Accept No Substitutes


Carl Rollyson

Every month I look forward to the latest issue of The Biographer’s Craft newsletter, edited with incomparable style by James McGrath Morris, author of a highly-praised biography of Joseph Pulitzer. The newsletter includes reviews and interviews and all sorts of other items related to biography and biographers. I always read the editor’s column first, and last month what Morris said really rang a bell. He was objecting to the recent award of the Norman Mailer Prize for Distinguished Biography to Keith Richards for Life, which is not a biography but a memoir. Even worse, Richards did not write the book! As Morris reveals, that honor goes to British journalist James Fox.

To say that I am disgusted is to put it mildly, but I hasten to say that I am not surprised. The Norman Mailer Prize is sponsored by the Norman Mailer writers colony located in Provincetown, Massachusetts, where the Chief resided much of the time when he was not boulevarding in Brooklyn. I could employ a cliché and say Mailer is turning over in his grave, but I’m not so sure. He spent his declining years being lionized and feted by cronies and hangers-on; perhaps he might endorse anything that brings his cult more visibility.

I don’t believe in blacklists, but if I started one for biographers, it would certainly include that Provincetown crew, which includes his number one lackey, who is, of course, also the Genius’s authorized biographer. Mailer loved coining epithets for himself, so Norman (wherever you are), I hope you won’t mind the liberties I’m taking with your persona. I think in your better days you would have been as scornful of this colony as I am.

Professional biographers, sooner or later, come into contact with the “keepers of the flame,” as Ian Hamilton calls them in his book on literary estates: the wives, relatives, and other intimates who believe they are safeguarding the Master’s treasured literary remains. These estates regularly give biographers a working over, demanding changes that offend the estate’s amour propre, a subject I have written about in A Higher Form of Cannibalism: Adventures in the Art and Politics of Biography, and in the final chapter of my forthcoming biography of Sylvia Plath.

To put it another way, when reading a biography, consider its provenance, which is usually disclosed in the Acknowledgments. There you will discover just who the biographer is beholden to. Is he or she part of some clique or coterie? And how effusive are the acknowledgments? Usually, the greater the expressions of gratitude, the more the biographer has had to grovel in order to obtain the precious lode of data. In other words, anything coming out of the colony is suspect: You are probably reading an alchemical biography. It may look like gold, but I assure you it is made of baser stuff.

I’m reminded of a conference organized years ago by a group of Edmund Wilson devotees. Dedicated to the holy grail of the authorized biography, they did not deign to invite Jeffrey Meyers, whose biography of Wilson ranks high among contemporary biographies. The independent Meyers had not bothered to get the blessing of the Wilson priesthood. Although I’ve written a biography of Mailer, I’ve never been invited to the Provincetown shrine. Neither has Mary Dearborn, another independent Mailer biographer.

Mailer wrote some good biography, including his much maligned but stimulating book on Marilyn Monroe, which brought me to writing in this genre in the first place.  How awful that a worthy writer should be so disgraced by an organization that trades on his name.

Books mentioned in this column:
A Higher Form of Cannibalism? Adventures in the Art and Politics of Biography by Carl Rollyson (Ivan R. Dee, Publisher, 2005)
Life by Keith Richards and James Fox (Back Bay Books, 2011)


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.



Contact Us || Site Map || || Article Search || © 2006 - 2012 BiblioBuffet