On Reading Literary Biographies
I have a thing about fiction: I hate reading books over a certain length (about 300 pages). My optimum novel is probably 220 pages in length (Exhibit A: Toby’s Room by Pat Barker) and it’s no coincidence that I try to write novels of a similar length too. But there is a type of book where bigger is better, for me at least, and that is the literary biography. I only read biographies of writers and only if I respect them for their work, and I generally read bios as part of a ‘general immersion’ in writers I especially like. Put bluntly, I binge on great writers and their biographies are often a heavy though satisfying side dish. There’s nothing I enjoy more than curling up in bed with an overweight biography – like the 500+ page tome on Raymond Carver I’m currently reading. Why?
I guess literary biographies are a way of communing with (mostly) dead writers, of exploring their zeitgeist, of absorbing the lessons of their life. Writers’ lives are often chaotic, the morality of their actions very frequently questionable, their behaviour often loathsome. But a literary biography is almost always a tale of redemption, in that the Great Work eventually gets written and published, often in spite of the author’s lurchings through life. These biographies are a form of nourishment for the acolyte writer such as myself, but writers rarely offer good role models in terms of their behaviour. Perhaps it’s the type of writers I enjoy reading, but it seems to me that literary biographies often allow writers a ‘Get Out of Jail Free’ card for their bad behaviour in exchange for the Great Work they have produced along the way.
Here’s a list of some literary biographies I own and have read. The better ones are bolded.
The Inner Man: The Life of J G Ballard – John Baxter
Literary Outlaw: The Life and Times of William S Burroughs – Ted Morgan
The Lost Years of William S Burroughs: Beats in South Texas – Rob Johnson
Cursed From Birth: William S Burroughs Jr – edited by David Ohle
Raymond Carver: A Writer’s Life – Carol Sklenicka
Raymond Chandler: A Life – Tom Williams
The Long Embrace: Raymond Chandler and the Woman He Loved – Judith Freeman
Raymond Chandler – Tom Hiney
Divine Invasions: A Life of Philip K Dick – Lawrence Sutin
Search for Philip K Dick: 1928 – 1982 – Anne R. Dick
Graham Greene: The Man Within – Michael Shelden
Nothing Is True, Everything Is Permitted: The Life of Brion Gysin – John Geiger
James Tiptree Jr: The Double Life of Alice B Shelden – Julie Phillips
In addition to the above, there are a number of writers whom I would love to read full length biographies on. English novellist Pat Barker is in her seventies now so she should be prime for this treatment. American writer Harry Crews died recently and I would love to read a book on him, although I’m not sure he’s popular enough these days to warrant one. There is rumoured to be a follow-up volume to his amazing memoir A Childhood: The Biography of a Place, so that would be almost as good, should it ever appear. I’d like to read a biography of William Gay too. But for now, it’s back to the boozing and philandering of Raymond ‘Running Dog’ Carver.