We've all interrupted our reading of an engrossing work of fiction to flip to the author's portrait and wonder, "Who is the person behind this book?" It's natural to speculate on the lives of authors, to wonder how they ravaged the raw material of their own lives to write their books. But are we capable of separating the art from the artist? Do our opinions of authors' personal narratives inevitably color our appreciation of their fictional ones?
Sprinkled among every biographical exploration of an author—the story of a writer's formative years, the voyeuristic peek at journals and juvenilia, the critical examination of the work—are the messier minutiae that make up a life: the gossip and scandals, the one hundred failures for every one success, and the tabloidlike retellings of what happened with whom in which bedroom.
Literary biographers, almost by definition, are obligated to wrestle with the turmoil and angst that has come to be associated with the creative life. As author Blake Bailey explains it, "All human beings, of course, have absolutely terrible qualities alongside more creditable qualities—and with artists, I think that both the virtues and vices are very magnified."
Bailey is one of three writers who recently tackled the biography of a twentieth-century literary lion. His book Cheever: A Life is published this month by Knopf; Tracy Daugherty's Hiding Man: A Biography of Donald Barthelme was published by St. Martin's Press in February; and that same month, Brad Gooch's Flannery: A Life of Flannery O'Connor was released by Little, Brown.
Over the years, the private lives of Barthelme, Cheever, and O'Connor have been sources of speculation that are nearly as intriguing as the trio's writing. Unfortunately, the complexity of their lives is often boiled down to a few shallow sound bites: Cheever suffered from alcoholism and a lifelong sexual-identity crisis; Barthelme's personal life lacked the well-considered control of his postmodernist fiction; and O'Connor's sheltered Southern life was weighted with the trappings of Catholicism and racial prejudice. Only time will tell if these new biographies will have added to the mystery of their subjects or demystified them. Either way, readers will confront a much larger question: Does knowing the details of an author's life—as opposed to simply knowing that life's work—amplify or diminish the original writing?
Bailey, Daugherty, and Gooch each had to navigate the choppy seas of ambiguity, hearsay, and obscurity while researching and writing about their respective subjects, but personal opinion, too, turned out to be a factor. All three biographers admit to a higher-than-average passion for the work of the writers whose lives they spent years sifting. Bailey, whose 2003 biography, A Tragic Honesty: The Life and Work of Richard Yates (Picador), helped revive interest in that oft-overlooked writer, ranks Cheever among his favorite authors. And Gooch—who has published novels, short stories, and poems, as well as the biography City Poet: The Life and Times of Frank O'Hara (Knopf, 1993)—has often taught O'Connor's writing during his many years as a professor at William Paterson University in New Jersey.
But Daugherty, a professor at Oregon State University, has by far the closest association with his subject—he was Barthelme's student at the University of Houston in the 1980s and maintained a friendship with the author until his death in 1989—which invites the questions: Should readers expect biographers to maintain an artificial distance from their subjects? Would the veneer of absolute objectivity actually result in a "better" portrait?
The author of four novels, two short story collections, and a book of essays, Daugherty says he had never before considered tackling a biography but felt a near obligation to write Hiding Man because of his admiration for Barthelme. "I'm a pretty up-front advocate for Donald's fiction and I may be criticized for that," he admits, "but I make no apologies."
When it came time to explore the minutiae of his friend's life, however, Daugherty feared that he might uncover upsetting details that would taint his image of the man. "In the end," he says, "I saw that Don was what he appeared to be: a very private man, but a very generous one too. My admiration for him expanded."
Gooch wasn't sure what he would uncover about the seemingly enigmatic O'Connor, a writer revered for her violent gothic stories. What he discovered was a woman who lived a relatively quiet, contented, and creatively fulfilled life. "The stories don't necessarily prepare you for the life," says Gooch. Even his access to the previously sealed letters between O'Connor and Betty Hester, a writer who sustained a nine-year correspondence with the author, failed to provide a bombshell revelation. (Though the letters proved ripe with insights about the author, they did not, says Gooch, "confess the lesbian affair some might have wished.")
Bailey, whose subject is arguably the most well known of the three authors, had a different tightrope to walk: He is the only one of the three biographers who had the full support of the writer's family, making his Cheever: A Life essentially an "authorized" biography. Cheever's son, the writer Benjamin Cheever, sought out Bailey after his wife, Janet Maslin, had written a glowing review of A Tragic Honesty for the New York Times.
"There are pitfalls in so-called authorizations," stresses Bailey, "because the biographer is often expected to pander to these people who suddenly hold his destiny in their hands."
At the commencement of the project, Bailey and the Cheevers signed a written agreement that allowed the family to vet the manuscript for factual errors, but forbade them from imposing their personal views on the work. Bailey, who was given unprecedented access to Cheever's journals (twenty-eight volumes totaling more than four thousand pages), says he had the freedom to explore every facet of Cheever's life and include details that were sometimes "very frank and very much to Cheever's discredit."
One of Bailey's discoveries did trouble the biographer: The homosexual relationship Cheever had with a man some thirty years younger during the last years of his life appears to have been neither as idyllic nor consensual as many believed. "I talked to Max Zimmer," says Bailey of Cheever's former lover, "and he disabused me of that overly romantic version of their relationship."
Ultimately, says Bailey, "I came to feel, essentially, sympathy for John. In many ways he had a tragic life full of self-loathing."
What effect this revelation will have on opinions of either Cheever or his writing is unknown. Yet all three biographers agree that moral judgments about the character of a subject should be minimal. When it comes to the author's work, however, each writer agrees—albeit to varying degrees—that readers expect biographers to "make direct judgments, discernments, critical appraisals—provocations to stir continuing conversations about the subject's work," Daugherty says. "My job was to look at the literary legacy and come down on it one way or another."
"I think you should have the critical equipment to make perceptive appraisals of the work," says Bailey. "Otherwise, it is an idle exercise in gossip."
For his part, Gooch took a slightly different stance, explaining that, "like the word novel, biography is one term that covers a lot of very different sorts of books."
"I certainly try to explain things," he says, "but I also don't really see the literary biography as literary criticism exactly." Instead, Gooch kept his mind on the details and time line of O'Connor's life and the insights that are revealed through the narrative reconstruction of fact. He likens the classic biographical form to the nineteenth-century novels that followed a protagonist from birth until death. "It's like a novel with information," says Gooch. "I think there's something very satisfying about that."
In the end, all three biographers agree that no amount of gumshoe reporting, insightful interviews, or access to enlightening journals and letters will make a readable biography. It still all comes down to the quality of the writing. As it turns out, literary biographers are fated to endure the same creative struggle as their subjects: They must aspire to literature.
Joshua Bodwell is a journalist and fiction writer. He has written about Andre Dubus, Richard Ford, and others for Poets & Writers Magazine. His Web site is www.joshuabodwell.com.