Tuesday, 13 May 2014

Literary Lives

I wrote a letter to the London Review of Books today.  Don’t know if they’ll print it.  I once came close to getting published in them.  They wrote saying a letter of mine was being considered for publication – but it never appeared.  Perhaps it was too late.  In those days I was months behind in my reading, so they may have felt my comments were no longer timely (referring as they did to something months old).

That didn’t stop the Times Literary Supplement years before when I published my most famous letter, the one that got me in People magazine.  You were mentioned in People, some people would ask?  They didn’t believe it.  One didn’t even believe it when I showed her a copy of the magazine.  It must be some other Sheldon Goldfarb, she said.

Uh huh.

Anyway, this time I wrote as part of my campaign to get the LRB to return to its tradition of reviewing literary biographies.  And by reviewing I mean publishing long, leisurely review-essays which present the biography themselves, so you don’t even have to read the book – and who wants to read hundreds of pages of minutiae about anyone, even a writer – and I do like reading about writers, but in bite-sized format, a few thousand words, not a few hundred pages, just enough to get the essence of the life.  I relish those.

But the LRB (and the New York Review of Books too, alas) have turned from this.  Perhaps it is the “death of the author” craze that swept academia decades ago finally percolating into the more general public journals.  Or a distrust of “essentialism,” of believing you can sum up anyone’s life in an essay, which of course you can’t really – but you can try.

The LRB and the NYRB have given up trying, at least for writers; they do seem to publish review-essay biographies of non-writers occasionally, but it’s not the same – and I should note that the NYRB may have reversed itself recently, so I have resubscribed.  One lives in hope.

Many years ago when I expressed an interest in writers’ lives, a literature professor of mine reacted dismissively.  “You’re interested in gossip?” he said.  I felt cowed.  But I’m thinking now, “No, not gossip, humanity.  I’m interested in people’s lives – though not all people’s lives – reviews of painters leave me cold.  Reviews of anyone not a writer leave me not entirely satisfied.

Now, I don’t mean I want literary criticism.  I’ve read my fair share of literary criticism for various graduate degrees.  It’s useful but seldom entertaining or enthralling.  No, what I want is to follow some writer’s life, to learn where they were born, to see them grow up, to see them become a writer, to learn how they functioned in the world.

In a way, it’s the same story over and over.  The lonely, disaffected creative person finding their voice.  Yet I love to read about them, the more the better.  It’s like when I was ten years old and had to read a new Superman comic every week, or reading yet another Agatha Christie mystery, or watching another Mentalist episode (well, they’ve gone off, so I don’t do that anymore).  It’s the pleasure of routine.  The new that is yet the same.  And I wish the LRB would give it back to me.

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