Today I ran across this charming piece about one of Shirley Jackson’s author bios over at Literary Hub. (Consider this another of my eternal plugs for signing up for their newsletter, which is great.)
Apparently the bio–to be included with Jackson’s 1948 novel The Road Through the Wall–was written by her husband, and it includes the following delightful details:
- “She plays the guitar and sings five hundred folk songs…as well as playing the piano and the zither…”
- “[She] is perhaps the only contemporary writer who is a practicing amateur witch…”
- “She is passionately addicted to cats, and at the moment has six, all coal black…”
- “She does not much like the sort of neurotic modern fiction she herself writes, the Joyce and Kafka schools…”
I’m a die-hard Shirley Jackson fan and would have loved the article no matter what, but while reading it I was especially struck by how much author bios affect my love of books no matter who the author in question is. Shirley Jackson’s witchy reputation made her career (even as it earned her plenty of angry letters from busybodies), and I’m sure that author bios have held uncanny power over many other authors’ careers, as well.
If an author has a long and quirky bio like Jackson’s, that tells you something about their fiction; Jeff VanderMeer has a particularly strange one included in the paperback edition of Annihilation, an extremely strange–and wonderful–book that definitely has whiffs of Jackson to it.
If their bio is barren of anything other than where they live and their previously published titles, that tells you something too: Rachel Kushner’s bio at the back of The Mars Room is no more than one dry sentence long, as if the publisher (and author) are asking you to view the book in a vacuum.
Bios rarely make me feel like I know the author better; rather, they add a particular flavor of mystery that, in its own strange way, can make or break my reading experience. They are an elaborate art form all their own. A long and flowery bio at the end of a book as harsh as The Mars Room would have felt tone-deaf in the extreme, but to be left with nothing at the end of Annihilation–or a Shirley Jackson novel–would be a missed opportunity.
Of course, fairly or unfairly, I put the author bios included in memoirs under even more scrutiny. I read Cheryl Strayed’s bio at the end of Wild over and over, trying to glean some extra mystery and meaning from a book that already offered plenty. I did the same to Leslie Jamison’s bio in The Recovering: Intoxication and its Aftermath, a harrowing memoir-slash-journalistic-deep-dive about alcoholism and addiction. I’m not sure what information I was trying to grasp: that she was okay? That she was writing from a place of healed authority? Either way, my expectations were unfair, but I tried to satisfy them anyway.
Such is the power of the author bio. I don’t understand them, but I can’t stop myself from poring over them.
You can read the rest of Shirley Jackson’s lengthy and mischievous bio, along with some other charming biographical details about her work, over at Literary Hub.