Reflections on Memoir, Autobiography, and Biography
From autobiography of a soul to autobiography: apparently autobiography is much on my mind lately, because I've started writing a memoir. No, I'm not secretly famous and you don't know it, nor do I have an inordinately interesting life. But, I am a writer, and an interesting thing happened to me, so, putting them together, I thought I might have a story to tell – a memoir of a specific aspect of my life, like the addiction memoir or family tragedy memoir or difficult childhood memoir or mental illness memoir. Mine is a prodigy memoir, about how I became a prodigy between the ages of sixteen and eighteen, with a play produced at eighteen that won $10, 000 in awards, without coming from a literary or intellectual or theatrical background of any kind, which set me on the course of a brief career in Canadian theatre so insanely frustrating that I chucked it by age twenty-four. Since then I haven't been able to figure out what to do. I got an MA in English relatively late in life, in my mid-30s, then decided to chuck that course as well given the poor job market for professors. Now, at 36, I'm back to trying to write, and after several attempts at novels, it occurred to me that a memoir was something I could write now, since finding time to do research can be difficult when you're working forty hours per week year-round whenever you can get it.
After writing around 150 pages, I thought my prose was lacking, so I picked up Remembrance of Things Past again. After reading about 50 pages of that, I wrote another memoir scene and discovered that the only thing worse than not writing like Proust is writing exactly like him. Hearteningly, in the introduction to my edition of the original Moncrieff translation, Ingrid Wassenaar writes, “Pastiche was one of the foundations of Proust's wit: he was a great, and cruel, mimic. The problem of separating out his own style from what he absorbed from others was one of his aesthetic dilemmas.” (Apparently Proust wrote a series of pastiches of famous French writers as if commenting on a diamond forgery scandal. I'd love to get my hands on that....) This sort of aesthetic dilemma can be difficult to overcome: Proust started writing A la recherche when he was 38, and worked on it for fourteen years, until his early death. He wrote little, and nothing that's considered of consequence, before that.
Less hearteningly for my project, Wassenaar devotes space to distinguishing between autobiography and Proust's practice in A la recherche, to the detriment of the former. She writes, “While his whole enterprise is to crown subjectivity as the wellspring of creativity, he is careful not to collapse subjectivity in general into his own personality and life history”; however, in the process of making this claim, she informs the reader that Proust was bitchy, spiteful, and got aroused by watching rats attacking each other. Would the novel be less great if Proust had included these characteristics in his self-portrait, or just different? I have to admit that in writing my memoir I've already come up against the dilemma of how unflattering to make my own self-portrayal – partly due to a desire (a need, really) for privacy, should I choose to publish it. A century on, we live in a more permissive age than Proust did, and one that's absorbed Freud, though not without (sometimes abhorred) resistance. I can't write the bildung of my adolescence – the formation of my identity, including my intellectual and aesthetic development – without talking about sexuality. I can't think about it without thinking about sexuality. But how much of myself do I dare expose – and aside from that, how much of it is relevant? Does every psychological quirk contribute to our understanding of a person?
I came across similar problems when writing my biographical plays about Orton and Halliwell and Jane and Paul Bowles – not issues of privacy (my own or others'), since I was using published information (and writing about people who were dead, in the case of Orton and Halliwell) – but issues of what biographical information was relevant. I didn't solve the dilemma satisfactorily in either case: rather, I tended to throw everything I knew from the sources I was using into the dialogue, “just in case” it was psychologically central. Although one thing I learned from writing plays about real people was that everything depends on context, and just because something is true doesn't mean it will give a true representation of the individual in a given context.
As to how important biography is generally, it's true we come to literature to discover ourselves, not biographical information about the writer – and to assume that we “really” want the latter is the basis of the biographical fallacy in literary criticism. But it's too hasty to say that we read even biography primarily to learn about the writer. As a teenager, I (obviously) loved reading biographies of writers, in which I “discovered myself” as much as, or more than, in reading fiction. For one thing, these biographies – and all of the biographies I read were of queer writers: Wilde, Colette, Capote, Orton, Jane Bowles – dealt with the subject of sexuality, which most of the fiction I was reading (with Jean Genet as the major exception) did not. Nowadays homosexuals are more certain about their sexual orientation than anyone else, and often claim to have known they were gay their entire lives. Sexual orientation isn't such a simple matter for many heterosexuals, which is why sexual confusion still characterizes adolescence, and the biographies of these queer writers were essential in helping me understand my own identity through the central (and still taboo, for all of our “permissiveness”) subject of sexuality, which is not similarly problematized in biographies of heterosexual writers.
Biography and autobiography occupy a curious place in literary history. Despite the growing popularity of the memoir and “creative non-fiction,” often positioned by both its critics and its advocates as being “in competition” with the reading and writing of fiction, there are few canonical autobiographies; only the major instances that transformed (and conditioned) our understanding of subjectivity: the Confessions of Augustine and Rousseau, the essays of Montaigne, Newman's account of the development of his religious ideas. And, of course, the novelistic explorations of subjectivity and consciousness by the Modernists, Joyce, Proust, and (in more Expressionist fashion) Kafka; or, beginning earlier, the quasi-autobiographical Bildungsroman proper, from Goethe to Flaubert to Mann to Mishima. As for biography, no matter how well-written, it does not seem to be included in that amorphous category, “literature,” that usually means fiction, poetry, and drama, but sometimes mysteriously includes autobiography as well. Lyric poetry, like the personal essay, often takes the author's inner life as its subject, dynamically recounting and working through a personal crisis. When I studied Donne's Devotions upon Emergent Occasions (from which we get his most famous lines, “No man is an island” and “Do not ask for whom the bell tolls”) in a graduate class, I placed it in the context of the crisis memoir, such as Joan Didion's memoirs of the deaths of her husband and daughter, The Year of Magical Thinking and Blue Nights. In the Western tradition, the exploration of subjectivity – of the soul – has two, equally important sources: Christian and humanist. (Also the sources of the novel.)
We read biography and autobiography for many reasons. We may do it because we have had similar experiences, or want to know about an experience we have not had. We may do it because the subject is a fascinating person; or because, in the case of memoir, they are peculiarly insightful about their experiences; or because, in the case of the memoir of a famous person, we want to supplement our knowledge of their lives with their own perspectives. While cults of personality surrounding particular writers can be annoying (see, for example, this snarky LRB blog post about speculation on the manner of Jane Austen's death), there is nothing wrong with going to biography or memoir of artists or performers to learn more about the artistic process and personality. We hear a lot these days about young middle-class people who fetishize the idea of “the artist” rather than committing themselves to producing great art, but that's been going on ever since Baudelaire and Wilde, the original proponents of art for art's sake, decided that being an artist was a way of being in the world, not just something you did (and the idea can be traced back through Romanticism and the Renaissance). If you want to dismiss “neoliberal individualism,” you'll have to sweep away the Renaissance, Romanticism, and Late Romanticism, but I won't be joining you. The current degraded “consumerist youth” form is a small price to pay for the anti-puritanical celebration of “personality” within this long Western tradition. Personally I'm more annoyed with the vulgar popularization of “genius” in recent bestsellers by Harold Bloom, who ought to know better. But I'm utterly seduced by Roberto Bolano's simultaneously critical and celebratory take on the idea of the writer and the cult of personality surrounding the writer-genius in The Savage Detectives and 2666. There is no getting away from the writer-genius now: we must live with her and do the best we can to still write in those conditions.
No, most biographical facts about the writer, whether psychological oddities or their manner of death, don't help us understand the work better, let alone give its "true meaning." But we do live in a culture that believes that great writers, and artists generally, are more interesting than the average person; if not in their external lives, then in their internal ones. If someone can manage to write a biography of a writer that does not make them sound boring (no one has managed this in the case of one of my favourite novelists, Henry James, whose bizarre psychology. ignored by his academic cult, is one of the main sources of my interest in his work), I will happily read about them. I don't think that learning about Proust's sexual interest in rat behaviour has helped me to understand one of the greatest novels yet written any better, but I'm happy to know it, just as I was happy to learn, when forced to read her largely boring letters as a research assistant, that the unmarried, childless Jane Austen liked to make cruel jokes in private about difficult, dangerous births, a common and sacrosanct experience in her time. It's always interesting to gain a new perspective on an artist that complicates the picture we get from their work and the received view of them, or of what a "great artist" is like. Sometimes, such information contributes to making an artist of forbidding reputation seem more mundane, as when I recently learned that Nathanael West had a long-time-bachelor's overweening attachment to his dog. Biographical facts about artists can help dispel the false mystique surrounding art and artists, while building a better, more vital mystique.
Now I've got that line from a Nichols and May sketch in my head: "Too many people think of Adler as a man who made mice neurotic. He was more."
"Much much more."
"Can you move over a little I'm falling off the bench. A great deal more."
The Decline of Liberal Arts Education and The New Aesthetes
Speaking of the poor job market for professors, I read two recent articles on the demise of the university system in the US and the UK, one in the New York Review of Books, one in the London Review of Books. They reminded me of another reason why I decided not to devote the remainder of my life to being an English academic, the NYRB article by lamenting the relegation of teaching to exploited grad students and adjuncts (called “sessionals” in Canada: I taught one course as a sessional before, thankfully, there wasn't enough work for me in the city where I'm presently stuck) while a shrinking minority of tenured and tenure-track professors who are sequestered away doing the research that brings prestige and funds to their schools, the LRB article by seeking to distinguish between universities, where research is conducted, and other types of post-secondary schools, as well as by lamenting the sorts of “publish or perish” conditions that Paglia was complaining about in the early 90s, which preclude serious, long-term, ambitious projects in favour of frequent publication if you ever want to get on a tenure track.
This additional dissuading factor was my inability to believe in “research” in the field of English. I think it's a waste of the academics' lives and a waste of public funds. I agree with Paglia that the only useful scholarship that can still be produced in the liberals arts has to be inter-disciplinary in nature, with an overarching revisionist orientation (the sort of major, ambitious work that publish-or-perish conditions work against). The endless production of feminist, poststructuralist, queer, Marxist, etc. “readings” of canonical works, taught to graduate school-track students as “literary theory,” is a waste of minds that “advances” our understanding of literature about as much as medieval scholasticism advanced Western philosophy. In other words, it's a bunch of eggheads talking to each other in their exclusionary language that most of them don't even understand about things of no interest to anyone else; a dead end comparable to the simultaneous analytical trend in philosophy (although at least that taught me how to analyze an argument). Digging around in one's “specialist” area in a confluence of cultural studies and historicism (writing about literary ephemera produced in the era you cover – Renaissance, Victorian) seems equally pointless to me. I have a certain amount of respect for the scholarly collaborations that produce painstaking new editions of central authors, but the qualities necessary for that sort of work are patience and meticulous attention to detail – there is no exercise of the mind at all.
All of this is not to say that I consider only the most ambitious scholarship worthwhile. I am also a devotee of the critical essay – of criticism, not theory. My friend George Toles has been producing such essays on literature and film throughout his academic career, and although they are more academic than the early 20th century Anglo-American critical tradition I admire (Wilson, McCarthy, Hardwick, Esslin, Bentley, Trilling, Sontag), they are superior in quality of writing, in independence of thought (valuing the Paterian impression), and in close, loving attention to the object than the vast majority of academic criticism. There is always room for more well-written close readings of both canonical and relatively unknown figures by erudite, insightful critics who believe in the art of the essay; such essays are works of literature in their own right, and bring both pleasure and instruction to readers who love the arts under consideration.
Restricting myself to commenting on English, the subject I studied, I'll give my radical idea of what the priorities of an English professor should be. Teaching, including the teaching of undergraduates (now relegated to grad students and sessionals), should be the first priority – about 80 per cent of the job description. The NYRB article claims (based on studies, I presume) that a liberal arts education still provides students with a greater ability to write and reason than new, more pragmatic programs like business. (And English students are notorious for complaining about education students in this regard – tragically.) Presumably, being able to write and reason will ultimately help a person in any career, but these abilities should also be valued in their own right, as the primary purpose of post-secondary education – of becoming an educated adult individual. English professors should impart these abilities to students along with an appreciation of English-language literature (I think the degree should actually be in Literature, and include language requirements at the undergrad level as well as world literature in translation, but that's another reform) – which are not separate aims. Undergraduates do not need to be taught “critical thinking” via the application of critical theory to the literary canon. They need to be taught how to enjoy reading, which the vast majority of them do not, and so leave university with poor writing and reasoning skills, which will never improve since they have not learned how to enjoy difficult extracurricular reading. The goal of undergraduate education in English (whether it is a major or a requirement) should be exposure to great, difficult works, discussion of their content and formal qualities, and instruction in formulating reasoned critical arguments about them (the simple adoption and support of a position based on textual evidence).
The Anglo literary canon is an education all by its lonely, parochial self, from which the instructor can branch out into discussion of specific historical context, major historical events, and the history of ideas. Educating young people in this way – creating citizens, the traditional function of the university that has all but been lost – should be the prime role of the English professor. How, then, to measure the “productivity” of professors in order to judge who should get better positions? Perhaps instead of publishing articles, they could submit chapter drafts of ongoing major works, or research progress reports? Major works (including biographies) and critical essays – I see no reason for English professors to write anything else. (Among major works of 20th century English or aesthetic theory – works that do, in fact, count as “literary theory,” though not as schools or applications of it – I would include Hauser's The Social History of Art, Frye's Anatomy of Criticism, Cavell's The Claim of Reason, and Paglia's Sexual Personae.) Ambition, which is necessary for real contributions to scholarship and thought within a discipline, is what should be rewarded, not business-model “productivity.” In their spare time, professors should not be whipping up spurious articles that'll make a splash at conferences in order to gain a reputation and pad their resumes, but reading, both within and outside of their “specialization.”
English literature is not science. English literature is a tiny portion of world literature, albeit one with an outsized influence. But the possibilities for useful, significant research are not endless. Frye thought that criticism should be the study and theorization of what literature is and how it works, but no one has taken him up on this, although a group of kids online have extended the project of the Anatomy to include popular culture (in the universities, the territory of cultural and media studies) in the marvellous ongoing open collaboration TV Tropes, which is spontaneous scholarship for pleasure. Meanwhile criticism, abandoned by the universities and, for whatever reason, no longer supported by Anglo-American conditions in journalism, has also moved online – in literary blogs like this one (as well as high-profile ones) and “zines” by former students like The New Inquiry, recently featured in The New York Times. Here ex-English students informed by their love of great critics from the era of the public intellectual, like Wilson and Sontag, can practice their influence free of the constrictions of publication in academic journals, while also being influenced by the new, pop culture-friendly mood that the cultural studies approach has spread through academia, though the pressure, I think, is from outside of the academy.
I think literary scholarship would be better served by a publication ban on professors for the first ten years of their career, so they could concentrate on teaching, reading, and developing their thought instead. The only dignified, culturally significant role that an English professor can serve is as an instructor teaching students to write, reason, and enjoy reading. To think, in the unique way that a humanities education can supply, that an education in science or mathematics cannot. And the emphasis on writing (learned, in part, through continuous exposure to good writing) is crucial here, and should be kept central; an education in history or philosophy cannot supply this component of learning how to think either. (These are the reasons that my philosophy professors and, once, a physics professor I took a theory of physics course from, nearly fainted in gratitude when they received my papers. Every academic discipline values the writing skills that English students learn more than English does.) If, in addition to teaching students, English professors also happen to be good critics (which requires being a good writer, but more, a good reader), or original thinkers, or to produce ambitious works of scholarship, more power to them; but the function that makes English departments necessary is the classroom encounter, not research.
Viewed from another perspective, as Frye arrogantly asserted, far from literary scholarship being dried up, the project of literary criticism hasn't even begun yet. The study of English literature has never been properly intellectualized, and imported French theory didn't accomplish that, either. The building blocks of the discipline haven't even been identified – that was what Frye attempted in the Anatomy. But the rebuilding of literary criticism from the ground up to turn it into a genuinely productive field of study can't be accomplished in a publish-or-perish environment where endless applications of French and feminist (or now “gender,” but arguably still feminist) theory are de rigueur, and where professors are now turning their attention to pop culture, including popular literature, in a desperate effort to engage students who are increasingly, bizarrely, stuck in a mire of reading YA fiction well into their 20s (and beyond). Which to me only shows that many students are attracted to English as a subject for reasons that have nothing to do with a love of literature, and succeed in it for reasons having nothing to do with an advanced understanding of it. (It may, in fact, be much easier to grasp the fundamentals of “literary theory” than to achieve an advanced understanding of literature. Certainly, the cleverer students think it's a lot cooler; and certainly, professors work harder at instilling the former than the latter.)
Personally, I'd rather write an unread literary blog and read the Anglo-American critics of the 1930s-60s, where treasures of insight still await.