No one really knows which new works of art will last, but if I had to guess, I would wager that Cormac McCarthy’s The Road (2006) and Eugene Vodolazkin’s Laurus (2012) will be in print a hundred years from now and receive “the scholarly treatment.” By this, I mean these books will not only be in print but be studied in universities and written about by historians. These novels are dense, sophisticated, and can sustain tough, close reads and many rival interpretations.
Perhaps you do not think these books will last, which is fine. I only bring them up to make a rather simple point: neither of these books was published with an introduction. Most of the people who have read The Road or Laurus know almost nothing about their authors. Cormac McCarthy is old. Eugene Vodolazkin is Russian. For the average reader, little else is known, and yet both books can be understood.
McCarthy certainly has beliefs, and perhaps a hundred years from now, new editions of The Road will be published which feature lengthy introductions and biographies that contain subheadings like “Early Life,” “First Works,” and even “Beliefs,” but early readers did not find such introductions necessary. The same is true of Laurus, even though that book is set in medieval Russia, a subject about which nearly every reader is ignorant. Somehow, we managed, though. We read a book set in a bizarre world, which was only a little less bizarre by the last page, and we understood it enough to be deeply moved by it. Not only did we manage without the introduction—I think we were better off without it.
Most classic books are now published with an introduction that contains a good deal of biographical data about the author: where he was born, when, what his family was like, current politics, major events of his lifetime (war, famine), as well as his most important crimes and moral failures. Additionally, introductions can be relied on for summary essays on the book’s greatest themes and a catalogue of major theories about what it all means.
Older editions of classic books tend to not have introductions. The further back you go in history, the less likely you are to find a fat fifty-page intro in front of the first line. Most editions of The Divine Comedy or Paradise Lost that were published a hundred years ago or more don’t have introductions. Four pages from the front cover, you’re reading classic literature. It seems something happened between one and two hundred years ago which made introductions a common feature of classics—but not really necessary for new works. It seems we came to view classics as strange, incomprehensible, and dangerous.
Modern people uncritically assume introductions are necessary in order to understand classic books. This is such a deep assumption that most literature teachers begin every new work of literature with a lecture or two about the author—when and where he was born, what his parents did, whether he was rich or poor, where he went to church, who he married. If a student asked a literature teacher in the middle of an author’s bio, “Why are we talking about this?” the teacher would be absolutely flummoxed. After the stammering and confusion pass, the teacher would probably say something like, “Well, it’s important to know where the author is coming from.” But this is a platitude. It’s an unexplored, unexplained truism we have come to accept because we have heard it so often.
Why do we need to know where he’s coming from? Does Pride & Prejudice not make sense unless we know something about Jane Austen? Does Laurus not make sense unless we know something about Eugene Vodolazkin?
Nine times out of ten, knowing “where the author is coming from” is simply leverage for dismissing all the stickiest, most confrontational claims the author makes. “Where the author is coming from” means that none of his claims about truth is objective or transcendent but materially connected with his experience. All of his assertions and claims invariably arise from demographics. The introduction offers information on the author’s race, income, upbringing, religion, thus readers can tie whatever they don’t like in the book to something external to it. Of course Jane Austen says that—she’s white. Of course Eugene Vodolazkin says that—he’s Orthodox. Of course Cormac McCarthy says that—he’s actually quite rich. Well, of course you say ‘Of course’—you’re a Marxist. I guess two can play that game.
A concern for “where the author is coming from” means the author’s claims can be tied to his biography, his biography can be tied to his claim, and a tight little circle is created which keeps the reader from ever really entering into the book, submitting to it, or being judged by it. “Where the author’s coming from” may sound personal and humane (and empathetic or whatever) but often involves throwing major truth claims down the black hole of biography.
Consider for a moment that no elementary school teacher feels the need to give her students Arnold Lobel’s biography before reading them Frog and Toad are Friends, which is part of the reason such books sink so deeply into our psyches. They are like myths. They come from “the gods” or “our people.” At best, an elementary school teacher in California might say something like, “The author of our next book is a man named Arnold Lobel, who was born in Los Angeles. Were any of you born in Los Angeles? Were any of your parents born there?” That sort of biography eliminates the distance between the book and the students.
The biography and the introduction are fodder, though, with which an insecure teacher can “say interesting things.” When the characters in Mansfield Park go to Bath, the teacher can comment that Jane Austen lived in Bath for five years and did not like it. Then the class can train their attention on subtle comments made about Bath in Mansfield Park and look for further evidence the author did not care for Bath. Then the teacher can comment that Bath was a very fashionable city in the early nineteenth century, and that there were many shops there, and that in Jane Austen’s letters she seemed to care very much about money and the worth of things, and we can speculate that Austen did not care for Bath because there were many things for sale there and she could not afford them. We can test this theory against passages from Mansfield Park which deal with money and wealth and social status, and we can turn the novel into nothing more than a psychological evaluation of the author, or a shard of pottery, or anything other than a compelling investigation into human nature. I probably don’t need to tell you that these sorts of interests and concerns now dominate the humanities departments of American colleges, which is one of many reason why humanities departments are dying—and frankly, why some of them deserve to die.
That sort of journey through a book will not prompt students to go back and read it again years later. It might prompt them to read a Wikipedia entry on Jane Austen, but not to contemplate the commands and precepts and truths revealed in her work. There’s nothing about Jane Austen’s biography which is going to get the student to ask, “Am I as blind as Mr. Collins? Am I as arrogant as Lady Catherine? What must I do to undertake Elizabeth Bennett’s journey from arrogance to humility?” And it is these sort of questions the good teacher brings his students to ask.
I should say I am not suggesting all introductions and biographies should be done away with. I don’t always skip the introduction. I give a two-hour lecture on Mary Shelley’s life before teaching Frankenstein, but the point of that lecture is to bring the novel uncomfortably close to my students, not to give the novel handles so they can dismiss it whenever it gets demanding. Shelley was scarcely older than my students when she wrote Frankenstein, a fact which intrigues them and makes Shelley’s assertions about chastity and family harder to dismiss. She is not a distant, austere authority wagging her finger at them, but someone with just as little bargaining power and influence as themselves.
Neither am I making the case that scholarly work on famous authors is pointless or that people shouldn’t research Jane Austen or Dostoyevsky, which is ridiculous. I am claiming they are unnecessary to understand a book, though, and in the modern classroom, they have a tendency of being abused and exploited just so weak teachers can “say interesting things.” At best, an author’s bio collapses the distance between the author and the audience and makes the book unavoidable and imposing. At worst, the intro and bio create a safe distance from which the reader can judge the novel without having to grapple with its claims.
Next time, skip the introduction and see if the book does not hit your students quite a bit harder than usual. Put the new book in everyone’s hands, ask them to examine the cover, flip through the pages, glance at the back, and then just begin reading—apropos of nothing. Let’s see what this is about. Everyone knows the introduction is the worst part of the book. Commend common sense to your students and skip the worst part, the new part, the part that isn’t going to last, and dive right into the good stuff.