Simplistic Literary Biographies

The great Terry Teachout addresses literary biographies:

Far too many new biographies—including a forthcoming book about a famous filmmaker that I read last week and will be reviewing later this year—are rigidly and reductively thesis-driven, an approach that never fails to remind me of what Earl Long, Huey’s brother, said about Henry Luce, the founder of Time and Life: “Mr. Luce is like a man that owns a shoestore and buys all the shoes to fit himself. Then he expects other people to buy them.” I loathe biographers who nudge you in the ribs every few pages, sticking in pointed little reminders that the deeply suppressed sadomasochistic tendencies (or whatever) of Flannery O’Connor (or whoever) permeated her life and thought and insinuated their way into every page she wrote, blah blah blah.

Also, note his list of “first-rate” biographies, none of which he wrote himself.

3 thoughts on “Simplistic Literary Biographies”

  1. I do have to worry about the sanity of anyone who takes the dreary Henry James as the Lord and Master of their art, even in jest, but I guess it’s a case of “do as James says, not as he does.”

  2. S.T. Joshi’s biography of H.P. Lovecraft, although valuable in many respects, is similarly marred. He felt it necessary to emphasize the theme of ‘cosmicness’ in Lovecraft’s fiction somewhat to the disadvantage of its many unavoidably human but valuable qualities. As Teachout might say, Joshi wrote as a man with a thesis he didn’t mean to waste.

  3. I read A N Wilson’s biography of C S Lewis this summer.

    I do not regret reading it, but had I known that Wilson never bothered to read “Til We Have Faces” I would have passed on it.

    Presently, it’s being passed around in my family – but with a few warnings and suggestions.

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