Friday, November 23, 2007

In Which I Contradict Myself

(First, an aside: I just now noticed that Rhian's post yesterday was our THREE HUNDREDTH. Wow!)

If there's one literary trend I can't stand, it's the rise and continued popularity of the bionov. You know what I mean, those books in which the lives of the famous and dead are fictionalized. Girl With A Pearl Earring was probably the one that pushed me over the edge, with its smarmy passages about the act of artistic creation, and since then we've had a steady stream of the things, most of them quite lazy and ultimately disrespectful to their subjects. Can't these writers think up their own damned characters? Can't they manage to invent a plausible course for a life to follow, rather than crib one from a biography? Can't they find some scrap of genius within themselves, instead of riding its coattails? In dramatizing the epiphanies of the great, the bionovelist gets to nick a bit of that mojo for himself: journals and letters at the ready, he lays one hand on the laptop, and snakes the other up the ass of Virginia Woolf, or Albert Einstein, or whomever. The bionovelist pads her tale with source materials, heavily seasoning her prose with the products of a superior mind, then gets to talk with Terry Gross about her obsession. Bionovels are wrong. They're necromancy. They're sick, and they suck.

Except...you know...when they're awesome and, um, life-affirming. And, uhh, bristling with moral authority. Like for instance the W6 favorite The World As I Found It, Bruce Duffy's hilarious, moving fictionalization of the life of Ludwig Wittgenstein. Or our friend Brian Hall's epic stunner I Should Be Extremely Happy In Your Company, a reimagining of the Lewis and Clark expedition--or his forthcoming Robert Frost novel, Fall of Frost, which I am now reading in galleys. I hate to say it, but this book is incredible--a quietly devastating piece of work that reaffirms both the poet's and the novelist's brilliance. When it comes out next spring, I'll devote a post to why it's so good.

For now, though, I will have to be content, once again, with chastising my own rush to judgement. Sometimes, it seems, a great mind of the present can multiply itself by a great mind of the past, and create something unique and wonderful, something that stands on its own. There is a line somewhere, an ill-defined boundary, which divides the abominable from the beautiful, and there is almost nothing capable of living in between--above that line we find the history plays of Shakespeare and a handful of novels; below it festers just about everything else. You come out of a bionovel a hero or a goat, and just about everyone comes out a goat. I had a good idea for one once, but forget it--I'll be keeping my distance from that literary third rail. To be honest, I don't have the guts.

4 comments:

Pete said...

I'm not fond of that genre myself, nor of blatantly autobiographical fiction, for reasons similar to yours - seems like a real fiction writer ought to be able to conjure up fictional worlds without relying heavily on real-life characters. I will admit, however, to long being intrigued by Brian Hall's book (your recommendation might finally tilt me toward reading it), as well as Michael Winter's The Big Why, which is based on the life of the artist Rockwell Kent. I've been waiting for Winter's book to come out in paperback before snapping it up.

Anonymous said...

Many writers today know their growing up years and classrooms (6 years of college to get a MFA, and then a lifetime teaching creative writing). They don't have varied life experiences to draw on. Also, they associate mainly with others of their ilk (whose work they read -- and promote, if it's by a friend). So where to turn for fresh material? To the library.

jrlennon said...

I'll step in and defend those people, though--you don't need to have interesting life experiences to be a good writer. In some ways, adventure is an impediment. You just need to notice things...it isn't what a writer sees that makes her great, it's how she sees.

Anonymous said...

True, to an extent. But what if you have only a limited view -- the same type of people doing the same things?
Many turn of the century authors got their training as reporters. They would cover a political fracas, a tenement fire, a shooting, a meeting of the Garden Society.
Or if you worked in a hardware store, an insurance agency, and on a drilling rig, you would get to know different types of people, and you could make them authentic characters in your work.