Hagiography as Biography: Turning Writers into Saints

Tim Parks wonders why biographies of writers flirt with hagiograpy, why they are so blind to their subjects’ faults:

With only the rarest of exceptions…each author is presented as simply the most gifted and well-meaning of writers, while their behavior, however problematic and possibly outrageous…is invariably described in a flattering light…special pleading is everywhere evident, as if biographers were afraid that the work might be diminished by a life that was less than noble or not essentially directed toward a lofty cause.

[B]iographers apparently feel a need to depict their subjects as especially admirable human beings, something that in the end makes their lives less rather than more interesting and harder rather than easier to relate to their writing. It is so much clearer why the books were written and why they had to be the way they are if the life is given without this constant positive spin.

[O]ne can only assume that they are satisfying a general need to reinforce a positive conception of narrative art, thus bolstering the self-esteem of readers, and even more of critics and biographers, who in writing about literature are likewise contributing to the very same good causes.

The habit of imagining the writer as more well-meaning than he or she probably was is even more curious when we turn to academe. Usually hostile to any notion that knowledge of a writer’s life illuminates his work—“Biographical Fallacy!” one professor of mine would thunder—academic critics nevertheless tend to assume that the author is a solemn soul devoted to profound aesthetic enquiries and invariably progressive narratives. [emphasis added]

I would have thought the answer to Parks’ puzzlement was staring him right in the face (he flirts with it above in the line emphasized) . Biographies of writers are written by, er, writers. To write quasi-hagiography rather than biography, to suggest that the personal and the artistic can be so divorced is to also give oneself a free pass: judge me on my writing, and my writing alone.  Here, the personal is not treated as political; instead, it becomes an autonomous sphere, one whose influences on a  writer’s writing are not permitted to be viewed and whose consideration is not allowed to enter into any judgment of the writing, now viewed as an act radically divorced from the life that led to it.  Writers are not embedded in their actions and circumstances and relationships; they are merely conduits for the expression of their art, which they bring to life by dint of their unstinting labors.

This is an exalted view to hold of others; it becomes even more pleasurable to profess such views when they lead to an exalted vision of oneself. Writing quasi-hagiographies of writers is then best understood as equal parts self-glorification and anticipatory protection of oneself against future critiques. To suggest the writer is essentially noble and virtuous despite well-known personal failings is to act to ensure a similar view of one’s own life. It is an act of writerly solidarity, an insurance policy taken out against any criticism that peeks under the hood.

Tim Parks Overrates the Indispensability of Copyright Regimes

Tim Parks has an interesting article on copyright over at the New York Review of Books Blog. (Parks concentrates almost exclusively on copyright for literary works and does not mention movies or software executables.)  There are some interesting observations in it, which lead up to a puzzling conclusion. Roughly, copyright law is indispensable because it facilitates the creation of a very particular kind of literary work: the long-form novel. Writing novels attracts the best and the brightest, and they get into that line of work because of its financial rewards. So:

Copyright, we see, is not essentially driven by notions of justice or theories of ownership, but by a certain culture’s attachment to a certain literary form.

I disagree. And I think Parks should disagree with himself too, because in his own article he also makes note of the following:

[T]here is still an enormous demand for the long traditional novel, for works that reinforce the idea of individual identity projected through time and achieving some kind of wisdom or happiness through many vicissitudes. There is simply no form of escapism, mental immersion, or sustained illusion quite like the thousand-page fantasy narrative…if to have that experience we have to guarantee a substantial income to its creator then society will continue to find a way to do that….

Note that Parks admits: a) the demand for a particular kind of sustained fantasy expressible–for him–in one kind of art form and b) the ability of society to find ways to fund its production. How does this then, lead to the conclusion that copyright is the only way to do so? This is a remarkably impoverished view of our society’s capacity to find ways to recompense the creators of desirable ‘products.’

Parks all too easily dismisses any possibility of comparison with the world of music, which is slowly moving toward displacing the primacy of the copyrighted recording in favor of the live performance:

There is no such performative context for the prose thriller, or even the great American novel.

None? The success of live story-telling performances should indicate there could be a thriving audience for writers willing to read out their works. Audiobooks also indicate that some folks do not mind having books read out to them.

Furthermore, for a novelist, Parks seems to be lacking in imagination when it comes to thinking of alternatives to the long-form novel.  Is the novel really the only kind of creative work that can ‘reinforce the idea of individual identity projected through time…’? And movie fans like me will disagree too, with Parks that ‘there is simply no form of escapism, mental immersion, or sustained illusion quite like the thousand-page fantasy narrative.’ But even if we were to grant Parks this claim, it still seems dubious that the monopoly rent model of copyright is the only way to keep ‘em comin’ in.

The modern novel–perhaps beginning with Don Quixote–and modern copyright regimes do not track each other quite as precisely as Parks’ thesis would seem to require. Copyright regimes have created a particular kind of political economy around the world of writing. If they are dispensed with, when the smoke clears, writers will still be writing and we, the insatiable consumers of fantasy that makes our lives more livable, will have, somehow, like good junkies, found the way to keep the fixes coming. A legal regime like that of copyright is merely a contingent, not essential, feature of that addiction.

Why Write and All That – I: Bargains Struck

Two recent articles about writing, writers, and writing as a job–Tim Parks in the New York Review of Books blog and Seth Godin’s interview at Digital Book World–prompt me to take on the insufferably self-indulgent business of being self-referential. The issues covered in the pieces linked above should be familiar: Why write? Is writing a career? Should you get paid for it? Do you have a right to get paid for the work you make available to your readers? And of course, the modern favorite: In today’s ‘digital economy’ where readers supposedly ‘expect content for free’ how is a writer to be paid?

This set of issues, despite its familiarity, is extraordinarily rich, and I can only make some preliminary remarks here. (I expect to write follow-up posts.) In so doing, I hope I can offer some insight into why it is people write, and why, I think, writing will persist as an ‘occupation’ understood broadly, even if no one is getting ‘paid’ for it.

I write from a curious position in this discussion. I’m an academic and I don’t expect to make money from my writing. Or rather, I do not write for the direct income of royalties, but–initially at least–for the financial security of tenure and promotion, and now, to secure my academic reputation and to circulate my ideas. My two academic books thus far have secured for me a quasi-permanent job in the academy and I am now free to write for the rest of my career on those topics that interest me. As I do so, perhaps I will learn a bit myself and engage in the pursuit of ‘knowledge’ in a way that is of use to others.

My first book was non-academic, and while it neither secured my reputation in the academy nor helped me circulate any particularly significant intellectual ‘ideas,’ it did do a great deal for me. First, I performed an act of personal archaeology by writing about a war in which my father had fought; in so doing, I learned a great deal about him, the times he lived in, and the men who worked with him. Second, I did justice to an older self of mine, one that was obsessed about aircraft and the men who flew them. Third, I learned a bit of history. Thus, I was edified in the emotional, intellectual, and personal dimensions. Fourth, I also made several friends; many of the veterans I interviewed for one, and my co-author. (We did not meet in the flesh until after the book had been published!) Lastly, my writing improved: I learned how to organize chapters, construct a narrative, edit, revise, ruthlessly delete redundancy and irrelevance, all skills that would help me later in writing my academic books.

I made very little money from the sales of the book, but it seemed not to matter, for I hadn’t set out to. When I started work on the book, I was a post-doctoral fellow; when I completed it, I was in a tenure-track position. The two checks I have received thus far have paid for an airfare–for one person–to India, and some books.

So I wrote a book, and got in exchange: Learning, the making of friendships, the honing of a useful skill, the engagement with self-discovery, an airfare, some books. All this seems to add up to a very good bargain.

Surfaces scratched. More later.