Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Archive for November 14th, 2017

From Rolling Stone to Brighton Rock

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I haven’t had the chance recently to read much for my own pleasure, but as soon as I have enough time and distance from my current project, I’m hoping to check out Sticky Fingers, the new biography of Jann Wenner by Joe Hagan. Part of my interest lies in professional curiosity—it’s hard to imagine two men less alike than Wenner and John W. Campbell, but both were powerful magazine editors who shaped the culture out of a combination of vision and good timing—and its backstory is unusually intriguing. As the New York Times reported shortly before the book’s release:

Two previous attempts at an authorized Wenner biography had come to nothing. In 2003, Mr. Wenner enlisted Lewis MacAdams, a longtime friend and former Rolling Stone contributor, only to pull out after reading a few hundred pages…In 2011, a similar arrangement with the Rolling Stone writer and author Rich Cohen made it to the proposal phase—Spiegel & Grau offered a reported $1 million—before Mr. Wenner revoked his cooperation.

If nothing else, Hagan went into the book with both eyes open, and he evidently did everything that he could to thread a difficult needle, as the Times article notes: “When he was in the final stages of writing this year he prepared a memo detailing ‘every instance in which [Wenner] had sex with anybody in the book’ and anything else ‘super personal.’” It didn’t work, and Wenner has refused to promote or endorse the result, of which he says: “My hope was that this book would provide a record for future generations of that extraordinary time. Instead, [Hagan] produced something deeply flawed and tawdry, rather than substantial.”

Wenner’s reaction doesn’t seem to have adversely affected the book’s critical or commercial reception, which has been very positive, but it inevitably sheds light on the fraught relationship between a biographer and a living subject. Perhaps the most fascinating case in recent memory is that of Norman Sherry and Graham Greene, which produced three massive biographical volumes that I confess I’ve only sampled in places. In his preface to the first book, Sherry describes his initial encounters with Greene with an air of intimacy that seems harmless enough:

[Greene said] with what I am sure was the instinctive decision of a novelist, “If I were to have my biography written, I would choose you,” and later, as we parted in Brook Street, he made up his mind. I was to be his biographer, and we shook hands on it…It was only very gradually that a mutual trust developed and I think it was expressed when we were crossing St. James’s Street in London and narrowly escaped being knocked down by a taxi. He said, “You almost lost your subject there,” and I replied, “That’s not half as bad as losing your biographer.” He laughed and I knew we had become friends.

Greene, like Wenner, was particularly guarded about his sex life, later writing to Sherry from the Royal Albion Hotel in Brighton to ask him “not to interview certain women he had known.” (Wenner asked Hagan to omit “the name of the woman with whom he had lost his virginity.”) And although Greene didn’t live to see the final volume, it led to a similar dispute with with the writer’s family, as well as a bizarre controversy over Sherry’s exclusive access to Greene’s papers that hinged, according to a great gossipy article in the New York Times, on a single comma.

Some of the criticisms voiced by Greene’s relatives are strikingly reminiscent of those leveled against Hagan. Both biographers have been accused of inordinate attention to their subjects’ sexual activity. “His obsession with brothels far surpasses that of his supposed subject,” Greene’s son said of Sherry, while Joe Landau of Rolling Stone feels that Hagan went too far in his treatment of sex: “I believe Jann was entitled to expect a little more empathy from his biographer. To me it’s a question of degree and tone.” (In this line, I can’t resist mentioning the passage from Sherry in which he quotes Mario Soldati, the Italian movie director, who says that he spent his last conversation with Greene “confessing the varieties of oral sex we’d performed,” which I frankly find hard to imagine.) Sherry was also accused of inserting himself gratuitously into his work:

Mr. Sherry has interjected himself into the narrative, dropped in bits of his own poetry, even included a picture of himself riding on a donkey in Mexico as he retraced Greene’s research for the novel The Power and the Glory…“This book is not about Graham Greene, but about Sherry,” Greene’s son and literary executor, Francis, 67, said.

Many biographers have succumbed to this temptation, but Sherry didn’t do himself any favors, saying in response to the accusation that he minimized Greene’s relationship with his son: “I was the nearest thing to being a son to him as could possibly be.” Sherry claimed to have ruined his health and his personal life in his pursuit of his subject, and he summed it all up in words that would do equal credit to a biographer or a serial killer: “I often felt I must be him. I lived within him.”

On the other hand, I could list examples of the ambivalence of biographers toward their subjects for days. There’s Peter Manso, whom I’ve quoted here so often recently, who used the long afterword to the reissue of his oral biography of Norman Mailer primarily as a means of settling scores. And then there’s Roger Lewis, who seems to have realized about halfway through writing a biography of Anthony Burgess that he hated his subject. If familiarity breeds contempt, few people would have more reason to be contemptuous, as Lewis implies:

The sum of the parts [of an artist’s work] will not be greater than the totality—and nor is it, with Burgess. Though his work demonstrates great versatility, the versatility is always the same. To read one’s way through all of Burgess’s work (and how many have done that—except me?) is to make a startling discovery. It’s all the same.

I’ve never forgotten that aside: “And how many have done that—except me?” This is something that most biographers have probably caught themselves thinking, and if there’s a common denominator between the cases that I’ve mentioned, it’s that they all hinge on the fundamental weirdness of an enterprise that requires the writer to spend years “living within” someone else. If that person is alive, it can lead both to resistance from the subjects—who naturally see the work as an uncanny valley version of themselves—and to excessive identification by the writer. The victim, in both cases, is the work itself. Neither subject nor biographer, it seems, can be trusted to read the book objectively. And it may be as much a matter of luck as professionalism if the result ever ends up being close to the truth.

Quote of the Day

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This is what I think now: that the natural state of the sentient adult is a qualified unhappiness. I think also that in an adult the desire to be finer in grain than you are, “a constant striving” (as those people say who gain their bread by saying it) only adds to this unhappiness in the end—that end that comes to our youth and hope. My own happiness in the past often approached such an ecstasy that I could not share it even with the person dearest to me but had to walk it away in quiet streets and lanes with only fragments of it to distill into little lines in books—and I think that my happiness, or talent for self-delusion or what you will, was an exception.

F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Crack-Up

Written by nevalalee

November 14, 2017 at 7:30 am

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