The Impossible Craft: Literary Biography (Penn State Series in the History of the Book)

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Ink on Paper: On the Beauty of Typewritten Book Covers

Like many avid readers, I’m a sucker for book covers. I drink in everything about the dust jackets on hardcovers and the skins on paperbacks — the font of the title and author name, the artwork, the flap copy, the author photo and bio, the credit for the cover designer, even the blurbs. Yes, I’m also a sucker for blurbs, especially if they’re written by somebody I know, admire, or envy.

Lately I’ve been noticing something that might qualify as a trend in book covers. Though wildly different in concept and composition, these covers share something I find irresistible: the words are typewritten, usually on erratic old machines that result in subtle imperfections. The letters don’t quite line up, the spacing is uneven, the darkness of the impression varies from letter to letter because the keys were struck with erratic pressure. Many of these covers include x’ed-out or crossed-out words. They were made by a machine but they reveal a human touch, and they’re the opposite of the chilly perfection of computer-generated type, including that ersatz, too-perfect font known as “American Typewriter.”

No doubt one reason I’ve noticed these book covers — and responded so warmly to them — is because I write on a Royal manual typewriter that was built in 1948 and still works like new. But the bigger reason these covers have caught my eye and captured my heart is because they’ve so ingeniously captured the essence of the writing process. Simply put, these covers convey that writing is a messy business, a jumble of ideas, a string of false starts and dead ends and restarts. They also hint at the most central of truths: no piece of writing is ever truly finished.

So here are a few of the typewritten covers that have caught my eye recently. It’s my little analog hymn to the human touch and to the eternal beauty of ink on paper.

Can You Ever Forgive Me?: Memoirs of a Literary Forger by Lee Israel
This is one of those rare instances when the story behind the book is almost better than the cover or the book itself. Lee Israel had written biographies of Tallulah Bankhead, Dorothy Kilgallen, and Estée Lauder before her writing career hit a rough patch in the 1990s. So she acquired a small arsenal of manual typewriters — Royals, Remingtons, Olympias — and after some judicious research began forging typewritten letters and the signatures of their famous “authors,” including Dorothy Parker, Noël Coward, the silent film star Louise Brooks, Lillian Hellman, and many others. Israel then sold the forgeries for about $100 apiece — until she was arrested and sentenced to probation and house arrest. Below is a sample of Israel channeling Dorothy Parker, including the line that became the book’s title. With its mention of a hangover that’s “a real museum piece,” is it any wonder that Israel’s work fooled so many people for so long?

The cover of Can You Ever Forgive Me? includes the typewritten, x’ed-out names of several of the prominent people whose letters Israel forged, including Parker, along with Israel’s signature, which, presumably, is genuine. She died last year at the age of 75.

Can’t and Won’t: Stories by Lydia Davis
Nobody does compression like Lydia Davis, and the 41 words on the cover of her latest collection of short stories could almost be a Lydia Davis short story. In fact, if you add just seven words — “I was recently denied a writing prize…” — to the beginning of the fragment on the cover, you would have the three sentences that make up the collection’s title story. (Some of the stories consist of a single sentence.) This cover relies not on cross-outs but on the clever use of color to get its message across. Against a white backdrop, the typewritten letters are green, until you get to the titular contractions and the author’s name, which are black. Those conventional black letters are the ones that jump off the cover. Very clean and concise and counter-intuitive, just like Davis’s stories.

The Way It Wasn’t by James Laughlin
James Laughlin, the patrician founder of New Directions, called his autobiography an “auto-bug-offery.” Unfinished at his death in 1997 at 83, it’s actually more like a scrapbook, full of snapshots, snippets of published works, reminiscences, rants, and lists. The cover — just the typewritten title and a photograph of the handsome author under his signature — is far more understated than what’s between the covers. Laughlin knew, worked with, published, or had an opinion about absolutely everybody. He went to a New York Yankees game with Marianne Moore. He went butterfly hunting with Vladimir Nabokov. He was capable of delicious invective, as with this string of epithets for Paul Bowles, who he called a “hashish-eating scum-bag,” a “dog’s-behind licker,” a “vomit-drinker,” a “snot-sniffer,” and a “dribble-pisser.” This book is a welcome reminder that snark is not something new and, when done right, it can be a thing of beauty.

The Crack-Up by F. Scott Fitzgerald
The title and author of this 2009 paperback are typed on a sheet of paper that’s in the carriage of a typewriter that’s in serious trouble. The machine looks like it has just been gnawed on and spit out by a great white shark. It looks mangled and wet. Which is not a bad metaphor for Fitzgerald’s state of mind during his messy, booze-marinated decline, so poignantly captured in these writings assembled by Edmund Wilson.

Scissors by Stéphane Michaka
This French novel is spun from the testy relationship between Raymond Carver and his editor, Gordon Lish, whose heavy-handed cutting gives the novel its title. Beneath the title and author’s name, a string of typewritten words, inspired by the title of a Carver short story collection, are crossed out with a red pencil: “It ought to make us feel ashamed when we talk like we know what we are talking about when we talk about love.” The maraschino is a hand-written blurb from NPR across the top of the cover, which calls the book “(An) empathetic exploration of an author’s soul.” It’s also an exploration of the Faustian bargain Carver made with Lish in order to secure his fame.

Memories of a Marriage by Louis Begley
The cover on this 2013 hardcover shows a woman in a black dress, seen in profile, sitting on a park bench and gazing longingly into the distance. There is no man in the picture. The word “marriage” in the typewritten title is crossed out twice in lower-case letters before it survives as “MARRIAGE” in capitals. This is the high-WASP story of a man’s obsessive dissection of an old friend’s marriage, which he had believed, wrongly, was kissed by happiness. Since the novel is a quest for a narrative that requires constant revision, those repeated cross-outs of “marriage” are a perfect touch.

Disgruntled by Asali Solomon
Asali Solomon’s debut novel is the coming-of-age story of Kenya Curtis, a black girl in Philadelphia who’s trying to rewrite the conventional, confining narratives of race. The title and author’s name are typed on three sheets of colored paper — one pink, one green, one turquoise — that have been torn apart and unevenly patched together, just like Kenya’s world.

The Impossible Craft: Literary Biography by Scott Donaldson
Scott Donaldson’s new book is a meditation on his 40-year career writing biographies of Ernest Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Archibald MacLeish, Charlie Fenton, and John Cheever, among others. This cover may be my favorite of the bunch. The title and subtitle are typed in capital letters over the suit jacket of a man whose face is obscured by a great cloud of unintelligible typed letters. It’s a deft way of illustrating the book’s two warring premises: that “knowledge of (a writer’s) life throws light on the work and vice versa,” even though, as Donaldson admitted to me in an interview, “you cannot know what someone else’s life was like.” No wonder that poor biographer on the cover is drowning in gibberish.

Will All You Literary Biographers Please Be Quiet, Please?

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 worshippers, 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!

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