How much do you want to know ...?
Today I had cake and conversation with a dear friend who has been the sparking point of many ideas (and arguments) over the years. We disagree on many things, which is one reason our relationship is so rich, and one of the major things on which we disagree emerged again today.
I hate the style of literary reading that begins with the biography of the writer. I do not need to know the horrible details of Virginia Woolf's death to appreciate her writing. Disclosures about George Orwell's covert political activities in no way influence my response to his writing. I do not care whether J K Rowling or J R R Tolkein were married or not.
My view is that the writing stands alone. His view is that all the writing comes from inside the writer and so what we know of them helps us understand/appreciate what they say.
My view, increasingly, is that the writing DOESN'T come from inside the writer. The idea might, the craft assuredly does, and the bloody-minded willingness to keep going in the face of obstacles certainly does (yes, you can tell from this bitter aside that agents still don't want to read my novel) but the writing, the wider something that informs good literature, is more of a light for which we are but a lens (oh dear, that sounds a bit Mary Baker Eddy, doesn't it?) or alternatively, it's when we set aside what is inside us, and try to write without ego, that we produce something wider, or deeper, than our 'self'. Which is not to say we're not in control of the process. It's a bit more like being a boat on a river with many currents. If we insist on charting our course from a to b regardless of the current, we're leading with our ego. If we let the current help us, we're more part of the process than the whole of the process.
I'm not sure that makes sense, even to writers, and is probably totally obscure to non-writers. I think what I'm saying is that we are touched by much more experience: visual, emotional, intellectual, than we can ever properly internalise and turn into parts of ourselves. Often the things that touch us most are the least explicable to us, and it's when we attempt to illuminate what is puzzling or strange or antithetical to our own personality that we slip out of our own skins and move into the realm of creativity.
Great writers do this more effortlessly than anybody else, and that is why their own history may sometimes be a distortion of their writing - slipping your own skin allows you to write happiness when you are sad, sadism when you are a pacifist, love when you live forever alone. That's what we should look at, not the detail of biography.