The other week I popped into an outlet of major retail bookstore chain just to use the restroom. I walked out with Marion Meade’s Lonelyhearts and Tracy Daugherty’s Hiding Man — biographies of Nathanael West (and Eileen McKinney) and Donald Barthelme respectively. That’s me down $52. In my bag, as my commute read, I already had Misfit, Jonathan Yardley’s bio of Frederick Exley. That morning I’d just returned to the library Literary Life, the second and very gossipy volume of Larry McMurtry’s memoirs. I don’t even read McMurtry, though I did see most of The Last Picture Show and the episode of Lonesome Dove that featured a turn by pro wrestler Bret Hart. Have I mentioned having just returned from Florida? Chester Himes’ My Life of Absurdity was my airplane book. I stuck with it and was greatly rewarded despite the line “For I fell madly in love with her and tried seriously on several occasions to rape her” on page five. Then there was Christmas Eve, which I spent alone in my apartment, The Talented Miss Highsmith in the bedroom and the equally hefty Raymond Carver: A Writer’s Life in the living room, with me drifting back and forth between their upmarket gray covers to avoid intertwining the skeins of their subjects’ lives as I read. I have a literary biography problem.
Duh, you’re a writer. Of course you read literary biographies. And that’s true. The literary biography is a measuring stick of sorts, and safer than measuring one’s own skill or success against that of one’s contemporaries. I even get a thrill when I come along a line about the original incarnation of The Smart Set (Hey, I’ve written for The Smart Set!) Then there are the figures that bob to the surface repeatedly across several books: Bookstore owner Stanley Rose seems to have known every writer in Los Angeles in the 1930s; the hand of Gary Fisketjon lurked behind major successes in the 1980s. But I get most excited when reading about rejection slips and advances and late royalty checks and underfunded publishers with the can’t-fail idea to print a lot of quickly written short books and those novels written in a feverish six weeks to pay off a tax bill and the shocking disappointment that comes with only selling a few thousand copies of a novel that ends up widely read only posthumously. Since my own career is mostly indie press stuff that doesn’t sell at all, I don’t even bother to mentally adjust for inflation. Did Nathanael West only make $780 in royalties? 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. Though when it comes to rents and the price of a meal out — freelancers are always working over their expenses in their correspondence and biographers love quoting that stuff — I’m pretty well screwed.
Other than three-digit incomes, I have little in common with most of the subjects of literary biographies. My fiction is mainly fantasy and horror — albeit the uncommercial end of commercial fiction — but I tend to prefer bios and memoirs from writers of what they call in pricey workshops “literary fiction.” (In my own MFA program, when an instructor perversely assigned Salem’s Lot, my fellow students initially expressed terror but later relief because the first hundred pages of the novel were “so literary.” They meant that nothing actually occurs in Salem’s Lots first hundred pages.) Literary authors are allowed to fail, after all, allowed to spend 10 years working on a book, or even to be a “one-book author” like poor drunk Frederick Exley. When Hollywood enters the picture, it’s as part of a Faustian bargain rather than the result of achieving an uncomplicated life’s goal. For me, being taken seriously is a form of exotica. Tenure rather than the hamster wheel of paperback production. Critics who actually take an interest in a writer’s career versus trolls in the comments sections of blogs. Carver became a legend on 72 short stories. I just sold my 60th. But thanks to the handy chart at the back of Carol Sklenicka’s mammoth biography, I know that Carver never sold stories to anthologies with names such as The Walri Project, The Naked Singularity, or Fucking Daphne. Am I doing something wrong?
Thanks to the machinations of tastemakers and even the format in which novels first appear, most genre writers don’t rate biographies unless the scribes somehow “transcend” popular fiction. So crime writer Jim Thompson got one thanks, one suspects, to both his phenomenal work with books such as The Killer Inside Me and because he’s another writer first screwed and then celebrated by Hollywood. The script for Paths of Glory was supposedly mostly his, and then The Grifters — an adaptation of Thompson’s 1963 novel — was an Oscar nominee. Also, as Thompson fell out of print in the U.S., and he hit the nadir of publishing by writing an Ironside tie-in novel, the French loved his work. Then there’s Himes, who seemed pleased enough by his “detective stories” and the European publishers who brought out his work, but he spent much more ink on a lemon of a Volkswagen he bought. (Memoirs are often a place for the settling of scores.)
Science fiction writer Alice Sheldon scored a posthumous bio thanks largely to her unusual background — daughter of Mary Hastings Bradley, government spook, and her career as “James Tiptree Jr.,” the acclaimed author of “ineluctably masculine” short stories. Fantasist Robert Aickman’s memoir The Attempted Rescue is well worth reading, if you can afford the secondary market’s $150 price tag for the limited edition. (And I do have a copy; this is an essay about my literary biography problem, after all.) Stephen King and J. R. R. Tolkien are just too famous not to have biographies written about them, but not so famous that good ones have been published. Then there’s Samuel R. Delany’s The Motion of Light in Water, the excellent memoir that only now as I write these words I realize started me on this path of mass consumption of literary biographies. Its subtitle is Sex and Science Fiction Writing in the East Village, but there wasn’t enough of that middle subject for me at all. I was living in the East Village back when I first read Motion, and the book did help me understand why the MTA closed down so many of the well-tiled public restrooms that once served the city subways.
Once a literary biography drifts on to subjects like someone’s tragic first spouse (or, near-inevitably, the supportive second), my interest flags. Luckily, booze often turns up in these books — a favorite anecdote from recent reading involves Carver’s and John Cheever’s insisting on being driven to a liquor store not when it opened but before it opened so they could be there in time for the raising of the gate — and as a near-teetotaler I do get an illicit thrill from reading about people whose lives are held together by talent and the enabling kindness of friends. Books about drunk writers are my anti-drug. There are plenty of memoirs by non-writers with various mental problems and great big issues, but few of those memoirists are interesting for anything other than their boozing or OCD or sex addiction, and hardly any of them can write very well. These misery merchants also don’t merit the attention of a decent biographer.
Then there’s the Communist Party, which haunts American letters like a specter. And not just the intellectuals were besotted with Marx — both Jim Thompson and Louis L’Amour were at least on the fringes of the hard left thanks to the Oklahoma Writers’ Project. Thompson even stuffed envelopes for the Party, according to Polito. West (and John Fante, whom I’ve discussed previously in these pages) scoffed at the CP, and Himes scoffed at Richard Wright and by extension the CP. But lots of writers were, if not red, pink enough to drink themselves with worry when the blacklists were announced.
For those without trust funds, a career on the far left today is an exercise in tedium — selling newspapers nobody wants at demonstrations, angry meetings in sweaty college lecture halls, Chernobyls worth of furious energy expended in argument between the lily white and the ever-so-slightly off-white over who has the most white-skin privilege, and little else. But for a brief historical moment culture was something the American left to create rather than simply denounce. The idea of revolution and a revolutionary party was something a writer in a certain milieu had no choice but to tangle with, and for revolutionaries literature — not just propaganda — had to be tangled with as well. Who would launch a journal like The New Masses now, and if anyone did, who the hell would write for it except for some awful poets and adjunct instructors looking for a line on their CVs? If there is an analogous relationship between a semi-clandestine organization with expansive promises to change the world and an influential cultural apparatus today, I’d probably have to point to the Church of Scientology and would-be screenwriters looking for an easy way to get their scripts in front of Tom Cruise. American Communism, especially as it was in those heady days before the terror of Stalinism was widely known, is part of the nostalgia trip. It’s just like the Underwoods and carbon paper, photos of scribbled-on sheets of foolscap, and quotes from 20-page letters to writer pals.
I also do what one shouldn’t. I read biographies first — if anything seems interesting about the subject’s actual work, maybe I’ll read some of the fiction. I discovered Harry Mark Petrakis via his memoir Reflections: A Writer’s Life, A Writer’s Work (words on which I’d like to propose a moratorium), a copy of which I found in a used bookstore. He is a writer. His surname also hinted that he was a Greek-American, like me. That’s all I needed to know. I’ve since bought a few of his books and even read one of them — Collected Stories. (I also have a short fiction problem.) Twenty-one books, two National Book Award nominations, and a feature film adaptation later, Petrakis doesn’t even have a Wikipedia entry. That’s the good thing about used bookstores: The better ones will have a separate section labeled Literary Biography, so I don’t have to paw through all the rot about President Reagan and Anna Nicole Smith to get to what I want to read.
I like writer memoirs as well, though my preference is always for a biography and generally for a biography of someone who died half-forgotten, only to be posthumously recognized. Memoirs can ramble on, as one has to earn the right to publish a memoir with long years of service, and who would dare edit a writer’s gold watch? Gay Talese starts his 450-page A Writer’s Life (there’s that phrase again!) with, “I am not now, nor have I ever been, fond of the game of soccer.” Yeah, me neither! He also complains about receiving poor grades in his high school English classes. Sorry, there I cannot relate. McMurtry’s recent memoir is short but has the through-line of a barstool tale told so often its speaker has forgotten how it goes. His editor owns horses, for example, though they are for “his second wife Margaret, who, like President Obama, has spent some time in Kenya.” Incidentally, the very next sentence is about the rise of the Beats in the 1950s, which serves to end an extended digression into whatever else happened to be on McMurtry’s mind while he was typing that day. Horses. Kenya. Stuff like that.
Will someone write a literary biography about me one day? I don’t think I’ve posted a snail mail letter in 20 years, but I’ve been online for a long time now so there might still be plenty of old e-mails and tweets worth copying and pasting in the future. And I am a failure, so I’ve got that going for me, too. I suspect I’ll be long dead before I ever become interesting, but with my literary biography problem, can I ask for anything more? • 12 April 2010