Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Charles McGrath

Robert Caro and the work of a lifetime

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What does it mean to devote your life to one book? Yesterday, I spoke about the figure of the freelancer turned man of letters, who spends his career moving from subject to subject like a shark, but this tells us nothing about a man like Robert Caro, who has spent his entire life writing about two subjects, and for the past forty years only one, the life of Lyndon Johnson. What was originally expected to run three volumes has now expanded to four, with a fifth on the way, covering something like 3,500 pages, with most of Johnson’s presidency yet to come. As Charles McGrath points out in a recent profile in the New York Times, Caro has now spent more time writing about the crucial years of Lyndon Johnson’s life than Johnson spent living them. At first glance, then, Caro might seem like the opposite of the kind of writer I’ve described. But when you look more closely, as Caro himself would, you find surprising affinities.

If Caro has mostly turned aside from other kinds of work, it wasn’t because he didn’t need it—McGrath’s profile notes that Caro and his wife sold their house in Long Island and moved to the Bronx to save money during the writing of his first book. Instead, Caro’s singlemindedness seems inspired by both his own meticulous personality and an almost fanatical sense of progressive revelation, the idea that looking closely enough at one life can allow us to understand an entire society, but only if we dig as deeply as possible. And it helps, of course, that he has chosen subjects that lend themselves to such expansiveness. As McGrath points out, The Years of Lyndon Johnson encompasses everything from detailed miniature biographies of secondary characters like Sam Rayburn or Hubert Humphrey to a history of the United States Senate, all of which Caro furnishes for the sake of necessary context. In short, like any author, he constantly follows his curiosity into unexpected places—he’s just lucky enough to be able to encompass it under one larger theme.

I haven’t read all of The Years of Lyndon Johnson, although those three big volumes have been staring down imposingly from my bookshelves for a long time now, but I have read The Power Broker, Caro’s biography of Robert Moses, which remains one of my fondest memories from a lifetime of reading nonfiction. It’s about as big, physically, as a book can be and still fit between two covers, but it’s a marvel of pacing and detail—the reader’s interest never flags—and we can almost believe Caro when he says that he cut 350,000 words and still regrets every one. (The real hero of McGrath’s piece is editor Robert Gottlieb.) Caro clearly takes his cues from Gibbon, an edition of which is visible in his office, and like Gibbon, his life has been consumed by one great work, to an extent that seems to have taken even his loved ones by surprise. “I never thought this would be all he’d write about,” his wife Ina says. “I’ve always wanted him to finish a novel.”

But of course, Caro has already written his novel, or novels, which are buried throughout his larger work. (Just one example out of many: the account in The Power Broker of the relationship between Robert Moses and his brother Paul, which reads like a self-contained tragedy.) Every story unfolds into others, and episodes that were originally conceived as a single chapter end up taking up most of a book. In this sense, Caro’s approach really is Homeric: in the Iliad, there are passages of a couple of lines in the surviving text that, when originally sung, could be expanded by the performer to last for hours, based on the interests of the audience. Similarly, there are times when Caro’s work reads like a standard biography of Johnson in which each paragraph has been expanded in every imaginable direction. Like Thomas Mann, Caro knows that only the exhaustive is truly interesting. And its pursuit is, in every sense, the work of a lifetime.

A word about Charles Bock

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In January of 2008, the New York Times Magazine ran a profile, by Charles McGrath, that I’ve thought about often over the past three years. The subject was Charles Bock, author of the debut novel Beautiful Children, and his life story was both singular and uncomfortably familiar:

Bock worked for 11 years on Beautiful Children and lived for most of that time in a tiny one-bedroom Gramercy Park-area apartment….For a while Bock, who is now 38, a little old to be a first novelist, charged his groceries on his girlfriend’s credit card, and he rarely bought new clothing, making do with vintage rock T-shirts he collected in college. To pay the rent, he temped, worked as a researcher and a legal proofreader and ghost-edited Shaquille O’Neal’s autobiography, Shaq Talks Back. He also did a very unhappy stint as a rewrite man at a supermarket tabloid. But mostly he avoided steady work whenever he could, much to his parents’ concern.

It isn’t hard for any aspiring novelist to relate to this description, especially the last sentence. I know from experience that it can be tricky to convince one’s parents, or grandparents, that the time spent on a novel, in which even the most productive writer can make no visible progress for years, is a better use of one’s time than a paying job. In my case, it took four long years, with only a handful of publications along the way, before I began to earn anything close to a living wage for my fiction. And eleven years seems almost unimaginable.

In Bock’s case, the story had a happy ending: Beautiful Children was accepted for an advance that was “just into six figures,” and Bock was the subject of the respectful profile mentioned above, earning him more than a little backlash within the New York literary community—which, of course, is the greatest compliment of all. But, as for most writers, the numbers are remorseless: $100,000, split into three installments, after taxes and a 15% agency commission, isn’t a lot for eleven years of work. And it’s unclear if Beautiful Children, although greeted respectfully by critics and readers, ever earned back its advance.

Which brings us to the present moment, which appears to be a difficult one for Bock and his family. Author and blogger Edward Champion has more on their situation here, as well as information about a benefit that the literary community is organizing on their behalf. If you like, you can make a donation via PayPal, or, if you prefer, buy his book, which is worth a look for reasons of its own. Because writers need to look out for one another. Given the nature of this profession, we’re all going to need a little help somewhere along the way.

Written by nevalalee

December 23, 2010 at 9:32 am

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