problem is that writers tend to embellish on the facts of their own lives think about it they are writers after all! Perhaps a successful author wants to conceal certain undesirable facts of his or her history he or she may make up things that never happened in real life, or may leave out important event that did happen. Say a writer grew up in an abusive family and wants to use his or her new success to help overcome that. He or she certainly isn’t going to go around advertising that information. As a result, a writer may tell tall tales of growing up on yachts and being guest of honor at a prestigious neighbor’s dinner party, when the truth is that the person didn’t even own a Jon boat and the only dinner party he attended was the one where he was the waiter.
Another danger for the biographical literary critic is the potential for the biography of the writer to overshadow his or her work. Biographical critics should be very cautious of this fact. Biographical criticism is designed to enhance the meaning of a piece of work, not to over shadow it.
None-the-less, knowing certain things about a writer can add a completely different spin to what they have written. This is what the biographical critic is aiming for. Things that would have otherwise been skipped right over may jump off the page screaming when viewed from a new fact about the writer. This is especially important in poetry, because it underscores subtleties, important nuances of the poem.
Biographical critics recognize that writers draw from personal experience when developing their poems and stories, and these personal experiences give the piece an undertone that is significant to the work. Kennedy points out that knowing a person committed suicide at 41 makes us pay more attention to key elements of a poem that was written by that author.
Literature, An Introduction to Fiction, Poetry, Drama, and Writing, 11d, X. J. Kennedy and Dana Gioia, © 2010.