Reading About a Writer Like a Writer

In a funny, thoughtful piece for the Smart Set, Nick Mamatas considers his obsession with literary biographies, and how he uses them as a benchmark for his own successes and failures as a writer. “Did Nathanael West only make $780 in royalties?” he writes. “Gee, me too. And if Lovecraft got a penny and a half per word out of Weird Tales, I managed five cents a word from that same magazine only 77 years later.” The piece isn’t just an exercise in self-deprecation, though: He uncovers a handful of common themes among the biographies he’s read, including alcoholism (of course), involvement in the Communist Party, and financial struggle.*

Mamatas is slightly less enchanted with writers’ memoirs, though that’s mainly because he seems to have lousy luck in choosing them: If Gay Talese and Larry McMurtry have trouble staying on point, there are plenty of other writers who are less prone to ramble. In the past few months I’ve enjoyed biographies of Raymond Carver, Evelyn Waugh, Pearl S. Buck, Richard Wright, and Nathanael West and Eileen Kenney (that last one would be Marion Meade‘s Lonelyhearts, which has taken a bit of a beating from critics, somewhat unfairly I think). But I don’t share Mamatas’ obsession with them, partly for the reasons he lays out: Those common themes can be so easily categorized because the books often feel like they’re more about those outside forces than the writer under discussion. Lonelyhearts is about the Great Depression, and how one might live well during it; Carver’s biography is about alcoholism and the vicissitudes of the publishing industry in the 70s and 80s; Buck’s is about Americans’ willful ignorance about China; Waugh’s is about the last gasp of Victorianism among its wealthy, freewheeling, homophobic classes. All worthy subjects, but they often obscure the more essential question of how the writer felt about being a writer.

That’s part of the appeal of David Lipsky‘s transcription of his 1996 road trip with David Foster Wallace, Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself: It’s as close as we’ll ever come to a memoir from Wallace. But because he’s so careful about how his words might be manipulated into a glowing or critical profile, he talks himself into a sincerity he might not have come by if he was free to manipulate the words on a computer. As Wallace tells Lipsky, “I got a serious investment in having a certain amount of detachment from this.” He’s stage-managing his persona, but to the end of avoiding hagiography or tragic narrative.

Of course, biographers can quote heavily from writers talking about their own writing. But they can’t capture the author’s feelings of fear, excitement, and desperation in a way that echoes the writer’s own work. Whoever winds up writing Paul Auster‘s biography will quote heavily from his memoir, Hand to Mouth, but nothing will conjure up Auster’s absurd anxiety about selling his first book quite like the book itself. Joan Didion‘s The Year of Magical Thinking isn’t strictly a memoir of her life as a writer, but it has plenty of moments that show the precision with which she approached it. Going over the first article she wrote after her husband’s death, “I was startled and unsettled by how many mistakes I had made: simple errors of transcription, names and dates wrong…. Would I ever be right again? Could I ever again trust myself not to be wrong?”

The book doesn’t have to be a memoir, strictly speaking, to show something of the author. The charm of Francine Prose’s Reading Like a Writer has as much to do with her personal remembrances as her close readings of stories and novels. On the day the space shuttle Challenger exploded, Prose suffered a long wait at a bus station, followed by a tedious bus ride. But then she sank into the copy of Anton Chekhov‘s stories she brought along:

I never had to read more than a page or two before I began to think that maybe things weren’t so bad. The stories were not only profound and beautiful, but also involving, so that I would finish one and find myself, miraculously, a half hour or so closer to home. And yet there was more than the distraction, the time so painlessly and pleasantly spent. A sense of comfort came over me, as if in those thirty minutes I myself had been taken up in a spaceship and shown the whole world, a world full of sorrows, both different and very much like my own and aslo a world full of promise. It was if I had been permitted to share an intelligence large enough to embrace bus drivers and bus station junkies, a vision so piercing it would have kept seeing those astronauts long after that fiery plume disappeared from the screen.

Passages like that make me think that not only is a biography of Prose unnecessary, but that Prose herself needn’t write a formal memoir. Sometimes the only thing we’re really hunting for when we read about writers is what it’s like to be consumed in the business of reading and writing—the moment when all those allegedly important outside forces are pushed out. Those are the only moments when Prose thinks a writer is interesting, and she can convince you that she’s right.

* Mamatas’ piece also mentions Harry Mark Petrakis, who represents one of the more embarrassing gaps in my reading. Like me, he was raised in the Chicago area and is a Greek-American; moreover, as a kid, my parents’ bookshelves were stuffed with copies of Petrakis’ books. I never cracked the spines of a single one of them. Growing up, you never care about the things your parents care about.

2 responses to “Reading About a Writer Like a Writer

  1. “But they can’t capture the author’s feelings of fear, excitement, and desperation in a way that echoes the writer’s own work.” It’s true, requiring biographies to somehow incorporate that work. A tricky, artful business.

  2. Thanks for this, Mark.

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