From Picking a Subject to Pontificating on Subjects
I wrote in an earlier column about my decision in the spring of 2003 to take a respite from writing biography. Between 1986 and 2003, I had produced biographies of Marilyn Monroe, Lillian Hellman, Martha Gellhorn, Norman Mailer, Rebecca West, Susan Sontag, and Jill Craigie (this last not published until 2005). I was worn out—not with biography per se, but with traveling and the enormous expense of it all. Archival work, interviews, and mainly uncomprehending reviews had not daunted my enthusiasm for the genre. But I was chastened, wondering about what biography had done for my reputation—which had not advanced much if measured by critical attention and the size of my book advances. I was just part of a middling collection of biographers. No reviewer ever started by sizing up my oeuvre. No one seemed to perceive the connections between one of my biographical works and another. I should not have expected more. Reviewers simply don't have the time and are not paid enough to do more than examine the work at hand. I hoped to rectify that—at least in my work for The New York Sun, which provided me with the space to do for other biographers what I wanted done for my work. Week after week, I would discuss their books in the context of other biographers’ work and of the genre itself.
My review/column in the Sun also had the effect of calling attention to me in ways that my biographies had not. Suddenly, I saw my name attached to publisher's ads in blurbs extolling their authors’ work and in blogs that also disseminated some of my less flattering remarks. Now I got emails from grateful authors. Surprisingly, I never got messages from those who received negative reviews. I expected more complaints, but other than an occasional letter addressed to the Sun, no one wanted to start an argument with me. I had the illusion—one some of my biographer friends seemed to share—that I actually had some sort of power.
I reviewed a phenomenal range of subjects: literary figures, politicians, scientists, and all kinds of public figures. It was an education. I would not have read all of those books if I had not been paid to do so, and in my guise as Dr. Biography I couldn’t refuse to do so. But by the end of three years, after several changes of editor, I finally had to deal with an individual who seemed to have no understanding of my modus operandi. Without any explanation, one of my reviews was killed when I said a particular novelist had virtually no understanding of biography or biographers, the purported subject of her novel. A week later, the Sun published a positive review of her novel. I was aghast. It seemed like such a betrayal. I quit.
With book review sections shrinking nearly everywhere, I did not believe I would ever again have the kind of opportunity extended to me at the Sun. I took time out to revise three of my biographies before committing to write another one that would not entail a lot of travel or interviewing. Amy Lowell died in 1925, and her entire archive—including both letters to and from her—was housed at Harvard, a six-hour drive from my home. Lowell was ripe for revaluation and seemed a good prospect for another NEH Fellowship (I had already won two previous awards and was ultimately successful again with Amy). Just maybe she could become a lifetime project. I was in no hurry and knew it would take years to work through everything available at the Houghton Library.
And yet, as I have also explained in previous columns, I was lured away from Amy—first by the opportunity to do a biography of Dana Andrews, and then by my quixotic belief that I could secure a contract to do a biography of Sylvia Plath. And then I had an opportunity to write regularly again about biography, this time for the Wall Street Journal.
At this point, you may be wondering what is wrong with me. Just this morning I think I figured it out. I was reading one of Sylvia Plath’s letters to her mother. At this point, Plath was a Smith College senior, already published in Seventeen and Harper’s, but yearning to see her pieces appear in the Atlantic Monthly and The New Yorker, both of which had rejected many of her poems. I had been amazed at how resilient Plath was, seemingly taking rejection after rejection (more than fifty of them) in stride. Of course, she had her down days, even signing one of her letters, “Your rejected daughter.” But in the main, rejection only spurred her on. And then she wrote a letter that I think explains the kind of addiction I share. She wrote her mother that she loved being “in suspense,” building up her hopes and wondering if, this time, she might be successful. And that’s it—at least for me. Honestly, I pity biographers who have only one subject, biographers who do not have a platform to spout off about their favorite subjects and new ones they are just learning about.
But then I know that not all biographers are in love with the genre itself. I can’t tell you how many biographies have made me want to ask the biographer: Don’t you have any sense of affection for your genre and those who practice it? Why do you pretend that other biographies of your subject do not exist? Why do you tuck them away in the bibliography and bury them deep in your notes, when I know damn well they have had more of an impact on you than you care to acknowledge?
Which is why, in the end, I turned to pontification, to writing about biography as well writing biography. James Panero’s New Criterion review of Reading Biography, my collection of New York Sun reviews, evokes better than anything else what a peculiar sort I am: “Carl Rollyson reads biographies. He writes biographies. He writes about reading biographies. He writes about writing biographies. Writers are the subject of many of the biographies he reads and writes. Whew!”
Books mentioned in this column:
Carl Rollyson is Professor of Journalism at Baruch College, The City University of New York. He reviews biographies regularly for The Wall Street Journal, the Minneapolis Star Tribune, and other newspapers and periodicals. Carl is the author of a dozen biographies, including Marilyn Monroe: A Life of the Actress, Rebecca West: A Modern Sibyl, and with his wife, Lisa Paddock, Susan Sontag: The Making of an Icon. His studies of biography include: A Higher Form of Cannibalism: Adventures in the Art and Politics of Biography and Biography: A User's Guide. More about Carl and his work can be found at his website. He is currently completing a biography of Dana Andrews and beginning work on a biography of Sylvia Plath. When not writing, he is playing with his three Scotties. Contact Carl.