Biographical Fictions


Carl Rollyson

Although biographers have been accused of writing fiction, ground rules dictate that you do not make things up. To do is so is self-defeating, since one of the genuine pleasures of reading biography is to see what can be made of facts, testimony, documents, and so on. Of course, as soon as the biographer begins constructing a narrative, the story takes over, and different stories can be made out of the same sources.

Now that I’ve dispensed with the obvious, I want to examine what good a novel dealing with a real person can do. More specifically, is there really anything for the biographer to learn from such a novel? I’ll be addressing that question in a review I’m writing for The New Criterion about David Lodge’s new novel, A Man of Parts, which explores the life of H. G. Wells. But here I’ll turn to another example close to home: Joyce Carol Oates’s novel Blonde.

Oates gives me credit for helping to shape her vision of Marilyn Monroe. I will return the compliment by saying that if I were still working on a biography of Monroe, Oates’s treatment of Monroe’s mother would have a decided impact on my narrative—not because Oates has new material, but because she presents Monroe’s harrowing life with a mentally unstable mother with power and freshness. Gladys’s sudden mood shifts, the arbitrariness of her behavior, terrorizes Norma Jeane, who grows up with an extraordinary sense of life’s fragility, of how all one counts on can suddenly be taken away—just as her mother was abruptly taken away to an asylum. An overwhelming feeling that any phase of life can be a temporary phenomenon hit the young Norma Jeane very hard and became, I believe, a permanent part of her psyche. In some sense, I knew as much before reading Oates, but the novel makes me feel it in my bones. And I can imagine another biography relying on Oates not for facts, but for the ability to convey a terror that never left the girl who became Marilyn Monroe.

Oates invents dialogue, something a biographer cannot do. But her dialogue is the equivalent of a biographer’s reading of a situation, customarily conveyed through speculation, surmise, and reportage. Oates is dramatizing, in other words, what a biographer may feel or imagine but cannot articulate in language attributed to his subject. Of course, novelists can do much more: invent characters, plots, and situations that are not biographical evidence. And Oates performs this trick as well, though not as well, I think, as she might have done. I find some of her scenes to be factitious.

There are purists among us who believe fiction should not consort directly with biographical figures. William Faulkner, for example, told Robert Penn Warren that the part of All the King's Men that was truly worthwhile had to do with the wholly fictional character Cass Mastern. Faulkner had little use for Willie Stark, modeled along the lines of Huey Long. For Faulkner, fiction became muddled if readers could compare the novel’s character with his prototype. In other words, Warren had diminished the power of his fiction by not creating an original. Willy Stark was a knock-off.

But Faulkner was only concerned with the primacy of fiction. What about the novelist who believes, as Warren and Oates do, that fiction can make its contribution to our reading of history? And so, as I begin to write my review of David Lodge’s new novel, that question awaits my answer. Does a novel about H. G. Wells do a service to biography? And if you are as steeped as I am in the biography of Wells and Rebecca West (who figures mightily in Lodge’s work), is there something new to learn from a novelist who turns his hand to a well-worn and fairly well documented story?

Books mentioned in this column:
Blonde by Joyce Carol Oates (Ecco, 2009)
A Man of Parts by David Lodge (Viking, 2011)
All the King’s Men by Robert Penn Warren (Mariner, 1996)


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.



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