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Will All You Literary Biographers Please Be Quiet, Please?

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A little over three years ago, I interviewed Scott Donaldson here about the craft he has been practicing with distinction for more than 40 years — the researching and writing of literary biographies. At the time Donaldson was writing a book with the working title of The Impossible Craft: Literary Biography, a sort of summing up of his career, its highlights and stumbles, its maddening difficulties. In that interview I asked Donaldson why he called his chosen line of work the impossible craft. He replied, in part:
Well, because if you try to construct the ideal figure for a biographer, you realize he or she has to be so many different kinds of things that no human being could possibly achieve. You’ve got to be a detective, you’ve got to be a drudge, tracking down every possible fact you can; at the same time you’ve got to be insightful as hell, you have to be psychologically acute, you have to take an objective view of things without losing sympathy for your subject…And let’s say that the most important reason of all it’s an impossible craft is that you cannot know what someone else’s life was like.
The Impossible Craft has now been published by Penn State Press, and in it Donaldson offers this concise justification for the writing of literary biographies: “knowledge of the (writer’s) life throws light on the work and vice versa.”

This statement is debatable at best, and Donaldson acknowledges as much, citing a master writer and a master critic. “Yet,” he writes,
“it may be regarded as ‘childish,’ as Nabokov commented in his afterword to Lolita, to expect a work of fiction to reveal significant information about an author. The critic Hugh Kenner maintained that he learned more about Samuel Beckett from watching a two-hour film of him playing billiards than from Deirdre Bair’s long biography.”
Aside from the unknowability of any person’s life, there are a number of factors that make the literary biography a dubious proposition, and Donaldson, to his credit, addresses them head-on. For starters, he points out, writers are by nature expert embellishers, exaggerators, and outright liars. You simply can’t believe a word they say — unless, I would suggest, it’s between the covers of one of their books.

As John Cheever, one of Donaldson’s biographical subjects, once wrote, “I have been a storyteller since the beginning of my life, rearranging facts to make them more interesting and sometimes more significant. I have improvised a background for myself — genteel, traditional — and it is generally accepted.”

For another thing, writers live most of their lives inside their own skulls while alone in a room with the door closed. Few of them lead lives of action, or even mildly compelling activity. This helps account for the fact that literary biographies tend to be dull as dust. Exceptions who prove this rule are Ernest Hemingway (another of Donaldson’s biographical subjects), especially when he’s on a safari or in a fistfight, or Anton Chekhov in the penal colony on Sakhalin Island, or Jack London in the Klondike, or Jack Kerouac in Mexico.

Come to think of it, the only literary biography I’ve read that was also a ripping good yarn was Geoffrey Wolff’s Black Sun: The Brief Transit and Violent Eclipse of Harry Crosby. Crosby’s life — and Wolff’s account — had it all: Paris in the ’20s, old money, war, drugs, drink, wild sex, costume balls, poetry, fast cars, literary stars, and, finally, a sensational murder-suicide. What’s not to love about a story like that?

Donaldson comes at the dullness question a bit sideways. After acknowledging that the makers of great literature often have “otherwise insignificant or even reprehensible private lives,” he then takes a curious swipe not at biographies of writers but at movies about writers: “Depicting what a writer does is boring, and so it is that films about authors are almost universally awful.”

Almost. One of my favorite movies is Naked Lunch, not because I’m a particular fan of the book or of William S. Burroughs, but because David Cronenberg’s film makes such ingenious use of lizards and bugs, and he hasn’t tried to film the words that wound up on the page, but rather the warped state of mind that put them there. The movie is not about a writer; it’s about writing. That said, I’ll concede Donaldson’s point about the dreary awfulness of most movies about writers, including Henry and June (Henry Miller), The Sheltering Sky (Paul Bowles), and, at the risk of offending the Coen Brothers’ many worshipers, Barton Fink (George S. Kaufman?).

The best part of Donaldson’s book, for me, is the final section, “The Cheever Misadventure.” Maybe this is so because of my abiding love for Cheever’s writing, and maybe it’s partly because I interviewed Donaldson for a newspaper article in 1988, shortly after his Cheever biography was published, and I came away impressed by Donaldson’s acuity and his pit-bull doggedness.

Whatever the reason, I enjoyed reading Donaldson’s new account of how the Cheever biography was begun on a gust of high hopes and then got dragged through the mud of familial acrimony and legal wrangling — and how Donaldson came through the ordeal bruised but game to do it all over again because, as he puts it, “writing the Cheever was the most stimulating and fascinating work of my life.” I enjoyed Donaldson’s candid dissection of his many “mistakes” in dealing with Cheever’s widow and three children, including the blunder of allowing himself to be seen as competing with the literary ambitions of Susan and Ben Cheever. I also enjoyed Donaldson’s comparison of his Cheever biography with Blake Bailey’s more expansive, award-winning follow-up from 2009, which included this jab disguised as an admission of another mistake: “But (Bailey) fell into the trap — as I had also done in my Cheever biography — of putting in too much of what he had found out. The reader is weighed down by repetitive mentions of Cheever’s obsessive drinking, sexual yearnings, marital complaints, cruel parenting, and terrible loneliness.” If Donaldson’s Cheever book was too long at 416 pages, as some reviewers felt, then Bailey’s 770-page doorstop is a case of serious bloat. Donaldson can’t resist quoting the critic Jonathan Yardley’s withering assessment of Bailey’s “vast inert pudding of a book,” and John Updike’s lament that it made for “a dispiriting read.” Without venturing to compare the two books, I will say, having written journalism and historical fiction, that any writer who empties his notebook indiscriminately is making a fatal mistake. I, for one, am not holding my breath in anticipation of Bailey’s forthcoming biography of Philip Roth.

Much as I enjoyed reading The Impossible Craft, and much as I admire Scott Donaldson as a researcher and writer, something was happening inside me as I turned the pages. I’ve never been a big fan of literary biographies — or of non-literary biographies, for that matter — but by the time I reached the end of this book, a vague misgiving had hardened into a conviction. It was beautifully expressed by W.H. Auden when he said, “Biographies of writers are always superfluous and usually in bad taste…(The writer’s) private life is, or should be, of no concern to anybody except himself, his family, and his friends.” With a flourish, Gustave Flaubert added, “The artist must manage to make posterity believe that he never existed.” I agree with Nabokov’s assertion that it’s “childish” to expect a work of fiction to reveal significant information about an author, and I also agree with the inverse — that it’s childish to expect an author’s life to reveal significant information about his or her fiction.

In other words, with books — with any art form — the work is everything and the artist’s life and personality are nothing. I would even argue that interest in artists’ lives can be damaging because it distorts and deflects attention from what truly matters, which is the artist’s work.

So here’s a modest proposal for you: We should outlaw literary biographies. Just stop allowing the things to be made. Basta! From now on, people who want to know about the life of a writer will have to glean their knowledge from that writer’s books. Attention will be focused where it belongs, and it will be heightened, sharpened, enriched. Fiction sales will soar. As an extra benefit, writers won’t have to worry that their deplorable drunken debauches and escapades and infidelities will be captured for eternity between the covers of books. Writers will, at last, be free to be their imperfect selves.

Of course I realize it’s unlikely that my modest proposal will come to pass. It’s like hoping for a ban on semi-automatic assault rifles, or super PACs, or Jeb Bush. Ain’t gonna happen. As Donaldson concludes, “Dedicated professional craftsmen continue to write biographies for an audience of interested readers. That will not stop until humans lose their curiosity about each other and about the way they lived and loved and did their work.”

Much as I hate to admit it, he’s probably right.

Surprise Me!