The Role for Fiction in Biography

Compleat Biographer Conference, Washington, D.C

Norman Mailer once said the “the novelist is a galley slave to his imagination,” a metaphor which might lead us to conclude that a biographer is an indentured servant to his sources. There are problems in both instances. Novelists who ignore historical context or even small details endanger credibility. Biographers can get in trouble by over-sourcing. Recently, I read a review of a bio about a Russian poet; it was negative. The reviewer said the bio “ran level to its sources” and was dull; a volume of transcriptions and paraphrases. The biographer’s slavish reliance on documents left no room for the surmising and hypothesizing, the psychological spelunking we admire in the great biographies.  My point is that there is no absolute division between the labors of biographers and fiction writers, at least those who write historical fiction. I’m working with a woman on her MFA project—the Molly Maguires of the Pennsylvania coal region. Nineteen of them were hung in 1876, a terrible injustice. She has gone back and forth on whether to write it as fiction or nonfiction.

Novelists and biographers poach on each other’s methods and techniques. Anyone who has read historical novels like Willa Cather’s Death Comes to the Archbishop, E. L. Doctorow’s Ragtime, Phillipa Gregory’s The Constant Princess or, the most well-sourced novel of them all, Joyce’s Ulysses—anyone familiar with novels like these knows that novelists are often, if not invariably, as dependent on research as biographers, and, conversely, that biographers must employ all the techniques of fiction to do their job. Are there essential differences then? Before tackling that question, let’s run through a checklist of the similarities:Both use what have been called the four prose systems: description, dialogue, exposition and commentary, and we can add a fifth, narrative or movement through time, “And then, and then, and then . . .” Is there more use of any of these by either writer? Hard to say; perhaps novelists use more dialogue.

Biographers and novelists both know how to alternate scene and summary, panoramic view and dramatic moment—think of Henry James as depicted in Edel’s biography chasing a nightmare monster or presence through the chambers of his dream, and David Lodge’s Henry James in his novel, Author, Author being hooted and pelted off the stage after his play, Guy Domville failed in 1905. Lodge spends 300 pages on what Edel handled in many fewer, but he had more ground to cover. Do novelists tend to focus on briefer periods? Yes, think of  Joyce’s Ulysses , Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway.

Both use competing viewpoints: Henri Troyat in his biography of Tolstoy give equal credence to the perspectives of Tolstoy’s secretary and his wife, among others, as they fight for the great man’s attention; Jay Parini’s novel, The Last Station is equally balanced between wife Sofya and secretary Chertkov (ditto for the Michael Hoffman’s film).  It would not be difficult to think of novels who have two competing characters, the equivalent of David Rosenburg’s study of Moses and Jesus, An Educated Man or Allen Bullock’s Hitler and Stalin. Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein is one—the doctor and the monster.  Multiple foci are also common to both–five in Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible, or 15 in Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, or 20 (approximately) in Colum McCann’s finest novel, Dancer, a portrait of Rudolf Nureyev. Few novelists come closer to biography than McCann in Dancer, as he moves in a circle among Nureyev’s family, friends, colleagues, lovers, his cook and the London craftsman who sews his dancing shoes, each contributing a memory, an exchange, an insight into the life of the great artist before he succumbs to AIDS. His novel certainly gave me a feel for how to move among Mailer’s six wives, several lovers, nine children, many friends and enemies, a dozen editors and agents and many others. From a biographers point of view, Mailer was fortunate to have as many friends, rivals and enemies as interesting as any novelist could conjure: William Styron, James Jones, William Buckley, Lillian Hellman, Norman Podhoretz, Diana Trilling, James Baldwin, Susan Sontag, Andy Warhol, George Plimpton, Gore Vidal, Gay and Nan Talese, William Kennedy, Doris Kearns and Dick Goodwin, Tina Brown and Harry Evans are some of the characters. Also, his army friend, novelist Francis I. Gwaltney, his first editor Adeline Naiman, his Japanese translator, Eichii Yamanishi, his Random House editors Jason Epstein and David Ebershoff, his Provincetown drinking buddy, Eddie Bonetti, several of his secretaries, his most important collaborator, Lawrence Schiller, and two of his best friends, Mickey Knox and Jean Malaquais..

Selection of incident is critical for both novelists and biographers. It is not a simple business—there are the singular moments, the epiphanies; and there are the chains of events that may lead nowhere; and there are the recurring patterns of behavior. Bread and butter for both kinds of writer. My agent gave me some advice early on—if, say, George Washington or George Custer proved to be brave on horseback in one season, there may not be a need to portray it in another. Pick the best one. My man Mailer had many wives, many lovers, many fights and wrote many books. He also sent many checks to many struggling friends and read many manuscripts from aspiring writers. Which of these need delineation, which require brief mention, and which can be passed over in silence? And which require dramatic presentation? This last is often a function of sources, but not always. If you’ve got them, fine, if not, as in the case of Mailer stabbing his second wife at the end of a drunken party at which he planned to announce he was running for Mayor of New York, there were only two eyewitness—the assailant and the assaulted. Their stories don’t match entirely, so surmise and supposition come into play, both based on the interpretation of a great deal of evidence, as well as the characters of the two as previously established. Why doesn’t Clyde Griffith save Roberta Alden from drowning on Big Bittern Lake in Dreiser’s novel, An American Tragedy?  Did he intend to kill her when he hit her with a camera, or was it instinct? Did he wish to save her, but was paralyzed? Dreiser leaves it to the reader to decide. What happened between Mailer and Adele Morales in November 1960 is similarly difficult to determine.

Let’s pass over the use of setting and symbolism in both forms; they reside in both to the same degree and are similarly exploited, or not. The same is true for the moral insight or lesson or takeaway—both the ambiguity and clarity of moral meaning are sought and ignored equally in both. Biography and novels of character, in their root natures, of course, are interpretive—Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment as much as Agnes DeMilles’ Lizzie Borden: A Dance of Death—two ax murders.

Both forms handle time in much the same way, time races and time dawdles, the moment is fleeting or is expanded—think of the scene when Benjy Compson meets Old Ben in Faulkner’s The Bear, or when Clarissa Dalloway learns of the death of Septimus Smith in Mrs. Dalloway, and compare them to when James Joyce learns, or thinks he does, of the adultery of his wife Nora in Richard Ellman’s biography, or, in Justin Kaplin’s biography of Walt Whitman when a visitor comes by Whitman’s Camden, New Jersey home and the Good Grey Poet takes a pull on the jug of rum next to his chair before plucking from a pile of papers at his feet Emerson’s letter to him sent after he had read Leaves of Grass. Mailer’s first great epiphany about the nature of existence came in 1955, after smoking marijuana. It followed an earlier illumination that came in June 1953 when Mailer was at the Handy Writers Colony in Illinois. James Jones had just given him a brief tutorial in Eastern religions, karma and reincarnation. Mailer, then a hard-shell atheist, was somewhat incredulous. “You believe in that?” Mailer asked. Jones answered, “Oh, sure. That’s the only thing that makes sense.” Jones’s answer, Mailer said, “rang in my head for years.” It opened a shaft to deep waters, and may have been the foundation for what happened on February 25, 1955, when Mailer connected for the first time with marijuana. It was his Road-to-Damacus experience.

I had nothing less than a vision of the universe which it would take me forever to explain. I also knew I was smack on the edge of insanity, that I was wandering through all the mountain craters of schizophrenia. I knew I could come back, I was like an explorer who still had a life-line out of the caverns, but I understood also that it would not be all that difficult to cut the life line. Insanity comes from obeying a hunch—it is a premature freezing of perceptions—one takes off into cloud seven before one has properly prepared the ground, and one gives all to an ‘unrealistic’ appreciation of one’s genius. So I knew and this is my health that it is as important to return, to give, to study, to be deprived of cloud seven as it is to stay on.

The major difference in how time is handled is this: novels skip time, sometimes years. Bios can and should pass over and/or summarize certain spans, for example, “Rasputin’s summer was quiet; we know he caroused with the gypsy troupe on several nights, but not much else happened.” But skipping long time periods is virtually forbidden, temporal elisions like the 20-year gap Virginia Woolf interposes between the halves of her novel, To the Lighthouse. We biographers have a duty to provide the complete record, although admittedly, the marvelously incomplete and tantalizing biography, The Quest for Corvo, by A.J.A. Symons, has gaps nearly equivalent to Woolf’s novel, and is a wonderful biography.

Are there any differences then? Research, character, competing perspectives, moral takeaways, time, setting, symbolism, etc. etc. are necessary to both forms. Three areas of difference remain: diplomacy, voice and veracity

Diplomacy: while there are countervailing examples, biographies, especially of the living and the recently dead, generally require a lot more correspondence and conversation—some of it a great pleasure—than any such efforts on a novel. Living sources are just as important as archival and online sources. It has been my experience that almost everyone who knew Mailer, charismatic as he was, believes they  had a unique relationship with him. Nearly everyone of the 80 people interviewed, including all of his none children, his sister and wives, had something of value to offer. Gay Talese told me he is only able to use for less than 20% of the verbiage he records. I find this is true, but I also think that after you talk to 100 people across a wide spectrum, the vignettes that they have been saving for you often provides, or reveals a pattern of behavior far more useful than the specific information conveyed. From talking to many scholars, reviewers and critics of Mailer’s work, I learned that if he saw merit in what they were doing, he was extravagant in his praise, and regularly told them it was the best thing he had read on this or that book or aspect of his work. He did this the way one cares for seedlings; indeed, he did it to me in 1971. This is an example of how many comments on a point can coalesce into something valuable.

Voice: All bios are in third person; novels use many points of view; although I see in the program reference to a first-person biography, based on a mountain of interviews.

Truth: many kinds of truth, but factual, archival, historical truth is a sine qua non for biographers, but not for novelists who seek the truth of character in multitudinous ways and try not to violate the sanctity of the human heart, to borrow a phrase from Hawthorne. Let me end by telling you about the time Mailer had lunch at a snazzy restaurant here in Washington with Henry Kissinger; they disagreed over almost everything, but enjoyed each other’s company, and both relished the confusion sown among enemies by the sight of the two ideological opponents laughing and whispering together at the Sans Souci on 17th Street.  At one point, Kissinger told Mailer a story, a Byzantine story of Washington treachery. Mailer was awed, and said to him, “Great story,” and Kissinger replied, “And it has the added advantage of being true.” That is what biographers have: everything that novels possess and this incredible bonus. Thank you.

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