From Dickens to Didion: Who Gets To Tell the Story?

The appetite for conventional literary biography seems to have narrowed as biographers increasingly exercise their own voices.

AP/Kathy Willens
Author Joan Didion poses for a photograph at her New York apartment, Sept. 27, 2007. AP/Kathy Willens

‘The Life and Lies of Charles Dickens’
By Helena Kelly
Pegasus Books, 288 pages

‘The World According to Joan Didion’
By Evelyn McDonnell
HarperOne, 256 pages

‘The Uptown Local: Joy, Death, and Joan Didion: A Memoir’
By Cory Leadbetter
Ecco, 224 pages

“Literary biography is dead”: So my agent was told when she was shopping my biography of William Faulkner. With the exception of Hemingway, Orwell, and a few others, biographies of canonical authors don’t sell at the scale trade book publishers require. Nowadays, literary biographies are often published by universities and small presses that offer small advances and expect modest sales figures.

Yet the books under review here are from trade houses and are meant to appeal to the so-called general audience — as long as they are not too long: less than 90,000 words or about 300 pages. 

Who can resist a book that tells you Charles Dickens lied? Helena Kelly touts new material, but she begins with a story familiar to readers of Dickens biography. It is about John Forster, the authorized biographer who worked, as well, as Dickens’s agent. Forster’s biography promised the inside scoop, but as Ms. Kelly shows, the biography was an exercise in concealment and distortion.

Ms. Kelly’s ploy to get the attention of readers who do not know Dickens biography is defensible, if not original. Virtually all literary biographers discover discrepancies between the literature and the lives of their subjects, who often exaggerate, if not outright lie, about their own lives, which become transformed into a fiction that rivals the novels, stories, plays, and poems they produce.

You won’t get far into “The World According to Joan Didion” before encountering this passage about her famous article, “Slouching Toward Bethlehem”: “the essay is … an indictment of narrative’s ability to limit and distort reality—and Joan included herself in this indictment. She empowers us and she warns us: Stories can be lies.”

In Dickens’s day, it was virtually the moral right of biographers to lie, or at least omit anything unsavory about literary figures, though Elizabeth Gaskell tried hard to be truthful in her biography of Charlotte Brontë.

In our day, we expect to see the warts and all, and those in a writer’s inner circle now can’t wait to tell us what they know. So we get Cory Leadbetter’s “Uptown Local,” a revealing, behind-the-scenes version of his years with Joan Didion, working as her assistant in a variety of capacities.

Mr. Leadbetter does what no 19th century biographer would do after Boswell shocked the world with an intimate view of Samuel Johnson. Boswell included himself in the story, and Mr. Leadbetter doing so will annoy readers who come to the book thinking the focus will always be on Joan Didion.

Mr. Leadbetter’s book is the latest in what has become a genre in itself: Sigrid Nunez in “Sempre Susan” discloses what she knows about Susan Sontag from sitting across the table from her and dating her son. Norman Mailer’s sister, Barbara Wasserman, has published “Love of my Life: A Memoir”; his last wife, Norris Church, contributed “A Ticket to the Circus” to what has become a Mailer memoir industry, including Susan Mailer’s “In Another Place: With and Without my Father Norman Mailer,” not to mention “Mornings with Mailer: A Recollection of a Friendship” from Mailer’s assistant, Dwyane Raymond. 

The memoirs are, in effect, hybrid biographies that sometimes, as in Greg Johnson’s “Letters to a Biographer,” become records of a Boswell-like biographer tracking his subject even as his subject, like Samuel Johnson, is feeding material to the biographer.

Those who draw a sharp line between autobiography and biography, and between biographer and subject, may deplore these recent efforts to revive literary biography by making it a contest/collaboration between biographer and subject. I have to confess a certain sympathy for showing the dialectic between biographer and subject, as I do by relying on my hundred or so hours of recorded conversations with my subject/friend in “A Private Life of Michael Foot.”

Of course, conventional literary biography will continue to be published, but the appetite for such seems to have narrowed as biographers increasingly exercise their own voices.

Mr. Rollyson is the author of “A Higher Form of Cannibalism? Adventures in the Art and Politics of Biography.”


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