A Writer’s Life: Interested or not?

A Death in the Family Recently I was asked by a friend what I thought she ought to put in her biographical notes for a novel she’s submitting to a few agents. She’d been looking through those short paragraphs which preface most books – sometimes only a line or two if the author’s particularly cagey. I always look at them – perhaps you don’t – but it made me think about what I want to see there and why I’m drawn to them. I suppose I’m interested in how the writer’s life might have influenced the book I’m about to read. What it comes down to for me is this: I like to know when and where they were born, a little of what they’ve done with their lives other than write and I’m quite interested in where they live now but that’s just pure nosiness. If it’s a book of non-fiction, I like to have an idea of their credentials on the subject. I’m not interested in a long list of obscure awards or whether they’re married or not. Writers’ memoirs are usually a step too far for me but clearly not for many readers as Karl Ove Knausgaard’s runaway six-volume success illustrates. Short and pertinent is what I’m after, I suppose. What about you? Do you ignore biographical notes or are you interested, and if so what do you like to see included?

26 thoughts on “A Writer’s Life: Interested or not?”

  1. I like to know a little about the author to ‘place’ them – but what I really want to know, & appreciate more, is the why what when where & how circumstances that inspired the story

  2. Timely post for me. I’ve always struggled with my writer bio. But with a novel I don’t want a great deal of author information, but I do like it to be written in a way that somehow links to the novel itself.

  3. A little but not too much is a very good way to describe it. Some of them start to sound very ‘samey’ – this author has been everywhere and done everything, i.e. a drifter, who’s trying to sound interesting? But, for instance, for a book I recently read ‘Hausfrau’, it helped to find out that the author was for a while an expat wife in Zurich, so she has experienced what she writes about in the novel. I don’t think I’m in danger of believing it to be very autobiographical though…

    1. It’s the long list of obscure awards plus the name of every publication they’ve ever written for that I find tedious. Background information is very useful, even essential in the case of Hausfrau.

  4. This is particularly interesting to me as my publisher asked me for a bio of around 150 words for promo info for my debut. I struggled to get the balance right between a mix of personal and professional details.As a reader, I’m always interested in reading the bio to get a sense of where the writer’s POV might be coming from re life experience etc.

    1. I hope some of the comments will be useful to you, Helen. You and Anne seem to be struggling with the same problem. Looking forward to hearing more about your debut.

  5. I found this post fascinating, Susan. Have to admit I never, ever read author bios. I think perhaps it comes from my days as an art student when a lot of emphasis was put on the artist’s personality and life history, which I felt coloured my judgement of the work. I sort of feel the same about books. I like to read them blind. For me it doesn’t matter whether the writer is male, female, old, young, or indeed what their life experience has been. I like the work to speak for itself. I assumed no one read the bios (evidently VERY wrong in that!) so made mine as short and spare as possible. Am now having a rethink – eek!

    1. I hope the post’s helped rather than alarmed you, Karen. I understand what you mean about the work standing for itself but I also think that we all bring our experience and what we know of the world to what we create. I should admit that some of my curiosity is just nosiness but I sometimes find myself flipping back to the biographical notes to see if the author has lived through a particular period, or in a particular place that they’ve written about. I should tell you that I’m also a sucker for acknowledgements but we may well be in anorak territory there!

  6. I always read them! I’m with you on short and pertinent plus credentials for non-fiction as you say. But, I would add a context-setting sentence for the novel. I like to know where the novelist is based too. It all helps me to decide on reading a book.

    1. That’s interesting, Annabel. Thinking about it, I check the notes for non-fiction but not fiction before buying.

  7. I rarely read the blurb because I once stumbled across a – detailed – online author bio that made me really dislike the writer of the book I was reading and it ruined the experience for me. However, once I’ve read a couple of books by the same person I like to be nosey and see the in-book introduction. By then I figure I like their writing enough to not have my opinion changed but I’m always grateful that the bios are short just in case.

    1. Oh dear, not a happy experience. I’m with you on wanting brevity rather than exhaustive detail, Erica. There are always lots of interviews online for readers who want to know more rather than having lengthy notes in the book, itself.

  8. I put one line. I hope my work speaks for itself, and I do expand on the background to the novel in talks. I tend to skim over writers biographies, unless they have won awards

    1. That’s interesting. I sympathise with not having much to do with biographies, though – Siri Hustvedt is one of the writers I most admire but I wouldn’t want to read her autobiography, for instance.

  9. When I first read this post my intial reaction was a horrified one – biographical details? Hell, no. Then I realised I had my teacher head on; I’ve read far too many terminal exam papers for GCSE English Lit that begin with a potted biography of the writer because some teacher somewhere’s either told the students the information or gone so far as to tell them it’s a good idea to include it in their answer.

    As a reader, I’m actually not that bothered anymore. I quite like coming to books knowing nothing. If I really want to know details, I’ll google the writer in question – or find them on Twitter! I am nosy but I don’t see why it should have any bearing on what they write – fiction’s made up, innit?

    1. Impossible not to bring your experience of the world to it when writing, no? That’s why I like a little pertinent information but not six volumes of it!

      1. Well, yes. But your experience of the world and the ideas you write about in fiction aren’t necessarily going to be covered in the bio in the back cover. Thinking about my own work, knowing where I live and study and that I’m married to a man isn’t going to give you any insight into why I write about circuses and the diverse range of characters I include, only an interview could tease out that information.

  10. I do always read them. I think they work best when fairly brief. It’s good to be able to place the author within some kind of context – time, place etc. I like bios that leave me intrigued enough to search out more information should I want it later.

    1. That pretty well sums up my feelings about it, Ali. I may find I want to know more as I read the book but it’s very easy these days to track down interviews or articles about an author.

  11. Pingback: Author acknowledgements: Interested or an anorak’s secret pleasure? | A Life In Books

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